Medical oncologist and group leader - Phil Jones

Phil Jones leads the Stem Cells and Cancer programme at the University of Cambridge MRC Cancer Unit, and is also an Honorary Consultant in Medical Oncology at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge. Here he gives his advice on applying for funding.

Funding scheme

Science Committee Programme Award

Awarding committee

Science Committee

Career level

Established independent researcher

Research area

Cancer biology

Year awarded


Funding length

5 years


University of Cambridge

How do you decide which grants to apply for?

Choose grants which fit with your science, check out the lists of grants awarded…if there is no overlap with what you do try somewhere else.

What are the most time-consuming steps in submitting a grant?

Plan your application up to two years ahead of when you need the money, bearing in mind that getting through the process may take a year and you may have to try again. If you are employing someone, they may leave if you haven’t got their salary in place! You need to allow up to a year for Home Office and ethical approvals, and always give your department head or administrator enough time to process the grant – this saves great stress!

You also need preliminary data for any parts of the application that may appear high risk (e.g. crucial gene expression pattern, new method you have not done before). This may take time for a small lab.

Engage with high quality collaborators where you don’t have the necessary expertise for a project. Good cross disciplinary research is attractive for funders.

What makes a successful grant?

Grants are reviewed by specialists but awarded by committees, most of whom don’t know your subject. The person presenting your grant may not know much about your area either. A title and abstract that a non-specialist can grasp in seconds is essential. Don’t assume they will get why your work is important, make sure you spell it out.

Always get someone (preferably experienced on grant committees) to read your grant. And be prepared for a full rewrite if they don’t like it.

Don’t forget to cite relevant papers by others in your field; they may well be your reviewers!

I commonly go through several rounds of changes. First get the ideas down, then multiple rewrites to improve clarity.

I would advise you to take negative feedback seriously, chances are the same person may review your next grant.

What do you look for when reviewing an application?

Above all, clarity. Make it all sound simple and straightforward. Be very clear about why you are doing each experiment. If a grant is complicated and difficult to read it will annoy reviewers and score less.

Always include a chart of timelines and milestones and a section of what you will do if things don’t work out.

Put highest risk experiments at the end (if aim 1 is risky the committee may wonder what you will do if it bombs).

Back up critical points with preliminary data: this convinces the committee you can actually deliver.

If you have other similar sounding grants it’s essential there is no overlap with the application. Committees hate ‘double dipping’ – asking for money for the same experiments more than once.

Be very clear about animal costs, with a statistical justification for sample size, and make sure you have all the licences and ethical approvals in place.

Profile: Phil Jones

Phil Jones leads the Stem Cells and Cancer programme at the University of Cambridge MRC Cancer Unit, and is also an Honorary Consultant in Medical Oncology at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge. He studied Medicine at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, subsequently specialising in Oncology.

Phil gained his PhD following research on epidermal stem cells with Fiona Watt in London, for which he was awarded the Medical Research Society Young Investigator Medal, and went on to Post Doctoral research in haemopoietic stem cells with Tariq Enver at the Institute of Cancer Research, London.

He completed specialist medical training in Oxford and was then awarded a CRUK Senior Clinical Fellowship. Phil has worked in the MRC Cancer Unit since 2003.

Phil is also Director of Studies for Pre-clinical Medicine at Clare College Cambridge, and is involved with undergraduate teaching.

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