Confidential success in fellowships

Academia is a complicated place to work. To those outside the ‘biz’ it might appear relatively simple. You get a PhD, apply for a post doc, get promoted, get a tweed jacket then boom! you’re a professor. Unfortunately it’s a lot more complicated messy in innumerable ways that I’m not going to try to explain in a single blog post. Today I want to focus on one very specific part, the being a post doc bit.

Almost everyone gets their first post doc position by applying at random to every job that has a word in the title that they understand. Some lucky few get a post doc position in the same lab they did their PhD but for the majority it’s very much a case of throwing CVs at Jobs.ac.uk and seeing what sticks.

But these post doc positions are often short (2 years on average) and if you want some kind of career then in order to carry your work on you’ll need more money and unfortunately for you everyone else is normally using their money so you’ll have to go get your own.

Again for reasons worth ranting about in it’s own blog post post docs can’t apply for the vast majority of funding designed for funding post docs. But they can apply for something called a ‘fellowship’.

A fellowship is a big pile of money given to someone to go do cool stuff for anything up to 5 years. They are amazing if you can get them but applications to them have a whopping 5% success rate so its not exactly a reliable source.

But fellowships are to many almost the only source of funding for the career in academia they are hoping for. So despite taking weeks to prepare and have such a terrible success it’s the only route most post docs have so it’s the route we all work feverishly towards.

One great resource for writing an application is having some previous applications to draw upon and try and learn from. Most universities I know keep all their old applications to help the next year’s applicants apply. Being able to see what a successful application looks like is a HUGE help. The applications can be up to 20 pages long and having some “this worked before” tips is gold!

Which is strange because apparently if you ask to see a previously successful application from the funders this is “illegal” and a “serious breach of confidentiality”.

Those bits in quotes are actual quotes from a funder when I asked to see the applications of previously successful grants to a fellowship scheme.

These applications are made freely available to an academic applying within the same university as that applicant. Applicants from the outside aren’t allowed to see any.  Universities with successful applicants have more resources for future applicants to draw from therefore leading to more successful applicants

Which call me crazy seems bafflingly unfair.

Post Docs unfortunate enough to be at a university that maybe hasn’t applied to that scheme before or not been as successful are then left without the resource of precisely bugger all.

Again at the risk of being called crazy surely any system with allows previously successful universities an unfair advantage for it’s applicants is not very in keeping with funding only the best science. It very much seems like a good way of keeping fellowship funding within the same group and puts up a weirdly artificially barrier to new applicants. And all in the name of confidentially.

Confidentiality in applications for money from a publicly funded organisation producing public funded results which when published have to be publicly available.

I completely understand why active grants that haven’t finished yet need to be confidential. Existing grant programs might not want the nitty gritty of their project published while they are mid-research. But for grants that have been completed and finished I can’t think of any reason why these aren’t made available. In fact surely as they are publicly funded they really should be available so the public have an idea of what sort of projects get chosen (as opposed to just looking at outputs).

At the best it smacks a little of wanting to keep that clique of universities as a nice small clique but at worst it could also be seen as encouraging reporting bias. Don’t tell people all about the project you tried to do / were funded to do, just tell them about your brilliant results. Makes it easier for unsuccessful projects to be lost or forgotten and successful ones to get more attention.

To anyone from one of the big funders reading this, why is this a thing? Can it stop being a thing? Can we all have the same resources to write applications from? Please?

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