The sole criterion for selection is scientific excellence

Have you got what it takes? Competing for an ERC grant is a daunting task if you need to do this by yourself.

This year for the first time we at biolution got overwhelmed with requests for coachings of ERC-applicants for their interview. In the past, I have done mainly trainings with applicants I have had the honour to support during the writing process and therefore knew the proposal and applicant well.

This time the situation is different and a new challenge. However, it brings home how hard it has become to compete for these prestigious grants outside of those host institutions, where successful applicants are available to impart their valuable experience. Even applicants from the most outstanding research institutions outside Europe must find it daunting to go through this process without dedicated support. The fact that since corona we do many meetings now online has also changed our services, the workshops performed remotely are much more efficient than in person meetings for the very simple reason we can spread them out into smaller sessions.

However, some of the applicants apparently feel it is somewhat unethical to ask for help from external coaches and they seem almost embarrassed. Is it unfair to ask for help from a coach like me? Or am I even milking naive applicants for a set of useless tipps?

Obviously, I don’t think so. It is important to remember that many national contact points provide exactly such trainings, including the Austrian and German NCPs. If you find yourself in a country which doesn’t, how can this be fair. In additon, many research institutions have dedicated support programs for potential ERC-applicants (An incomplete list of a few I know about at CeMMTUMUniCam). Therefore, if you are out there and made it to the interview stage, remember to get support where you might need it. Don’t be reluctant to ask your colleagues and friends for advice, muster all the support you can get. Because for most academics the ERC provides a career break and can be a life-changing boost to realise their scientific ambition. And one of the most important success criteria in modern research is certainly to work as a team and get support where necessary.

But what about the assessment of “scientific excellence”, how can my service contribute to the sole selection criterion? Obviously my interview training has no bearing on the scientific excellence of the proposal. Clearly, the ideal of basing the funding decision of the ERC panels solely on scientific excellence is unattainable. How do you measure scientific excellence in the first place and why would you need an interview for it? Clearly, besides the scientific excellence of the proposal other criteria are at play. And what strikes me in many of my applicants is the naive assumption that academia is a meritocracy and career progress is decided exclusively on scientific merit. We can see it all around us that there are many other factors impacting on careers in academia as everywhere else. Academia is no ideal paradise, there are compromises, unfair decisions, subjective opinions, human error and worse.

Therefore, while I do believe the ERC-panels generally are doing a great job at selecting excellent research projects, you as an applicant should remember scientific excellence is generated by outstanding individuals who conceive, plan and implement their visionary ideas. And my trainings are designed for your performance during the interview will make the panel realise these skills and vision in you.

Happy to hear your thoughts on how to prepare most effectively for the ERC interview stage, please comment!