First, check the eligibility and formal criteria
Post doc grants usually fund only between 5 and 20 percent of applications, so they are
happy when they can weed out applications before even sending them out to
reviewers. Avoid being one of those that don’t even get feedback on their work
by checking carefully whether you and your host institution are eligible and
make sure you fulfil all formal criteria (number of pages or word limits, are
all sections and appendices there, is the font correct and not too small, etc).
For instance, to even be able to apply for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual
Fellowship you need to be an “experienced researcher”, which is defined as
being in possession of a doctoral degree or have at least four years of
full-time equivalent research experience at the deadline for the submission of
proposals. It sounds simple, but is very important and thus seems not to be
Take the non-science parts very seriously
If you look at how Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant proposals are evaluated, most of the points
go to aspects of the proposal that have seemingly nothing to do with the
science you want to do. There are many reasons for that, for example, if it is
a training grant, then you should be sure to describe how the experience will
help you grow as a scientist. They also want to make sure that the money is
well spent by asking you to supply a lot of details about where you want to go
and what kind of support you will receive there, both scientifically and in
terms of admin, equipment, etc.
Sho will give you a concrete example based on her own experience: “I applied
unsuccessfully once before getting the grant. I got full points on the research
parts but lost points on “Training” (note that this was still under the
previous framework, thus the structure is slightly different now – elements of
the previous “Training” part are now found both in “Excellence” and “Impact”).
The main negative feedback I got was:
(1) The proposal does not give full evidence of how the relevant training courses will
be included in the candidate’s training plan.
(2) The provision of training to develop the applicant’s complementary skills, such as
project management, is not sufficiently detailed in the proposal.
While this might seem minor, these two points transformed the proposal from an A-ranking
to not even a B-, but a C-ranking, which is one step from the worst!
As to (1): In the old proposal, I had mentioned several training activities (learning new
data acquisition and analysis techniques), but not explicitly said how that
would benefit me in the future (thinking that would be obvious). So in the new
proposal, I basically just added one sentence to each of the skills I listed,
saying things like “This skill is crucial for my future research since knowing
how to use technique A is the only way I will be able to assess X in infants”;
“New skill B in combination with my old skill C will make me one of the
pioneers of doing Y in Europe”.
As to (2), I had mentioned I would gain project management skills simply by executing my
research project. I had been more specific with other skills, and that was
simple enough: For instance, I mentioned I’d improve my writing skills by
preparing journal articles together with my supervisor. But only for not
specifically saying how I would gain project management skills I lost crucial
points. So for my second try, I described several task coordination scenarios
that would come up during my project, for instance coordinating multiple home
visits at babies’ homes, and linked that to the acquisition of project
And voila – that worked!”
Take time and ask for a lot of feedback
A brilliant, succinct, and impactful research proposal, like most writing, is
rarely churned out a week before the deadline. Do take time, among many
benefits this allows you to look back after a week of doing something else (and
that includes vacation, you deserve it) and spot inconsistencies, omissions,
and generally things to be improved.
If you know people who previously applied for the same grant, ask them for feedback.
Ideally, get also people on board who are not in your core research field,
because the evaluators won’t be just from the small pool of your close
colleagues. They often have a new perspective and will help you improve your
proposal further, making it clear even for a non-expert.
There are also often dedicated grant advisors, either affiliated to foundations
within your home or target country or at your current / future institution.
They often also offer training sessions, and are usually happy to read your
proposal with an eye on the formal aspects (see previous points, they matter a
lot). In addition, when contacting a grant advisor from your target
institution, they might be able to share previous successful proposals. Do look
at them carefully, even if they come from organic chemistry and you care more
about applied psychology. For example, details about the host institution can
often be re-used.
Finally, Sho and I exchanged proposals, because there is no direct competition. The X
best ones will be funded, but they had no problem giving 3 grants to our host
institution in our round, and none in the year before. Someone who is in the
same boat, knows the guidelines as well as you, and still possesses a fresh
pair of eyes can be incredibly useful. We helped and inspired each other, for
example when describing our host lab; the facts about this lab don’t change so
we could use the same information and split the work of finding out what, who,
where, and when. As you see, this strategy was successful in our case.
Don’t despair when confronted with very confusing language and an
obscure submission system
The text in the documents provided to applicants, especially this template describing the different
subcategories that you are supposed to elaborate on, can be very opaque. I
asked professors at my target institution and did not receive the same
interpretation twice. So what information goes where? This was especially
tricky for us since they had just restructured the grant when Sho and I
applied. So we could not simply look at proposals that our colleagues had
kindly shared from previous years. Here, too, it can be extremely useful to
talk to someone in the same boat and figure this all out together, and to ask
some external grant advisor for additional feedback.
But even after a lot of asking around and discussing, what goes where stayed opaque in
many cases. Our strategy there was in general to try to implement something
from what everyone said – so write in a way that both professor A and professor
B would be satisfied with. Within the place constraints, better repeat than
leave out – after all, if one reviewer expects a certain element in Part A, she
might still deduct points even if you mention that element in Part B and
therefore left it out in A.
It might also take some time to get familiar with the submission system, do not postpone
this bit to the last minute, either. Usually, right before the deadline is
the busiest time for the system anyhow and it will be slow to react. So ideally
have everything ready and just clickediclick, submit. As we wrote earlier, not all messages are as clear as
we’d like them to be within the system, as in the documents. Take your time,
ask someone else, and don’t panic.
About the Marie-Skłodowska Curie Actions Individual Fellowships
What is it?
Individual Fellowships belong to the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) under Horizon 2020, the European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.
Individual fellowships are either European Fellowships or Global Fellowships. European Fellowships are an opportunity for Brazilian researchers to work in research labs in Europe for up to two years. Global Fellowships offer the opportunity of Brazil-based research institutions to host a European fellow.
What is the aim of MSCA-IF?
The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships aim at enhancing the creative and innovative potential of experienced researchers (postdocs) through advanced training and international and intersectoral mobility.
Who can apply?
European fellowships are awarded to the most promising researchers of any nationality who want to benefit from advanced training in Europe (mobility rules). The host organisation (academic or non academic) in Europe employs the awarded researcher. Applicants either hold a PhD degree or have at least four years of full-time equivalent research experience.
Why should I apply?
You can expand and strengthen your network and gain new expertise through advanced training and mobility.
How does it work?
Proposals are submitted jointly with a "host" organisation in Europe and you as the researcher. You, the researcher, develop the proposal in cooperation with a European organisation that would be willing to host you. Host organizations can be universities, research centres or companies.
How can I apply?
For questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or MSCA NCPs (contact above).
When can I apply?
The next MSCA-IF call for proposals will open on 11 April 2017 with a deadline of 14 September 2017. More information here.