During my postdoctoral training at the University of Cambridge, UK, I reached the final round of applications for a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship, offered by the research charity Wellcome in London — but my research proposal was ultimately rejected. After getting over my initial disappointment, I chose to seek out less obvious funding sources. I realized that the major sources of financial support for early-career researchers are hugely competitive: success rates usually range from 10–40%, and failure is deflating and time-consuming.
So, I looked elsewhere. Over the next few years while still at Cambridge, I managed to secure funding from a wide variety of sources, including smaller charitable bodies, pharmaceutical companies, life-science publishers, university departments and research societies. I received travel grants from several organizations — Thrombosis UK, a charity based in Llanwrda, west Wales; the University of Cambridge School of Biological Sciences; The Company of Biologists, a charity in Cambridge; and Cayman Chemical, a biotechnology company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I also won early-investigator awards — including the Thrombosis & Haemostasis society of Australia and New Zealand in Darling, Australia; the Frontiers in Cancer Science conference; Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge; and the British Society for Haematology in London. These individually modest awards generated a cumulative body of evidence of my ability to find and secure funding — eventually just more than £50,000 (US$66,000) over 6 years — to support my progression from unfunded, newly qualified scientist to funded research-faculty member.
There are several reasons to apply for money from unusual sources. Perhaps you don’t have enough time to complete a full proposal for a major funding scheme. Or maybe you are attempting to bolster your CV before applying for a promotion. There doesn’t have to be a specific rationale; your choice might just be a good place to apply. But this is not to say that established funding sources should be ignored, or that it is easier to gain funding through less obvious sources. In fact, by no means were all of my attempts successful.
Applications to alternative funding sources can provide valuable training in grant writing; in my case, my improved grant-writing skills contributed to the receipt of a career development award from the American Heart Association, based in Dallas, Texas. It is difficult to say whether early-stage research awards from less apparent sources will change the course of a career. Regardless, in my experience, these four principles could improve your chances of a successful career:
1. Be transparent.
Talk to your supervisor(s) and give them with details about the application. Perhaps offer to provide the information that you would like to be included in a letter of recommendation. If necessary, politely remind them of the reasons you want to apply, and that your success would reflect favourably on their laboratory. Fortunately for me, my supervisors have been supportive of my applications — but many group leaders might not have enough time to go through all your applications in detail, and could even question the value of applying for such awards on a regular basis. Hopefully, they will at least be willing to provide you with permission to apply.
2. Cast a wide net.
Funding schemes can be identified using online search engines, such as Research Professional and Funding Institutional. Researchgate also offers a search engine for funding competitions for US-based members. Other useful resources for identifying non-standard funding schemes include the acknowledgements sections of academic papers and presentations, as well as your colleagues and peers. Universities and their departments often provide schemes for seed funding, research exchange placements or other internal funding. Pharmaceutical companies might advertise collaborative grant opportunities aimed at researchers in translational sciences (such as the opnMe schemes from Boehringer Ingelheim in Ingelheim am Rhein, Germany) or travel awards that can be used when presenting work at academic conferences (the Cayman Chemical travel grants, for example). Financial support to attend international meetings is commonly available through competitions from the organizing body of the meeting (such as the travel scholarships from the Keystone Symposia in Silverthorne, Colorado), and even from publishers or individual journals (for instance, the Disease Models & Mechanisms travel grant).
3. Pay attention to details.
Identify the funding opportunities that are appropriate for your career stage. Funders’ eligibility guidelines for their schemes will help with this. It is usually possible to find a published list of award recipients, whose positions you can compare with your current career stage. And note that, the layout and presentation of your application is almost as important its scientific content. An audience will be impressed by a tidy, well-organized and well-presented piece of writing, as well as by what the words themselves say.
4. Learn from your mistakes.
Peer-reviewed funding schemes are competitive; researchers will probably experience rejections more often than successes. Although these rejections can be disheartening, don’t let them demolish your confidence. The peer-review process is subjective, and the opinions of one reviewer do not necessarily represent those of the scientific community. At the same time, do not ignore your reviewers. In fact, carefully read the reviewer comments and incorporate their suggestions into your next submission — which should improve your proposal. Finally, remember that the same, or a slightly tweaked, proposal can sometimes be used to apply for more than one award.
In the end, most investigators are likely to obtain the majority of their funding from the larger national funding bodies. However, the lesser-known funding sources can be useful when attempting to accumulate evidence of scholarly performance and productivity, even for those who will eventually leave academia.