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Hey! Look at me, I’m fantastic!

I’ve just spent pretty much the whole of the last two months writing applications. One for a fellowship and one for funding to conduct a study. For those of you that haven’t written these sorts of things, it is a somewhat surreal experience, which becomes a grind after a few weeks, and grows into a bit of a nightmare after a few months.

Setting out on a path as a researcher, I don’t think many of us would have had in mind how important it is to be able to sell yourself and achievements. But the fact is that careers and advancement often hang on the ability to attract funding. And how wonderful the person submitting the application is (or appears to be) has a big influence on whether the money flows.

The upshot of this is that researchers spend a significant chunk of their time applying for money, and a big part of that involves writing about how fabulous you are, and how amazing your achievements so far have been. It all smells vaguely narcissistic and can certainly feel uncomfortable, particularly when starting out. In many of the cultures we live in, modesty is a valued attribute and detailed and exhaustive broadcasting of achievements seems a bit shameless.

But, as far as I can tell anyway, there is no way around it. It is just one of those things that you need to do, and not only do you need to do it, you need to get good at it. Given the low success rates of most major funding schemes, if the person reading your application isn’t blown away by how fantastic you are, chances are you won’t be funded. Obviously the science and idea need to be right too, but undersell yourself and you won’t get the cash regardless of how good the idea is.

I don’t know whether or not my current applications are going to be successful, but I am sure I looked like a far more impressive researcher in the final versions than in the earlier drafts. So I thought I’d pass on a few things that I learned along the way.

  • Park your modesty (and insecurity) for a while. Take ownership and be proud of what you’ve done, it’s going to be hard to come across as successful and productive if you don’t believe it yourself.

  • Don’t leave anything out. This means you have to keep on top of your CV all the time. Big things like publications and conference presentations won’t be overlooked but things like helping organise academic occasions, mentoring/advising more junior colleagues, speaking at semi-formal events e.g. to clinicians or at schools, writing commentaries for magazines or blogs etc should all appear on your CV.

  • Get as many people as possible to read your application. Again here you need to leave your modesty to the side. Obviously senior people in your group can offer the benefit of their experience, but also ask people at your level. Getting people from a different field can also be helpful, and sometimes ‘lay’ people that you know can offer another perspective. Remember; you don’t have to include everything that they suggest, pick and choose whatever makes your application stronger.

  • Read as many other applications as you can. Offer to review your colleagues applications, ask the other people in your group if you can read their applications – regardless of whether they want your feedback or not. You’ll learn different ways of expressing things, formatting tips, and notice things that you’ve left out of your application.

  • Learn to be succinct. Space is usually extremely limited, so you need to be able to convey a large amount of information in a coherent form using a small number of words. This takes skill that needs to be developed and sometimes deft use of things like tables and point-form constructions. Again, looking at how other people (especially successful people) do it can give ideas.

Telling others how great we are doesn’t come naturally to most people, and there is often a sense of insecurity among research students and ECRs. But the ability and skills to sell yourself are fundamental to successful funding applications and probably as important to a career in research as scientific publications. In this way, you might think of it as just another form of academic writing!

If you’ve tips or ideas that you have found useful, please pass them on. Feel free to use the comments below.