“If you want to be successful in obtaining a grant, broaden your portfolio when you are a PhD student”

How can young scientists obtain funding to continue their research as postdocs? IRB Barcelona’s Research and Academic Administration Department is here to help them. In the most recent workshop they organised, “How to be successful in your postdoctoral fellowship application”, held on 12 July, in vivo approached the Irish chemist Eimer Tuite, Senior Lecturer in Biophysical Chemistry at Newcastle University (UK), and evaluator of Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) to learn some tricks that might be useful for young researchers interested in applying for one of these grants.

One of young scientists’ main worries is how to obtain funding to continue their research as postdocs. IRB Barcelona’s Research and Academic Administration Department regularly organises workshops aimed at giving this community the skills they need to increase their chances of success in the sometimes cumbersome path that leads to the awarding of a grant.

The latest workshop entitled “How to be successful in your postdoctoral fellowship application” was held on 12 July Among the invited speakers was the Irish chemist Eimer Tuite, Senior Lecturer in Biophysical Chemistry at Newcastle University (UK), and evaluator of Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA).

In vivo approached her to learn some tricks that might be useful for young researchers interested in applying for one of these grants. She has some specific pieces of advice for the MSCA, but in fact they are valuable across the board.


What advice would you give to those interested in applying for an MSCA?

You should really try and enhance your CV as much as possible. An important asset that we evaluate is your leadership. This is highly relevant as it shows that you have the potential to become a top scientist. You have, of course, to think about that during your PhD training.

How can young scientists achieve this?

For example, by getting involved with students’ societies and the organisation of seminars, or by having a bit of outreach experience. Spend time learning how to write about what you are going to do in the future. In short, you have to make your portfolio quite broad at the PhD stage. Of course you have to have good papers, but if you focus exclusively on research, you might end up not having everything that we are looking for in an application. The time to really focus on your research comes later on when you get a fixed position.

During the round table, you emphasised the importance of picking the right host institution.

That’s right. You need to make early contacts with all potentially good host labs. This is a key issue that is evaluated in your application. You want to start networking at conferences, get to know the senior people in your field, and identify someone who would be willing to accept your application. With a MCSA, there is no financial commitment for the host, so you will see that most people are really willing to help you write it. Be frank and outgoing with the person you identify and tell them you would like to work with them. The earlier you start, the better your proposal will be.

You also talked about something people may consider trivial, but it’s not.

Yes. Please do follow the instructions very, very carefully; read exactly what’s required, so that you are giving the reviewers the information they need to write the review properly. Don’t think you know better than the granting body… put the information where it is required. And also, make sure your application looks good and is well structured.

What are the main mistakes that you find in the applications you evaluate?

The most common one is that you haven’t given us what’s supposed to be there. That’s a killer. You might have hidden that information somewhere else in the application, but then that makes it very difficult for the reviewer to find it. Even if the proposal is excellent, if we can’t find the information very easily, you are not going to score well. Another error is not giving specific examples about your claims, or only using generic vague lines. Writing “I’m the best” but not saying why, or “the host institution is very good at training”, without stating exactly what training you want to receive and who’s going to give it to you, make even a good application lose points.

How long does it take to you to review a proposal?

Typically, half an hour, and then maybe another 20 minutes to write the specific comments in the required format. I consider myself a slow reviewer, but I’m a native English speaker, so it’s quite easy for me to scan the text to find the things I’m looking for, and it’s easier to write the comments. Maybe other reviewers take a bit longer. The key point is that you have to impress me as soon as I open the proposal, and certainly within 30 minutes. I have to be able to find all the key information I need very quickly.

What are these key aspects you are looking for when you evaluate a proposal?

I’ll give a couple of examples. If you are asked for objectives, write down what your objectives are and bullet-point them. Make it easy for me to read them. Don’t hide them in the middle of the text. Then, relate your work plan to your objectives, make sure it’s all coherent. If I’m looking for dissemination, just tell me exactly what you are going to do, if you think this project has the potential for two really good papers, state which journals they could be submitted to, tell me that one will be ready after year 1, and another one after year 2. Give me those little details that help me understand that you have a consistent plan in mind.

What’s the life of an evaluator like?

You have to hide away from everything else and really focus on these applications. I usually do them all together, so I can sit down and compare. From my experience so far, I usually review around 20 applications per round. There are a growing number of proposals and a limited number of people who can evaluate them, so the number of applications is getting bigger.

How useful is it for a scientist to have an experience as an evaluator?

I think it’s really important. You get so much insight. Until you are in the middle of the discussions and see how things work for yourself, it’s hard to understand. Often you read the evaluation criteria with the eyes of a scientist, and these are different to those of an evaluator. For example, the part on the excellence of the project. Sometimes researchers will be digging so much into the science, telling us how brilliant it is, that they forget the big picture. Especially if the evaluator is not someone who works in that particular area, it’s very difficult to see this big picture if you do not provide the contextual details in writing. Another thing scientists tend to not understand is the importance of training. By training we mean the training you receive and also the transferral of your own knowledge. You need to say that you want to go in this particular group because you want to learn this and that specific new technique. This is called “training through research”. But the host institution may also run an official course that will help you in your research. You need to specify that too. Sometimes, we take it for granted that we will be trained and then forget to write it down.