Some personal advice for applicants to the Starting and Consolidator Grant programs

Over the past weeks we have been celebrating the 10th anniversary of the European Research Council (ERC), and as part of the celebrations we have done at Rey Juan Carlos University, the university recorded a video with some personal reflections about what having ERC funding has meant for my career. I also described in a previous blog post my personal journey to obtain both Starting and Consolidator Grants from the ERC. As a follow-up to that post, here I would like to share some personal advice for everyone interested in applying to these programs.
I have been in meetings where university/government officials encourage everyone to apply, and I think this is not a sound advice given the characteristics of the projects/profiles funded by the ERC. Apart from checking the official ERC guidelines of the Starting and Consolidator Grants programs, the first advice I give to all potential candidates asking me if I think they could have possibilities with the ERC funding is always the same: look yourself into the mirror and check your CV/ideas/project against those from people that have been funded in recent ERC calls. You certainly need a strong CV that shows your potential, but I know cases of excellent CVs that did not get it an ERC grant, and of good (but not outstanding) CVs that got it. Albeit they undoubtedly help and many candidates have them, in my experience it is not a prerequisite having papers in top multidisciplinary journals (e.g. Science, Nature, PNAS, Nature Communications, Science Advances…) as a first/corresponding author to obtain ERC funding, particularly in the case of Starting Grants. Having a very good/excellent CV is a requisite of competitive candidates, but having a really good, groundbreaking and risky project (according to the high gain/high risk philosophy of the ERC) is a must if you want to get funded by the ERC. If you have doubts about the competitiveness of your CV or ideas think twice before making the effort of preparing an ERC proposal, doing so takes a lot of time and if you do not get a ranking high enough you may lose the opportunity to submit in the next call (this is a particularly important thing to consider for those candidates approaching the years since the PhD defense deadline).
If you decide that your ideas/project fit the philosophy of the ERC and your CV/profile is competitive, here is some advice for writing your grant:
  • Take your time to develop your ideas and write your project. As an example, I spent over five months working in each of the projects I submitted to the ERC, and much more time developing the ideas presented there (indeed I developed some of them several years after initially thinking about them).
  • Prepare your budget accordingly to the needs of the project and do not inflate it. The ERC will not fund the typical projects that can be funded by national funding agencies, so do not make the mistake of taking a "normal" project and increase its budget by adding, for instance, PhD students, technicians and postdocs and/or analyses that are not fully justified.
  • Have your project revised by several colleagues before submitting it and use the review services provided by your university, research center or country (many countries have national services that help applicants to prepare their proposals, and many universities also offer this service). ERCs National Contact Points at each country can also help with the preparation of proposals, so do not hesitate to contact them at the beginning of the writing to be aware of all opportunities for help.
  • Space is precious in ERC proposals, so be as concise as possible and do not include any non-essential text. Use also graphical information (diagrams, preliminary data, pictures) as much as space allows it, as it substantially helps to make the proposal more attractive and easier to read by reviewers and panel members. Importantly, do not write a “thick” proposal packed with text and without any space separation, as it will be more difficult to read.
  • Do not be obsessed about including the typical Working Packages that can be found in most EU proposals. Do not include them if they do not help to organize/clarify your project (as an example I did not include WPs in any of my ERC proposals), but of course use them otherwise.
  • Include a diagram showing how the different parts/WPs of your project are linked together. I found them helpful particularly when your project has multiple tasks/WPs (as is usually the case with large and or complex projects such as those I presented).
  • In the part of the project devoted to your CV make sure to emphasize those aspects of your profile that make you particularly suitable to carry out the research project successfully, and do not forget to highlight your potential to become a research leader in your field (or to consolidate your profile/research group it in the case of a Consolidator Grant).
  • And last, but not least, try to submit your project well in advance the deadline (you can always update it if needed until the deadline). This will prevent last-hour problems caused by collapses in the server on the very last day or by other unexpected issues (for example I know a case of a person that could not submit a proposal because he/she got sick the day before the deadline and had to go to the hospital).
If you have passed the first cut and are called to an interview, many congratulations! Most applicants do not reach to this stage, and from now on your chances to get the project funded have increased considerably. Here are some tips that may help you to prepare the interview:
  • The interview is a critical step in the evaluation process, so prepare it the best you can. This implies making multiple trials, preparing questions, attending the “fake” interviews at your university/research country (more about my personal experience with the interview in this blog entry).
  • Make sure you can give your presentation within your allocated time. This is crucial; if you cannot make it on time it will cause a bad impression to the panel members and you will be stopped, which will likely make you more nervous for the questions/answers phase.
  • There are plenty of recommendations out there about how to prepare a good presentation, so I will not say anything you have not heard before: do not use too much text, make sure that panel members pay attention to you and not to the PowerPoint and use your body language as part of the message you want to give. I found this book on giving effective presentations particularly useful to improve mine (sorry, it is in Spanish), so you can find similar books useful too (there are dozens of them).
  • Limit your presentation to the core aspects of the project, emphasizing its novelty/groundbreaking nature and relevance rather than your CV. I always recommend to follow the “1 minute rule” in the presentations: if you have 10 minutes, do not add more than 10 slides (the cover slide does not count).
  • This is obvious, but plan to be in Brussels the day before the interview to avoid delays/problems with public transportation.
  • Do whatever works for you to get as quiet as possible before the interview. In my case a valerian pill and being well ahead on time at the ERC headquarters helped to get my stress under control before the interview.
  • Be ready for the unexpected; things such as giving your presentation without the PowerPoint because the power went out during the interview may occur (believe it or not this happened to a colleague of mine that eventually got the grant, so if this happens it is not the end of the world :).
  • All panel members are top scientists that are also leaders in their respective fields, but their expertise may not be particularly close to your specific project. Since all (or a clear majority) of them need to be convinced by your project and your capacity to carry out the research proposed successfully, you must present your research in a way that colleagues not working in your field can understand it and appreciate its importance and relevance.
  • While you can expect to get questioned about “typical” things such as the novelty/ground breaking nature of your research project and/or about your ability to carry out the research planned, you must be ready for all sorts of questions, from the very broad (e.g. what´s your view about the future of your discipline) to the very specific (e.g. how are you going to consider this part of a technique you want to use).
  • The panel members are extremely polite during the interview, so do your part when answering questions even if you think that the question was not relevant and/or pertinent.
  • Be concise and to the point when answering the questions, do ramble if you do not know the answer. The more questions you can answer during your allocated time, the better.
  • Think about the interview as an “elevator pitch”. Panel members will evaluate dozens of candidates and they will select only over half of them. So, do your best to make a positive impression on the panel, one that its members will remember at the end of the day (by doing everything on time, by answering the questions concisely, by responding in a respectful manner and by showing that your project is not only cool and exciting/ground breaking but also that you are the right person to execute it).
And that´s it for now, I will update this entry if I can recall of important things that I forgot to include in this post. For all of you applying to any ERC funding scheme, good luck!!

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