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Science doesn’t only need sprinters

by Guest Author on 18 Mar 2015

At the moment, researchers have a certain number of years after their PhD to apply for MRC fellowships, after which point they’re ineligible. But is a ticking clock the best way for scientists to flourish? Here Simone Bryan, Programme Manager for Strategic Projects here at the MRC, explains why we’re removing time-bound criteria from our fellowship applications to help give people the time they need.  

A hurdler seen through a row of hurdles

(Image: Robert Voors on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


One of the best things about my job is getting the chance to meet so many brilliant and talented researchers who are doing jobs they love. But, for all its wonder, pursuing a research career is competitive and challenging.

In particular, moving from being a postdoc to an independent investigator in your own right is hugely challenging. It’s usually done by securing a personal fellowship which pays your salary and research costs.

But whether a researcher has built the track record needed to successfully apply for a fellowship can be affected by whether they’ve moved labs or countries, whether they’ve changed discipline, how much support they have had from his or her supervisor, and the nature of their research project. None of these factors are related to an individual’s scientific potential.

This period often overlaps with the time when people want to start a family, making this next big career step even tougher.

As part of the review of non-clinical research careers that we’ve just carried out, we asked people about the biggest barriers they face in successfully pursuing a research career.

Researchers have told us that the strict eligibility criteria for fellowships relating to time since PhD completion is making this already-difficult step more difficult.

We were told this time-restricted cut off is disadvantaging individuals who have taken a career break and are returning to science, those changing career path, or those who may need longer to demonstrate their track record, such as part-time workers or individuals with caring or domestic responsibilities.

We started to ask why a scientist’s potential should be assessed on the speed of his or her career progression within the first few years after their PhD. Is time since PhD an adequate or fair measurement of a person’s creativity, experience or productivity? Are only sprinters needed in science?

We don’t think so, so we’ve decided to remove eligibility criteria based on years of postdoctoral experience altogether.

Being a successful researcher requires perseverance, dedication and commitment; attributes that are borne out over time. As one of the researchers featured in our new interactive career framework says, “Research can be pretty tough. It seems easier to give up at certain points, but if you really enjoy what you do, do whatever it takes to stick with it. The rewards are amazing.”

So, from today, we’ve removed the years post-PhD barrier, widening the pool of applicants who can compete to make the leap into the next stage of their career.

Simone Bryan

Visit our applicant skills and experience webpage for more information about expectations for fellowship applicants.


I am the head of training and capacity building at a major research programme in Kenya. I must say I am very delighted with these changes. Part of my role is to support early postdocs apply for funds to enable them become independent researchers and I am only too aware of the sort of catch 22 situation young postdocs sometime find themselves in in trying to beat the time criteria. …apply too soon after PhD graduation and your CV is still too uncompetitive; wait till you build up a credible CV and you are time barred for the grant that actually suits your experience level. I hope other funders will follow the direction that the MRC has taken and relax their eligibility criteria.

author avatar by Sam Kinyanjui on 19-Mar-2015 10:32

Will the MRC consider applying this philosophy to the New Investigator Research Grant? What is the logic in having a 10 year cap on this scheme?

author avatar by Stephen Clark on 19-Mar-2015 13:08

Replying to Stephen Clark

Hi Stephen, eligibility for NIRGs is being reviewed by the MRC Training and Careers Group and appropriate people from other parts of the organisation, including the MRC research boards.

Simone Bryan, Programme Manager for Strategic Projects

author avatar by Katherine Nightingale on 19-Mar-2015 13:42

As a British researcher having carried out 5 years of postdoctoral training in Australia, this article fills me with so much hope for returning to the UK to pursue my career (as I have planned to do when my current contract ends in 2018). By that time I will be 7 years out, and by most standards, “left on the shelf”. You highlight that no two early career tracks are alike, and I agree, having changed field and institute during my first 5 years, from one very unsupportive supervisor to one thankfully very supportive, meaning my first 3 years certainly weren’t a sprint. This is a really insightful modification to what are career-stiflingly obtuse restrictions, and ones I’ve also come up against in Australia, and I thank you for opening my eyes to the potential benefits of returning home!

author avatar by Elizabeth on 13-Apr-2016 09:23

Replying to Elizabeth

Thanks for your feedback Elizabeth! Really glad to hear it opens up your options.

Best of luck for the future,
Science writer at The MRC

author avatar by Sylvie Kruiniger on 14-Apr-2016 09:24

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