By Christopher Woods, EPSRC RSE fellow, University of Bristol
As one of the RSEs who hit the jackpot and had their EPSRC RSE Fellowship applications funded, I know how crucial it was that my University supported my application. I was very lucky that the University of Bristol provided an excellent letter of support. Among other things, the University committed to a capital budget, management training, and, most importantly, a permanent position helping to create a new Research Software Engineering Group within the Advanced Computing Research Centre in IT Services. These promises demonstrated the partnership and level of commitment that existed between Bristol and myself. I know this was recognised and rated highly by the reviewers and panel.
So, how did I get this level of institutional support? And what recommendations do I have on how you could achieve something similar?
First, I should say that all universities and individuals are different, so this is not a one-size-fits-all objective recipe. However, there are some generalisations that I believe are true.
An RSE Fellowship is a Fellowship
You’re applying for a Fellowship, so the normal advice about how to get a university to support any Fellowship or major grant application is valid. While the Fellowship brings money, there is a huge responsibility placed on the university to provide the environment and support that will ensure that the Fellowship is a success. In addition, universities use Fellowships to grow staff and open up new research directions. Both you and your University should want the Fellowship to turn into a permanent appointment that would benefit you both.
To this end, universities want Fellows who can make good use of existing facilities and investments, who can help enhance the University’s national and international reputation, and who complement the other academics already present. This means that you need to know;
what new capabilities you will bring to your university,
how you benefit from the facilities/investments that are already there, and
what collaborations you could form, and how your presence would multiply the impact and success of research at that university.
An RSE Fellowship application should be a partnership between you and the university
Your application for a Fellowship is really a joint application between you and your university. You’re applying together as a partnership, and it should be clear what you both bring to the application. An RSE Fellowship should be transformational both for you and your university. A section of your Case for Support should show how the Fellowship would transform your career. To complement this, the Letter of Support should show how your university recognises that the Fellowship would transform RSE support at the university. To get this, you need to talk in depth with the decision makers at your host university. You need to discuss with them how your position as an RSE Fellow will benefit and help transform RSE provision. Work out together how you will fit into existing structures, or how you will create new structures. Jointly discuss how you will both see an RSE Fellow working at the university, and be ready for some give and take as the university’s vision may not completely align with yours. Be prepared to compromise, but also to stand your ground. Be prepared to cite well-evidenced examples, e.g. of how existing RSE Groups or the first cohort of RSE Fellows are working and benefiting their host institutions. If you want help, feel free to ask the existing RSE Fellows how they gained this support. For me, it involved discussions that went up from the Director of the Advanced Computing Research Centre (ACRC) and senior academics in Chemistry and Computer Science, up through the CIO of IT Services, and the PVC Research. Find out who the equivalent people are in your host university and talk with them.
An RSE Fellowship recognises leadership in Research Software Engineering
Despite being billed as an “Early Career” Fellowship, the first cohort of fellows were all mid-career, and in reality the award is better viewed as a Leadership Fellowship. The RSE Fellowship is about finding and supporting the next generation of research leaders and ambassadors who will champion research software engineering at a national and international level. All of the current EPSRC RSE Fellows are known nationally and internationally for their research software engineering expertise. They have a history of using, teaching and promoting good software engineering best practice (i.e. version control, unit testing, good documentation, modular design) and have strong collaborations that span academic, industrial, software and RSE networks. Throughout their pre-Fellowship careers, they collaborated and contributed to projects that were bigger than themselves. They blogged, tweeted, spoke at conferences, collaborated on large projects, and devoted their time freely to working on committees, hosting training workshops and running conferences. In so doing, they developed the expertise and reputation necessary to convince their host universities that they were strong candidates for the Fellowship, and were credible future leaders of Research Software Engineering.
Having to demonstrate that you are a credible future leader can be very intimidating and difficult, particularly if you are at an early stage in your career. The EPSRC are keen to support applicants who are showing early promise in showing leadership. However, the onus is on you to demonstrate that you can make the jump from RSE to RSE Leader. Start now by doing everything you can to publicise yourself and prove to the community that you can be a future leader. In my case, I’ve had my own website since my first PostDoc position, and use it to host training courses that I have developed and taught as part of organisations such as CCP-BioSim, EMBO, Software Carpentry and the ACRC. I have published a large number of papers, some of which have over 100 citations. I make many public contributions to large community software projects, a lot of which are now visible on my GitHub profile. Providing visible leadership is not just about publishing papers. It is about producing material that has impact and is influential. For example, prior to his Fellowship, Mike Croucher had not published any papers. He won his fellowship in part because of his excellent website/blog, active and informative twitter stream (over 4000 followers) and the leadership he showed at his host university by setting up an RSE service that supports very large numbers of researchers.
To get a strong Letter of Support, you too will need to convince your university that you are a strong candidate for the Fellowship. Indeed, you may need to convince your university that you should be the only candidate that they will support, and so will have to fend off competition from other internal applicants. Collect together all of the evidence you can of how you are an expert and advocate of good research software engineering. Put this into an easy-to-read CV or summary that makes it clear why you are a future RSE ambassador or leader, and why you are a very strong candidate to win the Fellowship. Put together a well-evidenced and well-argued case as to why the university should invest in your application.
So, what next?
Once you have convinced your host university to support your application and agreed on a shared vision of how your Fellowship will develop, you need to work together to write the Letter of Support. A senior person at your university, i.e. the equivalent of the PVC Research, or Head of Department, etc., should write the letter (mine was a joint letter from the Director of the ACRC and CIO of IT Services). Be prepared to help them, e.g.. by providing a template and discussing with them how the letter will complement your application. The summary of evidence of why you are a strong candidate, together with your shared vision of how you will transform RSE provision at your university provides a good start for the template. Add in the concrete commitments that the university will provide to support your application and future RSE career. Schedule meetings to work together on the letter, as this, like the rest of your application, should be written together (I had several such meetings with the Director of the ACRC). Make sure that the letter is authentic and genuinely reflects the voice and aspirations of your host university.
Equally, make sure that your letter is unique and not a cookie-cutter template that the university provides to all Fellowship applicants. The shared vision of how you and the university will jointly develop the Fellowship provides the authenticity, while the summary of evidence of why your university thinks you are a strong candidate provides the uniqueness. The concrete commitments will show that the university is serious about supporting your application and demonstrates that the EPSRC investment will be multiplied by further investment from your university. Serving as a complement to the rest of your Fellowship application, the letter will show that you and your university are applying in partnership, and thus the Fellowship will be transformative both for your career and for RSE provision at your host institution. Finally, by obtaining such a strong Letter of Support, you prove that you’re capable of providing RSE leadership within your university. Put bluntly, if you can’t demonstrate RSE leadership by obtaining such a letter from your university, then it’s hard to argue that you’ll be able to provide RSE leadership at a national or international level.
Good luck :-)