How to get a postdoc mobility fellowship
I am currently the recipient of a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Global Fellowship working on deep-sea adaptation in brittle stars (ecological & evolutionary genomics) at Museums Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Many friends asked for my help and advice to prepare their proposal for the last Marie Curie call (September 2019), so I thought about sharing my experience here. I’d like to emphasize that this blog is about my own experience only (N=1; European centered; ecology & evolution), and the system may work differently in other research fields, countries or funding institutions.
That being said, I hope that this blog can be useful for the greatest number, so happy reading!
0) I’m so happy here, so why bother moving abroad?
Some people are keen and excited to plan a move abroad after a PhD or a postdoc, but for the ones who hesitate to go in the unknown here are a few motivation tips, especially if you’d like to stay in academia. Having worked in France, Switzerland and Australia, a common feature expected from early career researchers is to show geographic mobility. It seems to be really important to get future grants or positions. There is a reason why there are so many mobility fellowships.
In addition to just “ticking the mobility box” in your cv, having a work experience abroad is excellent to develop your adaptation skills to work with different people, in different institutions (e.g. universities, research institutes, marine stations, museums, etc.), learn the system in different countries (there are so many ways to do the same thing!), and also discover a new culture with (usually) a new language. It can be logistically (the moving, the paperwork) and personally (my partner and I lived in different countries for 6 years) challenging, but it is a great experience that I highly recommend to anyone for personal development.
1) Plan ahead
Yep, you probably heard that one before, but it is definitely true.
I would say that ideally, you should start thinking about a project between a year and a year and a half before your ideal start date. Why does it take so long? Well, see the detailed points below, but between developing the project idea, finding the host lab (these two points can be quick, but can also take a long time), writing the project, submitting it to different funding institutions that have usually one call per year (be mindful of submission dates!), with around six months waiting time until you get a decision; if everything works well, a few more months to get the grant agreement signed and then moving, well, you see how this whole process can easily take more than a year.
2) Have a great idea
That’s the starting point of any research project, right? Some people are very creative and have (good and less good) ideas flowing all the time, others need a little bit more time to develop their own research direction. Personally, I didn’t feel scientifically mature enough towards the end of my PhD (according to point 1, that should have been a year before finishing, so two years in my PhD; no, definitely too early) to write my own project. So around six months before finishing my PhD, I contacted Walter Salzburger, whom I didn’t know personally at that time but only through his really cool research. It was great timing, because he just had a big project funded, and so he hired me as postdoctoral researcher shortly after my PhD to work on local adaptation and speciation in cichlid fishes.
During my first postdoc, I had the opportunity to develop some scientific maturity (e.g. what kind of research questions am I interested in? What kind of model system would I like to work on? What kind of approaches are appropriate to best answer the research questions?), and so I started thinking about my next project around a year before my contract ended. This approach has advantages and disadvantages; the positive points are that it gives you more time to develop your own research direction and publish your PhD papers; also, working on a project that is already funded allows you to start working quickly, get some research experience in a different lab and (usually) not care about the money, just the research. The negative point is that most mobility fellowships are for early career researchers (usually maximum 3 years after your PhD defense, sometimes 2 or 5), so it’s good to take some time to think, but not too much. For example, I was academically too old for the EMBO fellowship (although I was 29 years old at that time). The good thing of the Marie Curie fellowships is that they do not have any academic or biological age limits, but this of course increases the competition.
So if you already have a project idea at the end of your PhD and a few papers published, go for it!
3) Find a host lab
So you have kind of an idea of what your next project should be. Now you have to choose where and with who you would like to do it. It can be straightforward (e.g. you met this really cool researcher at a past conference) or it can take some time (e.g. your professional network is small, or you are changing topics so all the labs you know are not a good fit). Obviously, you should pick someone whose research interests are close to yours (in many if not all mobility fellowship proposals, you’ll have to justify the choice of the host lab).
Start with papers you really liked. Going for a big name in a big lab has its advantages (might be a plus for the application – possible Matthew effect? – although I’m not sure about that; potential for collaborations; extended network; extra funding), but it can also mean that you will have to work more independently, with less supervision, potentially running into space issues.
But research is not the only important thing here, personality & lab atmosphere matter too. If you know some current or past PhD students or postdocs of your prospective PIs, I think it is a good idea to contact them and ask how it is to work with that person. Of course some people are work compatible and others are not, but if you ask enough people I think you can get an idea of someone’s work personality. Also, there is no better way than seeing for yourself. Do you have 2-3 people in mind? Feel free to contact them, see if they are interested (yep, it’s not all about you), available (e.g. do they reply quickly? Do they agree to a skype meeting?), and after a few rounds of emails/discussions, things will certainly be clearer.
Finally, let’s be human, it’s not all about work. It is important to consider the country and the city when choosing a host lab. Quality of life, safety, outside work activities (sports, culture, nature, FOOD) and opportunities for your partner/family (if any) should be important factors in your decision too. I was lucky to have a partner who was working in an international company with many offices worldwide so he could be transferred to the office in Melbourne, but it doesn’t always work that easily.
Personally, I had my research questions quite quickly (speciation, local adaptation, molecular evolution), but was not so sure about the study system (and this will for sure influence your host lab’s choice). I knew I did not want to keep working on cichlid fishes; although they are great models in speciation research and I learnt a lot during my first postdoc, I felt like they were already enough research groups working on them and I wanted to develop a completely new system. Also, I wanted to go back to a marine system (I have a Master and a PhD in oceanography & marine biology).
I first thought about foraminifera (single-celled eukaryotes) which were the topic of my Master project.They are mostly marine and successfully adapted to numerous ecological transitions (temperature; shallow-deep; benthic-planktonic; marine-freshwater), so I thought they could be a good model system for local adaptation and speciation.
I contacted my former Master advisor, Jan Pawlowski, and a researcher I met on a deep-sea research cruise, Andy Gooday, who is also a foraminifera specialist. I told them about my idea of working on foram genomics, to study adaptation to the deep sea (I like this environment as so much remains to be discovered!).
They were both very supportive, sharing their extensive research experience and telling me about different labs and PIs they knew, but funnily enough, Jan kind of discouraged me about working on forams for that specific topic. Yes it would be completely new, but maybe a bit too new. Due to their small size, it is really difficult to get enough DNA for single cell genome sequencing. They have sexual and asexual reproduction (so sample size for population genomics can be tricky to estimate), and likely have large and complex genomes. The only genome sequenced at that time was a nightmare to assemble (e.g. lots of repeats, contaminations, several nuclei in the same individual, etc.).
As a young Master student, Jan gave me my first very useful piece of advice for academic research: “If you don’t publish it it’s like you’ve never done it”. Harsh but true. Even today, I always keep that in mind. As a young postdoctoral researcher, he gave me another great piece of advice: “Think about feasibility”. You can have the best idea in the world on paper; try to picture yourself doing it. Do I have to do fieldwork or are the samples already available? Do I know where to find my species? What happens if it is not there? Do I have a back-up plan if my experiment doesn’t work? Do I have experience in lab work & data analysis? If not, is there enough time in the fellowship for me to learn that?
With that in mind, I thought about another study system, brittle stars (echinoderms), which were the topic of my PhD. They colonized every marine system (all latitudes & all depths) and are very abundant in the deep sea, which is rare for large animals and required for population genomics, so they are also a great fit to study adaptation to the deep-sea.
Jan mentioned Tim O’Hara, a big name in brittle star phylogenomics, that he knew from previous research cruises. I didn’t know him personally nor any of his students, but I read many of his papers. I contacted Tim, talked about my project idea, and he was very enthusiastic. He took the time to reply to my numerous emails, have skype meetings, read initial proposals, all that a few weeks before going on a deep-sea research cruise that he was organizing for the last two years (!). That is the kind of person you would like to work with. And just like that, I found my host lab (the fact that Melbourne was ranked “most livable city in the world” at that time also helped).
The Marie Curie Global Fellowship is a bit special in the sense that you will have to provide two host labs; one for the outgoing phase (outside Europe, maximum 24 months) and one for the return phase (in Europe or associated countries, 12 months). So I had to find a lab in Europe for the return phase. I met Sophie Arnaud-Haond at several conferences and although I never worked with her, I was following closely her research on deep-sea connectivity, so she seemed like a great fit. After a few rounds of emails, I had my host lab for the return phase.
4) Find where the money is
I’m speaking from a European-centered point of view (so again, things might be different in other parts of the world), but there are many mobility fellowships available for early career researchers (see the links here; be mindful of the eligibility criteria and submission deadlines!). In addition to these well-known fellowships (e.g. MSCA program), it is also worth asking around (friends, colleagues, advisors, etc.) and surfing the internet to find country-specific funding once you decided where you would like to go, or, depending on where you are based, some countries have their own outgoing mobility fellowship (e.g. SNSF postdoc mobility from Switzerland). For example, I didn’t know about the Australian Endeavour Program until my friend Fabio Cortesi told me about it. In the end, I got the 6 months Endeavour postdoctoral fellowship in addition to the Marie Curie!
5) Write the proposal
Now you have a project idea, a host lab, a funding scheme with a deadline (that’s always good for productivity), it’s time to sit and open the computer. The project will certainly be a bit vague at first, or too broad; don’t hesitate to talk about it with colleagues, advisors, mentors. The project will also become clearer and more specific with the help of your host PI.
Check the structure of the research proposal required for each specific call (e.g. sections; number of pages; specific requirements). Try to find out how the proposals are assessed, based on which criteria, and how they are ranked. Some calls like the MSCA are very clear and transparent about it, others are a bit vaguer. Contact previous fellowship recipients if you know any and ask them if they agree to share their research proposal so you can find out how a successful proposal looks like. I am really thankful to Fabio Cortesi and Franck Lejzerowicz who agreed to share their SNSF proposal with me.
Do a proper literature review and just start writing. It will be bad at first but it’s normal, just like writing a paper, it needs some rounds of revision (first by yourself, then by other people). Maybe start with research questions & methods and your host PI, past advisors, mentors or friends can help you refine that (specifically about feasibility). Or if they are all busy people (which is usually the case), go for a full draft and then have it read by many people. Give them enough time to give you feedback (do not send the proposal a week before the submission deadline!). I was lucky to have very useful feedback on my proposals from Walter Salzburger, Tim O’Hara and Sophie Arnaud-Haond.
I wrote several proposals which were mainly focused on the planned research and past achievements, but the Marie Curie proposal was a little bit different. These proposals are assessed according to three parts with different weights: Excellence (50%), impact (30%) and implementation (20%), so each part has its own importance. If you have to write a 10 pages proposal, do not use 8 pages on the research and one page each for impact & implementation sections, although it is tempting to do it. These two last parts are also very important, so you should rather use around 5 pages for excellence, 3 pages for impact and 2 pages for implementation.
6) Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
So you wrote the best proposal you could write for a specific funding scheme, you’re pretty confident about it and the success rate is about 40% (really high!). Why bother going with the pain of editing the proposal for another funding scheme, that has only a success rate of 5-10%? Well, this still means that there are 60% of failure in the first case.
Also, you never know. If you didn’t know that already, there is a part of randomness in the evaluation process. Sure, you can be a “star”, so successful that ALL the proposals you submitted were funded (yes, I know someone like that, but there are not that many researchers who can claim that). On the other hand, maybe you started too late and your proposal is incomplete, too long, not developed enough, in that case it won’t be funded for sure. But maybe, just like me, you are in between, with a good idea, a good host lab, a good project overall, but is it good enough?
In 2017 and early 2018 I submitted various versions of the same proposal to five different funding schemes: the Australian Endeavour Fellowship (June 2017; no data about success rate), the SNSF advanced postdoc mobility fellowship (August 2017; 45% success rate!), the HFSP fellowship (August 2017; ~10% success rate), the MSCA IF-GF fellowship (September 2017; ~10% success rate) and the Branco Weiss fellowship (January 2018; ~2% success rate). I was too old for the EMBO fellowship, and I didn’t know about the FEBS fellowship at that time. Honestly, I was pretty confident I would get the SNSF one. I was happy about the proposal & the project, and the high success rate made me over-confident.
I first got an answer from the Australian Endeavour program in November 2017 – that one was a short postdoc fellowship, only 6 months, but it could be a great complement to another one – they decided to fund my project! I was so happy, already thinking about combining it with the SNSF one (you can’t have two fellowships at the same time, but one after the other is fine in that case). So when I got the reply from the SNSF mid-December 2017, telling me that I didn’t get it, it was hard. We are supposed to be resilient to failure in academia, but it really hurts when you don’t expect it.
The SNSF has a really good and transparent evaluation process, so at that time I had access to the detailed reviews of my proposal, which were actually fair and square (in the meantime, I learnt that they do not provide reviews for postdoc mobility fellowships anymore, that’s a shame). Three reviewers: two were highly positive with minor technical suggestions, the last one was overall happy about the idea but strongly doubted the feasibility (in terms of goals vs. duration of the fellowship, as well as funding issues), and that was it. Not good enough.
The SNSF is one of these rare funding schemes that has two submission deadlines per year for that specific call, so I was just eligible (with a slight extension of two weeks that I could justify) to re-submit for the next round of applications on the 1st of February 2018. I spent Christmas time and January 2018 to revise the SNSF proposal, prepared the Branco Weiss proposal and I was also a teaching assistant in a genomics workshop end of January – early February, so let’s say it was a busy start of the year.
On the 31st of January, I was polishing the SNSF proposal in between two exercise sessions at the genomics workshop (the submission deadline was the day after), when I got a really cryptic email from the European Commission. So a decision had been made about the Marie Curie proposal. After digging for a hidden document in the participant portal, and confirmation from Walter that is used to these emails, I realized I got the Marie Curie fellowship!
In the end, I did not resubmit the SNSF proposal (The Marie Curie fellowship was better – longer with more research money), and I didn’t get the HFSP nor the Branco Weiss fellowships. It didn’t really matter because I had the Marie Curie fellowship already, and no feedback was provided for these two funding schemes.
So yes, it is a happy ending after all, but it also means that there is some randomness and a little bit of luck in the evaluation process. It depends a lot on the reviewers, and they may more or less like your proposal. Also, while success rates are a useful global statistic, they don’t mean much at the individual level, so just try everything you’re eligible to!
In case you obtain several fellowships (well done!) that you cannot combine, choose the best one according to your criteria, but it is always good to look at the duration of the fellowship and the amounts (salary; research money). You can put both fellowships in the “grants” section of your CV, with a mention “declined” for the one you decided not to take; it shows your ability to secure funding.
7) Don’t give up if you fail!
If, despite all your efforts, it doesn’t work, don’t be discouraged.
Actually, failure is the norm rather than the exception in academic funding, so you better get used to it because this doesn’t improve as your career progresses, it gets actually worse. Do not give up and try again! Ask for feedback on your application (if available; the reviewers’ comments are very useful), identify the weaknesses & flaws in your proposal and ask more poeple to read your proposal. Maybe it was a bit too early in your career, so focus on publishing papers too.
Eventually, perseverance pays off!
This may seem like a daunting task that is not always rewarded (it actually is), but I highly recommend trying it. Despite the many flaws of academia, there are not so many jobs where you can decide what to do for the next 2-3 years, choose your work colleagues and your place of work, if you’re good enough to justify it.
I hope this helps, happy Halloween and GOOD LUCK!
Posted on the 31.10.2019