First steps on a Fellowship journey

First steps on a Fellowship journey

Having breathed a sigh of relief on completion of my PhD, my attention turned to next steps. I had a few different ideas for potential postdoctoral fellowships about social media literacy and young people’s mental health, but starting the process of applying felt incredibly intimidating, and a huge time commitment alongside work.

I found a couple of smaller schemes to apply for, but my applications weren’t successful and I began to feel pretty disheartened. Then I came across an advert for the Churchill Fellowship. As a non-academic scheme, this was something a bit different. They were looking for people who are passionate about improving something specific in the UK to go and look at how things are done elsewhere.

While preparing my longer fellowship applications on social media literacy, I’d started to zone in on a gap around young people’s understanding of algorithms. Social media algorithms can be responsible for a lack of self-regulation when it comes to social media screen-time, but also things like unintentional exposure to graphic self-harm or eating disorder content online. Despite the potential role of these algorithms in the mental health and wellbeing of young social media users, they are largely absent from the narrative of ‘e-safety’ lessons at school. I want to improve the way young people in the UK are taught about social media algorithms, and make these part of the conversation around healthy social media use. This idea appeared to be well-suited for a Fellowship.

The Churchill Fellowship is a prestigious and well-connected organisation, with strong links to key policy stakeholders in the UK. This seemed like a great opportunity to have some real, focused impact. There were also different options for the research – you can choose to travel for up to 8 weeks, complete the research entirely online, or a hybrid option. With a young family, having the option to do a small amount of travel but mostly work from home was a major selling point.

The initial application form was straightforward – no need for the dreaded WorkTribe costings, just some short paragraphs about the context, aims and potential benefits of what I was proposing. Themes under which you can apply are wide-ranging, including arts and communities, children in care, climate change, disability, equity, diversity and inclusion, housing, mental health, physical activity, prison reform, and suicide prevention. I applied under an education theme, as I felt this would connect me to stakeholders with influence in the school curriculum. I submitted my application and was shortlisted for an interview – having received more rejections from other schemes in the meantime, this was just the boost I needed!

"I want to improve the way young people in the UK are taught about social media algorithms... This seemed like a great opportunity to have some real, focused impact."

Following shortlisting, I submitted more specific plans and costings. Ahead of my interview, I met with a former Fellow (Dr Hayley Gorton, who visited North America for her fellowship on ‘Bringing community pharmacy into the prevention of suicide and self-harm’). Hayley’s advice was invaluable – especially to have a really clear plan about influencing change in the UK after the research. Before the interview, I reached out to some key stakeholders to have some preliminary ‘buy-in’. I also made some initial arrangements for experts to visit during my research, but followed Hayley’s advice to build in plenty of time for flexibility and reflection during the research period.

The interview itself was quick and painless, with a friendly panel of experts from the education theme. The advice and preparation paid off, and I found out a few weeks later that I’d been successful! The best part so far has been the ‘Connect and Inspire’ event, where all 2023/4 Fellows got together to network. In addition to hearing about rewilding projects and aims to improve prison food, I met people working on reducing deaths by suicide in busy public places; improving teaching of poetry writing and performance as a tool to promote mental health; and developing accessible and culturally competent mental health resources for Black girls.

I'll be starting my own research this July, travelling to Canada for two weeks to meet experts at Digital Moment and Media Smarts, specialists in algorithmic and media literacy. I’ll then have a three-week period of remote research, where I’ll meet online with more experts in Finland, Norway and Netherlands before writing a report of my recommendations. I'll be one of the last fellows from my cohort to finish, which feels a little daunting, but it’s been lovely to hear from everyone else’s experiences. I’m excited to get going and would highly recommend the scheme to anyone!

This blog initially appeared on the Mental Health Research website and has been republished here with permission.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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