Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Advice on Applying for an ERC Starting Grant

The ERC Workshop last month
Last month we held a workshop on applying to the European Research Council. As well as getting an overview from UKRO, we heard from Dr Tracy Kivell, who won a Starting Grant in 2013, who talked about her experience of applying to the ERC.

The Project 

 Tracy is a paleoanthropologist, who looks at fossil remains to understand human evolution and development. Her €1.6m ERC-funded project, ‘GRASP’, examines two million year old hand bones to try and resolve two key questions in the field: did the earliest humans still use their hands to climb trees, and when did they start using tools.

The project uses innovative methods, including internal structural analysis using high-resolution microtomography (microCT).

Why Apply? 

Tracy applied to the ERC in 2012, five years after getting her PhD. She was motivated to apply because her vision - and the research questions she was seeking to answer - required a large and complex project which was unlikely to be funded elsewhere.

Furthermore, the time was right for her. She had been at the Max Planck Institute, but neither her publication record nor her funding success were huge. However, she had had two high impact papers, including one as lead author that had made the cover of Science. In addition she was looking for a way to move back to the UK, as her partner was at UCL.

 Writing the Application 

‘Understanding the Participant Portal requires a degree in engineering’, Tracy joked, but her underlying point was well made: give yourself time to prepare and understand what’s required. But understanding the Portal was only the beginning, and Tracy mapped out a series of points to consider when preparing a bid.

  • Think big and be ambitious. What’s your dream project? Who do you want to work with? 
  • Look at previously successful applications. Pick out the best bits and think about what makes it enjoyable to read. 
  • Start early and give yourself lots of time to write and revise. As well as the Participant Portal you need time to understand the costs involved in your project, what’s possible, what’s not, as well as the requirements and approvals of the host institution. 
  • Use the right language and include the right information. Talk to Research Services, but also UKRO and the ERC themselves to understand the guidelines and evaluation criteria. Don’t be shy about you or your project’s brilliance, and include a clear and logical timeline. Give some thought to the title and acronym. It’s not a dealbreaker, but if the project’s successful it will follow you around for some time. 
  • Get feedback from a variety of people. The panel will be very diverse, and it’s unlikely that any of its members will have specific knowledge of your discipline. Therefore don’t be afraid to ask for comments from a wide range of people when preparing your application. 
  • Pick the right panel. Tracy had the choice of two possible panels to submit to, and in the end decided on a more social sciences-focussed one: the Study of the Human Past (SH6). She felt it would, perhaps, be easier to convince historians and anthropologists rather than biologists more familar with looking at, say, genetic coding or cell processes. As part of your decision making look up panel members. Details of panel chairs are published at the time of the call, and you can see the membership in previous years to get a sense of who might be looking at your application. 
  • Get the budget right. You must commit more than 50% of your time, but make sure you also include everything you would need to make your proposal a reality. Looking back, Tracy would have included a budget for someone to just to help with the administration, which can take a huge amount of time. In addition be aware of the possibility of exchange rate fluctuations, and allow for that. 
  • Submit multiple times. Don’t leave it until the end. You can submit any time, and each now submission will overwrite the one before. Better a late draft application rather than no application because of a last minute glitch. 
  • Update your online profile. Reviewers will, inevitably, look you up. Make sure your details, including publications, are up to date.
Preparing for Interview 

Around half of all proposals go on to the interview stage, but there’s no guarantee that they will be funded at this point. It’s crucial that you prepare fully for interview.
  • Look at previous ERC awardees slides for guidance. If not available publically, it is worth approaching them and asking if they can share them. Most award holders would be willing to help those who have to go through the same experience. 
  • Remember to sell your project and you. Use the ERC ‘language’ and sell the novelty and high risk but potential reward of the project. Highlight the innovative and interdisciplinary aspects, and make clear connections between the elements of the project. In addition avoid too much methodological detail. Your time will be very limited, so keep it simple. 
  • Arrange mock presentation and interviews. Invite people with a variety of different backgrounds and experience at grant interviews. Ask them to challenge you, and incorporate their feedback, but trust your instincts. Prepare answers to likely questions, and rehearse so that you don’t sound scripted. 
At Interview 

The interview process is very organised and controlled. Arrive two hours before the interview, to allow time for the administration. This includes time to upload the presentation, provide c15 copies of your presentation, have passport checks, and arrange for the reimbursement of expenses.

You will wait, first, in a large room downstairs with many others (very nervous) candidates. You will be be given water and information on the room layout, and the workings of the handheld clicker.

After this you will be taken up to 21st floor for the final 30 minutes before the interview itself. The interview panel itself will consist of around 15 people. Five of them will ‘know’ the grant. The panel will have seen the reviewers’ comments but you won’t. With this in mind:
  • Be clear, enthusiastic, confident, smile. 
  • Keep to time. The ERC is very strict, and you will not be allowed to overrun. 
  • Be prepared for the questions. These will probably come from the five with a fuller knowledge of your project, but for Tracy the questions were generally quite broad. Questions she was asked included: 
    • Can you justify the budget as it is slightly more than the amount allowed? 
    • How do you know you have the right data to conduct this project given paucity of fossil record? 
    • How confident are you that you can answer the questions your propose?
Tracy finished by reiterating some of the messages from her talk: plan well ahead, exude enthusiasm about your research, be responsive to feedback and, above all, enjoy the journey.

It is expected that the next Starting Grant call will open on 3 August; more details here. Get in touch with us if you are planning to apply, and we can support you in the process.

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