Asaf Karagila
I don't have much choice...

Yes! Future Leaders Fellowship!

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Oh, have I been waiting to tell you something... Yes, I am a Future Leaders Fellow. But as my three regular readers know, this blog is not about announcements, it's about my experience.

In early January 2019, I was told that I can try and apply for a new scheme in the United Kingdom called "Future Leaders Fellowship". At the time not a lot was known about it, the first round winners were due to be announced, so it was unclear what are the success rates, or the "desired candidates" might be.

One thing, though, this is not a fellowship geared towards mathematicians, or scientists, or even academics. It is just looking for young (from a career-wise point of view) potential leaders. Mathematicians tend to not apply to these sort of things, because why would you fund a research on large cardinals and the axiom of choice, if you can fund "something with actual applications", right? The reward, however, is huge: a lot of money for research, 4+3 years project, and a permanent position at the end (subject to standard probation rules and whatnot).

To quote Wayne Gretzki, "you miss 100% of the shots you don't take". So even if I won't get this fellowship, I figured, this is a great practice in writing big applications. So with David Asperó set to be my mentor, and the continuing help of several others (Shaun Stevens, the head of school; Mark Blyth, the director of research) a project started to take shape.

The first hurdle was an internal sift. Okay, that is not superbly difficult, since there is no limitation on how many applications a university can submit, but universities are expected to have an internal sift. Okay. And so, a two-pages letter outlining what I'd like to do in the project, and why I am a suitable candidate was drafted. Some rounds to improve it, and we're off to a good start.

Okay, with that hurdle passed, despite not fully expecting that, we set out to start the actual process. The FLF application process asks you to submit an outline of your proposal, and then the full thing. The outlines are not refereed or anything. It is, I suppose, more of a way to goad you into deadlines, as well as an opportunity for the UKRI to see what kind of proposals are coming in, divvy up the resources and find suitable referees.

Nevertheless, for this outline to be written, you need to have essentially done most of the legwork in designing your project, articulating your motivations, goals, and the impact of this project. To do this you need a good working draft of the full proposal anyway.

The next step is to flesh out the proposal. This means writing the case for support, the impact, and more importantly, count coppers to see how much you are asking for, and what you're going to do with that money. I asked for funding to hire two postdocs for a period of four years (a proper introduction to this job opportunity will be out soon, stay tuned), as well as organise a few events.

We worked tirelessly. I had so many rounds with this, with the help of applied mathematicians, a model theorist (thanks, Jonathan!), and people from the university's Research and Innovation (RIN) that helped with calculating the budget and preparing things like the pathways to impact.

And then... we wait. We wait, and we wait, and we wait. Four months we waited. I received the referee reports when I was in Manchester, giving a talk. It was a terrifying moment, but the reviews turned out to be stellar. I had a week to write a response, and it seemed that the only reasonable response was "Thank you!" But Mirna Džamonja had a lot of experience in this field, and she suggested a few specific points that I should raise. Because at the end of the day, mathematicians tend to see this process from a specialised perspective, as opposed to the actual panels that make the decisions. So we wrote a few minor remarks, just to clarify to the panel that some of the things they may perceive as negative are in fact positive.

And again... we wait. The panels were to convene at the end of November. Supposedly the same week as the RIMS meeting. Sakaé Fuchino can testify that I prayed at several shrines over Kyoto. And it didn't not help, at the very least. After an insanely stressed week of waiting for the results, I received the email telling me that I am invited for an interview.

Phew! Wow! So much weight off my shoulders. At that point I started to see the end of my Newton Fellowship, without anything else particularly lined up. And by that point I knew, that the big hurdle is the panel, and if you're invited to the interview, your chances are great. But still, having never had an interview before, it's not something to take lightly.

The interview starts with a 7 minutes presentation. In just 7 minutes you need to present yourself, your research goals, your funding plan, your impact, and then tie it all in a neat little bow of "how is this going to help me develop". Sure, that might be feasible when you do your work in sociology, or even biology, or physics. But explaining large cardinals and the axiom of choice? In 7 minutes? Yikes. I worked through the entire winter break, often taking one of the classrooms not far from my office and practicing this presentation to an empty room.

Two practice interviews, I was told by one of the two people I knew that won in the previous round. When the second person also recommended two interviews, there was no way to argue with that. And I can honestly admit, the second interview was the one that cut it.

I had assembled diverse panels, with logicians, with one of the previous round's winners, with applied mathematicians, and with people external to mathematics altogether. The first interview went great, I breezed through it, most of the remarks were superficial somehow, about presentations or choice of language. But it went very well. The second interview took place a few days later, in the morning hours, with a different panel (and one observer from the first panel, David). That one went terrible. It was a belly-flop. I felt out of focus, I felt tripped by some of the questions, and some of the things I said were big "red flags" that I never even knew to avoid ("incremental research" = "bad research", who knew?).

Both interviews (and feedback sessions) were recorded. I've listened to everything I said, and then everything they said, and I took that in. And then, the final day of the interview arrived.

My panel was extremely supportive. They were calming, they were kind, they were great. At the end they ask if you want to add something, or think that they should have asked something and want to answer that. I had a lot on my mind, I had a lot of remarks I wanted to make, some jokingly, others less jokingly. So I paused. The chair told me, after a few long seconds, that I don't have to say something. I told them that there were so many things I wanted to say that I know that I shouldn't, so to save me from myself, one of the panel members jumped and said "So I guess we'll never hear them, right?". But I had some other closing remarks, so I settled on one of two top candidates, and finished with the point that funding pure mathematics might not yield fruits right away, but it is important for academia to have a breadth of subjects, as great and pure as possible.

After this, I left the room, and life continued. The decision was delayed, although this was announced before the interview, and that's that. But they promised the first week of March, and they delivered. I was about to leave the house on Monday morning, and I stepped back to pick something from the living room. Refresh the email, what's the harm? And there it was. An unbelievable email, congratulating me for securing this award. Phew, it's all over now. Just have to wait for the official announcement so I can post this on my site...

Anyway, that was my experience of it all. Start to finish. It took over a year, and it was extremely stressful at times. Well, usually. But it was a good experience. I owe a debt of gratitude to a lot of people, from David and Shaun for their constant help, to those who gave regular advice, sat on my panels, reviewed my application, and everything else.

Now, we start the real game. Working on this research. I will write more about upcoming postdoc positions in the next couple of weeks. See you then.

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