Rejection – do not take it personal!
I know all too well that sentences like this do not really help in those first moments after a grant application has been rejected. However, a difference between the MSC program and many other funding programs is its extremely high competition. For the last call 11573 project proposals had been submitted and only 1630 awarded leading to an acceptance rate of ~14% that varies between panels. As a comparison the Humboldt-Foundation, a German incoming Postdoc fellowship has 25-30% acceptance rate. On top of that, most submitted MSC proposals are to my experience already of very high quality, which makes the selection between them extremely difficult and likely somewhat random (see below). So, considering this extremely high competition, a rejections is normal and does not say much about your ideas or your general skills as a researcher.
Is it worth applying, then?
Reading about this high level of competition can be very discouraging, but I still recommend giving it a try. First, who knows, you might be the lucky one who gets it and it will definitely help you in your career! Second, you can reuse the proposal for other funding programs. Third, you might learn a lot; not only about grant writing in general but also about project planning, dissemination, project management and what you ideally need to learn for the next steps in your career. The first unsuccessful proposal helped me a lot for writing the second one, which in my case was a completely new project.
When to start working on the application?
I am probably one of the worst examples regarding reasonable time management. Still, I hope to share some useful advice here. The required preparation time for a MSC proposal will vary a lot between applicants and projects, but in general I advise to start with your preparations as early as possible and at least 6 months before the deadline. For instance, for my second application I started around 10 months before the deadline as it already took me several months to identify the ideal study site and get in contact with all the collaboration partners whom I had not met before. Next, I visited my future host and we had a meeting over several hours discussing different ideas and finally I started writing followed by at least 2 rounds of feedback on my draft. In contrast, for my first application, I planned and wrote the draft all on my own before sending it to my future host and there was barely any time for major changes. - Do not do this! When I was writing this proposal, I had no clue how this is usually done and I was simply too insecure to approach the host before having a first draft. If you somehow feel like this, keep in mind that it is not just you who is gaining something, also the host gains a lot with having you as a 2 year postdoc in the lab! So, if you want to submit this year, organize a meeting with your host as soon as possible! The earlier you start this process the better, as you then have time to jointly develop the ideas for the research project.
The scientific part is important, but unfortunately this is not enough for a MSC grant
The MSC proposals have an extremely detailed structure with 3 main sections: Excellence, Impact and Implementation, each of them with several subheadings. You have to describe your research ideas in the first part, and even with the best ideas ever, you won’t get the funding if the other parts are weak. For several sections it took me quite a long time to understand what they actually wanted from me and to be honest I got very annoyed about this detailed structure. What helped me a lot was attending specialized MSC workshops. And not just one: over the years I attended several of them (e.g. at your current institution, your host institution or each country’s National contact point for MSC actions). Furthermore, there are also some very helpful webpages with detailed explanations for writing a MSC proposal. Once I better understood what it was all about, I realized that, beyond the science, knowing how to present a detailed work plan, discussion of potential risks and their mitigation, dissemination strategies and plans for public outreach are all also very helpful for many other grant proposals, even when funding agencies do not ask specifically for it.
For a convincing proposal you will also need a certain level of self-confidence, especially for MSC proposals where applicants are usually advised to sell themselves extremely well. Reaching this confident tone was not easy for me after an extended period of unemployment and many rejections of small or large proposals at the start of my career. But I tried to listen to what I have been told in the workshops and started using language that sounded to me rather like a salesman than a modest scientist. At the beginning I really hated it, but it is part of the game and after some time you get more used to it.
How does the review process work and why should I care about it?
I think it can really help for your application, if you better understand under which conditions reviewers evaluate the proposals and which criteria they use.
Who becomes a MSC evaluator? I think some people get invited, but you can also register as an expert here . I highly recommend this as I clearly learned a lot from it. If chosen as a reviewer, you will be asked to evaluate up to 20 proposals the following October/November. I agreed and finally received 13 proposals, topic-wise according to the keywords I had provided. As reviewer you get a several hour introduction explaining your tasks and then 3 weeks of time for writing an individual evaluation report including scores for each proposal. Having a full time research position means it gets really stressful with daily email reminders and you should have submitted half of the reports after ~10 days. Thus even if you don’t want to, you might end up reading some proposals in the train or plane, early in the morning or late in the evening (when signing up as an evaluator, I was not aware of this extremely stressful conditions and time pressure).
Very important for applicants, is the manual for evaluators, in particular the last page with the assessment grid. (even better if you can find a more recent version of it, although this information is unfortunately somewhat hidden). Reviewers have to provide a score and positive or negative comments for every single point of the assessment grid (1.1, 1.2,…)! Given the high time pressure it is really important that you help a reviewer to find all the required information in the correct sections as fast as possible (e.g. use bold keywords). If the required information is in the wrong section, it is not disregarded, but chances are higher that it gets overlooked and criticized as lacking information.
For each proposal, 3 reviewers prepare an evaluation report completely independent of each other. Subsequently, one of them (the rapporteur) collates all the information in a consensus report which is then sent back to the reviewers for approval. Within the next days (max. three weeks) the three evaluators have to find an agreement about the comments and scores. In most cases we had a high overall agreement (see also here: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0130753) but some cases led to endless discussion via a chat portal. The clear advantage of this system is that if one reviewer overlooks something important or misunderstands something, the others can explain this again (even if it leads to heated debates and this does happen!).
Although this system is not perfect, I think it is very well thought-through especially given the extremely large number of proposals and about 4000 evaluators in each call. Imagine the evaluators had 3 months of time: probably many would evaluate a few proposals at the beginning and most of them in the very last moment shortly before the deadline making a fair and equal evaluation across all proposals more difficult. Similarly, it is harder to get a general picture of such proposals if you only evaluate one or two of them. Don’t misunderstand this, it is not that an evaluator provides a direct rating between the proposals or suggests acceptance/rejection. Instead, the evaluators agree on scores that always have to be backed up by comments with additional quality checks further down the line. Still, final decisions might often seem a bit random, which I think is mostly related to the very high competition. I felt there is a lot of randomness regarding the outcome for proposals that are very close to the cut off score for funding, but I also had several proposals where the outcome was immediately clear for all three evaluators (in a positive or negative way).
Take home message from this section: Try to make it as easy as possible for the reviewer (you will benefit from that!). Have a look on the assessment grid in the link above and ask your colleagues to take this grid into account when proof reading your proposal.
I hope I could share some helpful information and I wish you best luck for your proposals! Despite the low acceptance rate, I think it is still worth applying, even if not successful you can learn a lot. Try to keep your expectations realistic and also submit your ideas to other funding agencies. If it does not work out, the most important thing is: don’t give up if you feel really passionate about your ideas!