How to apply for a (Marie Sklodowska-Curie) post doc grant?

Both of your favorite blog writers, that is Sho and me, Christina, are currently funded by a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual (post doc) Fellowship by the European Research Council. Before that, we also applied, sometimes successfully, for other grants. You might ask how we did it, and we’re happy to share what we learned during the application process and from the feedback we received.

We’re focusing this post on the Marie Sklodowska-Curie individual fellowship in general, if you have specific question about the Intra European version or the Outgoing-Incoming funding scheme ask us for details. We’re both happy to help you out, and might add your questions to this hopefully dynamic and growing post.

First, check the eligibility and formal criteria

Post doc grants usually fund only between 5 and 20% 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 fulfill 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 Sklodowska-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 to not be considered enough.

 

Take the non-science parts very seriously

If you look at how Marie Sklodowska-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 that it’s a training grant and 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 management skills.
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.

 

Some additional bits that might be useful

  • A figure says more than 1000 words, so if you can add one to the science part, I’d recommend doing so.
  • Last time I checked they did not have strict formal requirements for references. I added author names, years, and journal (incl issue/volume/number/pages) as footnotes and found this very space efficient

 

Further sources

A more succinct blog post on the topic: 
https://jdzankic.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/tips-for-writing-a-marie-sklodowska-curie-actions-msca-application/

This guide from the European Research Council will soon become your bible: 
http://ec.europa.eu/research/participants/data/ref/h2020/grants_manual/pse/h2020-guide-pse_en.pdf

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4 thoughts on “How to apply for a (Marie Sklodowska-Curie) post doc grant?

  1. Thank you, this is very helpful. I am currently applying for a global fellowship. Does anyone know if and where you can add recommendation letters. As for now the forms only require (and allow) me to include a letter of commitment form the host organization.

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