07/04/2017

Interview with Dr. Gerry Alons - MSCA Fellow


 

After receiving her Master’s degree in International Relations at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, Gerry Alons undertook a PhD in Political Science at Radboud University, Institute for Management Research. Her research focuses on foreign economic policy in the fields of trade and agriculture and particularly engages with questions on when and how ideational variables such as norms, policy frames and policy paradigms influence state preferences and policies. In 2016, Gerry was awarded a MSCA GF to conduct comparative research in developments in US and EU agricultural policies and their effects on transatlantic and multilateral trade negotiations. She is currently executing this research project at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, in cooperation with Professor Vivien Schmidt.

 

Could you tell a bit about your experience as a female scientist within your research field?

Empirically, my research focuses on trade and agricultural policies. Comparing the numbers of female and male researchers in this domain, it can certainly be considered a male-dominated research field. The research topic appears to hold less appeal for women somehow, but I have always experienced that my work is welcomed and much appreciated. Fortunately, ‘food policy and governance’ as a research domain more broadly conceived, is attracting increased interest of both male and female researchers, judging from the successful launch and activities of the food policy and governance research network in the European Consortium for Political Research.

 

Why did you decide to apply to MSCA? How would you say the experience contributed to your personal and professional growth?

I applied for a MSCA Global Fellowship for two reasons. First of all, I wanted to extend my research horizons theoretically and methodologically, by applying an ideationally focused approach to my research field. Working together with Vivien Schmidt – who coined the ‘Discursive Institutionalist’ approach – as a supervisor at Boston University allows me to reach these objectives. Secondly, I wanted to increase my international research experience. I’ve always wanted to go abroad for an extensive period of time, and the Global Fellowship offers a great opportunity in that respect, as it allows you to spend up to two years at an institution of your choice. As international experience is also becoming increasingly important for career prospect in social science – and advancing career prospects is one of the major objectives of the MSCA fellowships – the Global Fellowship allows me to combine personal, research and career goals.

 

What would you say the biggest challenge in the application process was? How did you overcome it?

I guess the major challenge was to fit all my ideas and plans into ten pages. When writing about research topics you are excited about it can be difficult to control yourself. Apart from that it is also tempting to prioritize the scientific part of the proposal. For MSCA fellowships, however, it is equally important in the evaluation process that you are able to make a convincing case that your research can best be implemented at the international institution of your choice and has more than a scientific impact only. The research support department at the Radboud University Institute for Management Research (my ‘home institution’) provided helpful feedback on these issues.

With hindsight, however, while the application process seemed very challenging at the time, those challenges can be overcome by support from colleagues, National Contact Points and the like. Once I was planning my actual move to the US, I had many practical issues to deal with (housing, taxation, health insurance and so on) which proved more challenging than I would have expected in advance.

 

Are you a member of any European Scientific Diasporas? Why/ Why not?

I am currently trying to contribute to an initiative aimed at creating a Marie Curie Alumni Association chapter in North America. I believe this is an important initiative that will not only assist (research) exchange between past and current Marie Curie fellows in North America, but will also provide a network for future fellows to which they can address all kind of practical questions about living and working in the US or Canada.

 

From your experiences, how does the research environment in Europe differ from that in North America, if at all? And, how do you think EURAXESS North America can further promote research collaborations between the two?

The research environment in general is not that different, but the great attraction of the Boston area is that it houses so many scientific institutions that it is very easy to extend your research network. The presentations, lectures and workshops organized by the BU Center for the Study of Europe and the Center for European Studies at Harvard alone already provide a wealth of opportunities for scientific exchange in my field. And those are only two of the relevant institutions in the area.

  • While several activities organized by the European Commission have facilitated exchange between Marie Curie fellows in the area, EURAXESS North America, through their website and presentations at US institutions, provides valuable information for funding opportunities and career prospects for both Europeans and Americans in the US, Canada and Europe. If both Europeans and Americans use these opportunities, this will increase valuable Trans-Atlantic scientific exchange.

What would you tell someone who is hesitant to apply? Would be great if you can direct a specific message to female scientists.

I know that the whole application process can seem daunting when you read the online information and the guidelines for application. Add to that that the fellowships are very competitive and I can understand that many eligible candidates will not even start an actual application. This is really a shame, though!

If you have a sound scientific research idea that you would like to pursue abroad, then do not hesitate and apply. Even if you are uncertain if your track record is good enough – and in my experience, women particularly underestimate themselves in this respect – let this not deter you from applying. An important aim of the fellowship is to advance the fellow’s career prospects.

  • You do not have to be the perfect researcher yet, but instead, should be able to make a convincing case that your research plans are sound, that you are the right person to conduct this research, and that conducting the research at an institution abroad will help you develop essential experience and skills that further your career prospects. And trust me, when you succeed in receiving the funding, this is exactly what the fellowship will do.

Finally, what’s next for you?

I’ll return to my home institution in the Netherlands in the Summer of 2018 to finish the third year of my fellowship. After that I can continue my existing position as Assistant Professor, and - if all the plans I have for my fellowship work out - will be eligible for applying for a position of Associate Professor soon after. Whether my future career will be in the Netherlands only I don’t know yet. I must say I do very much appreciate the intellectual climate here in the US, as does my husband. So we will see what our future holds.