For this week’s post we have an interview with Jack Harrington from the Wellcome Trust, on what PhD students and Early Career Researchers should understand about research funding bodies. Many thanks to Jack for sharing his time and expertise.


‘If you are a current PhD student…now is a great time to plan for being a Wellcome early career researcher’

P&P: What should PhD students know about the Wellcome Trust?

JH: We have a commitment to funding ambitious work in the humanities and social science as they relate to health. If you are a current PhD student you won’t be eligible for our student-funding but now is a great time to plan for being a Wellcome early career researcher either on one of our Research Fellowships or as a researcher on a larger award. Also, through our Small Grants we frequently fund postgraduate networks and event series. While it may make sense to partner with some more experienced researchers these can be highly suitable awards for early career researchers who are keen to build networks or develop new research agendas.

P&P: What are a funding body’s priorities when they are choosing between applications? What makes a good funding application?

JH: Generally, it’s a promising project, a promising candidate and a strong match between the two. Particularly for an early career researcher, your first application as a principal applicant is probably not the time to be taking a new direction unless there is some obvious continuity with your previous work, such as a particular method or empirical focus that you have honed. A big and gripping idea for a project won’t fly without a sense that you are the right person to deliver it.  So I would encourage any applicant to think first and foremost about what they can do really well.

Fingers typing raipdly on the keyboard of a laptop

‘explain what is original and interesting about what you propose to do’

P&P: Are there any particular aspects of writing grant applications that differ from other kinds of writing researchers might be familiar with? Any common mistakes to avoid?

JH: I think people can sometimes spend too much time giving the background or justifying the topic. Often what is neglected is space to explain what is original and interesting about what you propose to do. Related to this, sometimes too much time can be spent justifying the approach and not enough saying what this will entail. With an early career researcher in particular, people reviewing your application are looking for evidence that you can do what you claim and that you understand the task you have set yourself. As with other kinds of academic writing, it is worth being mindful about overly grand claims about the significance of your work and a lack of specification about your precise contribution to current debates. A detailed description of the methodological framing and the empirical work are vital for assessing competitiveness.

One of the most common obstacles newer applicants run into is over-claiming about interdisciplinarity. It’s incredibly hard to do well and should only be approached as a genuine means of potentially overcoming a specific impasse in your area of research. If this is something you would like to do in the future, it’s worth thinking now about how you will develop the experience to do that in a way that won’t distract you from your core research work.

Road leading off into the distance, hills on the horizon

‘more and more opportunities come up for researchers working in teams rather than the traditional lone scholar’

P&P: What advice would you give to a PhD student wondering how to fund their research as an early career researcher?

JH: The most important thing is to talk to people that you would be working with – other researchers, academic mentors, university research officers. These are the best-placed people to advise you. I think this is particularly germane for historians as more and more opportunities come up for researchers working in teams rather than the traditional lone scholar.

If you do have aspirations to develop new skills, this is probably a good time to think about it.  Remember that when you apply for a grant, it will be harder to be competitive if the project requires a skill or expertise that you do not have at the time of the grant.

If you are thinking about using your PhD for careers other than academia, you may also want to seek advice from potential employers. Wellcome funded early career researchers are eligible for a funded secondment to do work related to their research in organisations that include the Science Museum, OECD, WHO and the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology.

P&P: What current research projects (Wellcome or otherwise) are you currently most excited about?

JH: There are trends I am particularly excited about. As the Humanities and Social Science Department of a health research funder, we are always pleased to see how scholars from these disciplines have provided insightful analysis of problems that one might assume were largely the concern of science disciplines. History, to pick just one discipline, has been producing some immensely thought provoking work on the experience of health and healthcare in non-western contexts, artificial intelligence, disability and antimicrobial infection – to name only a few.

Jack Harrington is humanities and social science portfolio manager at the Wellcome Trust, and has previously held various roles related to research funding for the LSE, the University of Surrey and the Open University. He is an assistant editor of the journal Citizenship Studies, and holds a PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh.

Image 1, Glass Tin As Moneybox, George Hodan, CC0

Image 2, Found Blur, Ilouque, 2011, CC-BY

Image 3, The Road Ahead, Marcella, CC-BY