A Guide to Research Fellowships
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A Guide to Research Fellowships

Written by Hannah Slack

Obtaining a research fellowship is an excellent indication of your ability to thrive as future academic. Often confused with postdocs or research assistant roles, fellowships are competitive positions awarded to exceptional applicants to complete their own research project.

This guide covers everything you’ll need to know about research fellowships to help you understand your career options after completing a PhD. We’ll look at what a research fellow is, eligibility and applications, and how these positions are funded.

What is a research fellowship?

A research fellowship is a prestigious position offered to outstanding researchers to engage in their own academic enquiries. Applicants are required to produce a research proposal outlining their goals for the fellowship and the value and impact of the proposed work. Typically, fellows receive funding from an external body which lists potential host universities where you can complete the project.

There are also teaching fellowships available. These work similarly to the research fellowship, but with a focus on pedagogy.

Research fellowship vs postdoc

Sometimes the term ‘research fellow’ is used interchangeably with ‘postdoc’ or ‘postdoctoral researcher’ but the two are slightly different. Although both positions are short-term contracts, research fellowships tend to be longer as they’re designed to help individuals build upon their independent research within a host institution. Postdocs are usually shorter contracts as successful applicants will work as part of a team on a project led by a more senior academic.

Research fellowships also tend to be more flexible than traditional postdoc opportunities. Some fellowships allow successful applicants to work part-time or apply for sabbaticals and secondments.

What is a research fellow?

A research fellow is given the resources to run their own project. Typically, fellows will solely be focused on conducting research and communicating their results through publications, presenting at conferences and running outreach activities. Some fellowships will come with an expense budget. These can be small, covering the cost of equipment, or substantial, designed to support a small team of additional staff.

Additionally, research fellows have various professional development opportunities. These could be in the form of classes, workshops or attending networking events. Many may also have a supervisor or tutor who will monitor and aid their career development through semi-regular meetings.

How long are research fellowships?

The length of a research fellowship depends on the funding body and the nature of the project. Typically, contacts are between 1-5 years although many come with opportunities to apply for extensions. Some prestigious fellowships can be up to 8 years long.

How to get a research fellowship

As highly prestigious positions, applicants need to demonstrate exceptional academic work within their field. You may be required to submit a substantial piece of research, such as a journal article, alongside your application to demonstrate your suitability. The listing will specify whether the work you submit could be previously published or not.

Some research fellowships can be applied for directly by the applicant. Others require the department to nominate candidates. In both instances you will need to have contacted and arranged the details of your fellowship with the host institution. Many universities have support staff to help find fellowship opportunities, navigate applications and support with constructing a research proposal.

There are many different institutions which offer research fellowships. Most universities will list the fellowships they typically host. Funding bodies will also advertise their own opportunities with details on approved host universities. Some of the most prestigious fellowships are supported by the Royal Society, UKRI, the Leverhulm Trust and the Wellcome Trust. There are also many other institutions specialising in particular fields who run fellowship programmes. Some universities will have their own in-house opportunities.

Research fellowship requirements

The application requirements for a research fellowship can vary. Designated early career fellowships usually ask that applicants have been awarded a PhD within the last five years. Some will also accept current PhD students who are near competition of their course and in the writing up period. Those who have yet to finish their PhD will typically receive financial support to help cover tuition costs until the degree is finished.

Unlike postdocs, there are also a greater variety of research fellowships available to more established academic staff. Fellowships can be a great opportunity to pivot in research focus and spend time completing a new project to re-establish yourself as a viable academic in an adjacent field.

Research fellowship funding

The funding available for research fellows can vary drastically depending on the funder and the experience of the successful applicant. As mentioned, it’s usually an external funding body that will cover the project expenses such as equipment, travel costs or support staff. The research fellow will then normally be paid in accordance with the designated salary bands at the host institution.

How much do research fellows make?

How much a research fellow is paid will depend on the terms of agreement between the funder and host institution. Some external funders contribute full or partial salaries.

In the UK, research fellows are paid on average £34,000-£45,000 a year. Salary will depend on experience.

Next steps

Research fellowships are excellent opportunities to help develop professionally and advance an academic career. They give individuals the space to run their own research project and establish their name within an academic field. You’ll also gain and enhance fundamental skills relating to project management, research and general career development. Some fellowships are extremely well known, meaning they will enhance any CV for someone looking to work in academia or research.

Fellowships also give individuals the chance to experience working in new institutions who commit to supporting and mentoring you. This type of movement within the academic community is extremely valued.

For those who decide to leave academia, fellowships still provide individuals with high level skills in independent work, motivation and management which will serve a range of different industries.

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Last Updated: 13 April 2023