Just one paper away: looking back at first scientific proposal experience

In September last year I was starting to put together my first ever proposal to basically write my own PostDoc position that would give me an extra three years of academic research fun. Today I received the final feedback from the panel (which was negative but more on that below) and I thought that I’d put down here the path and the timeline that this proposal followed.

Some background

The program I applied to was the “Junior postdoctoral mandate” given by the Flemish science foundation, with a round every year where they try to give funding to the top 20% of all applicants. This mandate cover personal expenses for three years plus the possibility to apply to some bench fee between 4000 and 10000 euros per year. The Junior mandate is open to anyone who obtained their PhD less than 3 years before the start of the mandate, and there is also a Senior mandate for anyone with less than 6 years post-PhD. You also need a supervisor (usually a Prof) within one of the Flemish universities. The timeline of the evaluation of the proposal is the following (as of time of writing): (i) you submit the proposal by the beginning of December, (ii) in April you get a mail letting you know if you made it to the second stage (an interview with the panel), (iii) in June the interview takes place, (iv) end of June the results are proclaimed and (v) the mandate start in October or November (no other possible starting date). This program is seen as one of the top one in the Flemish academic world and every PhD and PostDoc is encouraged to apply even if he / she is already funded under some project money.

Step 1: Gathering ideas

So again in September last years I started some reading and some heavy thinking on what I would want to do if I were given money and time. This was at the start a pretty difficult exercise since this required some new type of reflection for me: given my expertise and what I like to do, plus the current pressing questions in my field of research, what should I be researching for three years. After some discussion with my current supervisors we set some overall framework to the proposal and then I invited colleagues to several brainstorm sessions to discuss the outline of the proposal and what could be done given that time frame. During these sessions I tried to get out from all these gathered brain what would be the main questions and how would I actually be addressing those. Now research proposal these days are usually articulated into individual but complementary work packages. For these type of proposal people were usually aiming at three workpackages so this is what we did. At the end the three workpackages were roughly the following: 1) meta-analysis, 2) field work, 3) modelling work.

Step 2: Writing and more meeting

After all these early meeting I spent quite a bit of time in October and November writing the main part of the research proposal which is the research outline. The FWO ask for a 10 pages long document separated in the following parts: summary of the state-of-the-art, research objectives, research methodology, workplan and references. I was helped during this time by talking about this project with other researchers which always provided helpful pointers. I also had the chance to spend a few days in the foothills of the Pyrénées at the lab of potential collaborators on the project. Nothing is better for heavy thinking and writing than the mountain air! Another thing that helped me a lot during these writing time was that some colleagues who previously applied to this program gave me their proposal. I could then study their story flow and how they articulated the different elements. At the end of November the research outline was more or less finished and I was sending to some colleagues for friendly reviews. I still had to write some other important elements of the proposal: a motivation letter (why I apply for the FWO, and why would this mandate be so great for me) plus a project positioning explaining how the research I propose would benefit from the scientific environment I’ll be in. There again having the proposal from colleagues helped a lot to pick the right buzzwords.

Step 3: Submission and waiting

On the 3rd of December 2018 I submitted the result of 2-3 months of thinking work, and it marked the end of a new type of exercise for me. I hesitated some seconds at that “Are you sure that you want to submit?” button … Then the waiting time started, the response would only be coming in April so more than four months away, and this proposal and the whole process gradually faded in the background replaced by more mundane scientific activities.

Step 4: Decision communicated and deception

On the 8th of April I received a very brief email informing me that my project was not selected to go to the second step of the selection procedure. I was pretty disappointed by this news, I thought that even if I don’t have 3 Nature paper I still have a decent CV and that the proposal that I put together was pretty original and needed, so I thought that I would make it at least to the second round. The biggest issue then was that I had no idea what made my proposal not good enough in the eyes of the panel. So I had to wait again until today where I finally received the feedback form from the panel. It consisted of two paragraphs of around 250 words stating that the project was original but that I did not publish enough papers as first author in “absolute top” journals in the last years. Therefore I got relatively average grades which were not good enough to make it through this first round of selection. This is pretty ironic because one month after submitting the proposal I got a first author paper accepted in a pretty high journal, I can only imagine how my chances and how my career would have been if I had gotten that paper accepted just one month earlier …

Conclusion and recommendation

What I take from this experience is that for the FWO the impact factor of the journal where you publish seems to be the criteria number one in determining the potential of the candidate. Therefore if you want to have solid chance to get this grant get at least 2-3 papers in high ranking journal during your PhD or in the first two years after defending. Then developing the project is a pretty challenging but fun thing to do, there are multiple constraints to think about and project feasibility is something meticulously scrutinized by the reviewers but still I liked putting ideas together and trying to make something new emerge from my reading and from talking to some very intelligent colleagues. Make sure to ask colleagues who applied to similar grants to give you their proposal it is the best source of inspiration. Proposals are pretty sensitive material so best to physically approach them and outline your situation. My experience was that they were usually pretty happy to hand me their text.

So in the end it was a very positive experience, I don’t think that I will ever apply to these position again, my career wheel is now turning towards other type of research (more on that later) so it is a bit a shame that journal impact factor seemed to have played such an heavy role in the reviewers decision.

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