Writing a large fellowship application (like an ERC grant) usually involves three steps. First is to identify a highly novel and timely question to test. Second is to outline how you will address it in a written proposal. These are often followed by a third step: an interview. Together, these steps represent a lot of work—months’ worth of time. However, the rewards are significant. At least in Europe getting a fellowship is often the best ticket to getting a job. To date, I’ve been fortunate to have been able to bring together a strong CV. But with that has also come expectations of further success. “You’ll be fine—you don’t need luck!” they say. Can I live up to this expectation?
The big idea
Most fellowships ask you to go beyond the state-of-the-art. You have to convince the panel and reviewers that you are the person to take your field into the future. This requirement means having to pull together the courage to think big—often beyond what you would have had the scope to achieve in all of your time in academia so far. For example, an ERC grant can fund at least 2 PhD students and your time for up to 5 years, which amounts to more researcher time than I’ve experienced myself (having started my PhD just 8 years before the submission deadline). I often found it difficult to grasp the confidence I needed to push forward with my ideas, especially as when at the same time my papers were being rejected by peer-reviewed journals. Leading up to submission day, the uncertainty never stopped nagging me: did I find the right balance between being overly ambitious and being tractable but predictable? Why would the panel be interested in this research? And how will the reviewers crucify me?
Writing a fellowship is a substantial investment. It requires laying out the framework for years of research in just 15 or so pages. Achieving clarity in the proposal therefore requires extraordinary vision. I could only manage to make this work (I hope) by writing as if I was having to start the project immediately. What advice would I give my PhD student if they walked into my office tomorrow to ask me a question about the section I’m writing right now? I wrote my proposal over a period of 4 months, which represents a lot of tomorrows and, thus, a lot of playing make-believe. This hit me hardest on the submission day. Once that document was uploaded, checked, and submitted, I suddenly had to suspend all my belief that the project was about happen. In fact, at that point there was a 90% chance it wouldn’t get funded. To me it felt like I was having to step back out from an alternative universe. Then of course came the doubts… who am I kidding that I can succeed when there are so many talented scientists out there? How would my proposal ever convince a panel of eminent researchers that I represent the future of the field!
“The selection committee would like to invite you to interview…” My writing efforts seemed to have paid off when this brief but encouraging message reached my inbox. However, it was also an invitation to a bigger, and more intimate, challenge: a 25-minute interview—10-minute talk, 15 minutes of questions, 15 pairs of sceptical, judging eyes.
The internet tells me I should be calm and show confidence. But researchers whose work I read when I first dreamt of becoming a successful scientist in my field are sitting in front of me waiting to be convinced about me, my ideas, and my proposed plan. In their stack of notes are comments by a number of reviewers who have had ample time to find every flaw in my logic. In my mind, all I could think of is “Everything here is way too far beyond my control. What direction will the interview take? What experiment is missing or flawed? What if I don’t understand the question the panel asks me?” (That was the case for the very first question…).
I have to admit the panel were very friendly—I suspect they were much friendlier to me than I was being to myself at the time.
Why did I write this?
One thing I love about academia is its diversity. With this diversity also comes a great diversity in the talents and weaknesses of researchers. I often get complimented on my CV. I do take great joy in performing experiments, analysing data, and writing and editing papers; and I think that my CV reflects this side of my personality. Yet at the same time, I suffer from a sufficiently high degree of anxiety that it can have pronounced physiological symptoms. This anxiety (and especially the resulting symptoms) forces me to maintain as much control over my life as possible. So, my anxiety plays out most strongly in situations where I have no control, and is much worse in social situations involving people I don’t know. The point of writing this blog is to highlight that we all have our weaknesses and we all have our doubts, regardless of our CV or the impression we can give. For example, imposter syndrome is real—we believe that everyone else must be better/more intelligent/more successful than us. Sometimes the calmest people are hiding the greatest fears. I can say that for me, going through the process for my ERC grant application has been one of the most personally challenging experience of my life. There is every chance that the other candidates I met, and those I haven’t met, were also challenged by this process, in their own way. Finally, if you happen to be doing your PhD on someone’s big grant, don’t forget to say thank you. (Thanks Ben!)
Would I do it again?
I am currently preparing myself for the prospect of having to deal with critical reviewer comments and find a way to revise (and improve) my proposal for the next round. The deadline will be just 3 months after the results are announced. Right now, having just been through the interview, I struggle to see how I will face my demons to do this, but I know that I’ll find a way. In the meantime, there are positives to reflect on, and I want to finish on some high points.
First, I have learnt a lot. I will be much more prepared should I have to tackle this challenge again next year. Having experienced the process first-hand will help me to find ways to be more in control, which helps reduce my anxiety. This includes knowing how I will handle myself during the interview process.
Second, regardless of the outcome, the love I have for my job was restored straight after the interview. I happened to meet some other candidates in the waiting room who were friends of friends. After we finished, we hit the town for beers and moules frites (we were in Brussels after all!). We chatted science and life, mapping out our pathways through academic life, and shared both our successes and failures. In what other profession would you get a chance to do have such lunchtime conversations with your ‘direct competitors’?