What about the cv?

Taking a short time out from looking at the ideas that are set out in the pages of the brochure where I have captured many of the ideas emerging from the review of around 400 ERC proposals I’ll pause to deal with a question that I am asked in meetings over and over again and to which I rarely have a very satisfactory answer. The question is ‘what about the cv, what can I do about that?’, or ‘what about my cv, is it good enough?’ My answer is always more or less the same and is simply to say that there are some fairly clear rules about eligibility for each category of ERC grant and inside each of those there are some guidelines about what makes for an eligible candidate and what information they want and how that should be presented. This information is very clear in all the literature that supports the calls.

There are only a few things that can be done to make this part of the work stronger or more persuasive – the facts are the facts and altering the direction of a research career is like changing the direction of an oil tanker in that it takes some time to plan and execute. So, as with the rest of the proposal the first thing is to follow the letter of the rules, in particular regarding any information they request about independent publications. It is well known, of course, that in certain countries and certain institutions it is very difficult for even fairly well established researchers to build up a track record of research with themselves as lead author as senior staff will insist on attaching their name to it. This can mean that although they have done all the hard work in breaking new ground in a field with lots of outstanding work some researchers can’t show an independent track record. I have known of some researchers who in the end have to decide to move institutions, even countries, to get this freedom to act and publish under their own name and I don’t know of any other way around this problem in the short term. I hope that the ERC is aware that great swathes of EU researchers work in a culture which is very hierarchical and won’t allow them to demonstrate the real level of independent thinking that they have attained and that this is taken into account when cvs are being read although I have no idea how this would be done reliably or if it is considered to be an issue in the evaluation or influences the results in any way. However, as far as possible demonstrate independence by listing publications in the way they ask.

Of course, a cv that is not credible in the field or sub-field you are making the proposal in means that the proposal is probably not worth submitting and hoping for the best – my experience is that no one gets lucky in that way. This is particularly the case when working across disciplinary frontiers, which they, in theory, want people to do. I have read numerous review comments which assert that the researcher does not have the track record required in one of the fields they are attempting to work between, often, in fact, they have no track record there just a strong interest and a plan to employ someone to do the work in the domain in which they are not expert – this doesn’t seem to work. It would probably be better to take a longer view and build some verifiable record of achievements of some kind in the weaker discipline. All kinds of risks are associated with this, not least that someone will have done the work by the time the researcher has built up enough momentum to tackle it, but I think the choice really is to wait and build or re-scope the project and play to existing strengths by tacking critical and apparently intractable issues on home territory – this, in my experience of re-focusing work in dialogue with researchers is almost always possible to do and often makes a more compelling proposal than a more ambitious piece of work across frontiers.

It is also possible to add some text to the cv which deals directly with the issue of why the researcher is the right person for the job at this moment in time. In the early years of the programmes, if I remember correctly, there was a heading in the description of the researcher section which has now been removed which asked for some text on proof of early achievements and capacity to work beyond state-of-the-art. I’d consider adding some text to the cv which covers this ground and I’d base this on the evaluation criteria currently being used so that you are directly addressing the questions about the researcher they are going to be thinking about but which might not be covered explicitly elsewhere. When they are asked to assess the researcher, the evaluators are looking at the general criteria which are set out in the Guide to Applicants for all to read. They assess: ability to propose and conduct ground-breaking work; evidence of creative and independent thinking; achievements beyond state-of-the-art and willingness to commit time. I would simply break out each point under a sub-heading and write about how you fit the bill, exceed their requirements in fact! for each of these dimensions. And beyond that there is not very much that can be done to make the cv more attractive in the short term.

When I am asked about cvs mostly what researchers are trying to find out, whether they ask this directly or not, is the relative weight of the cv over the idea and the research – is it the person or the work that wins. Far too many seem convinced that it is the person alone that will win it. The reasons they think this are varied but it is often some kind of slightly odd self protection mechanism (I mentioned above that proposal writing can often be quite a tense psychodrama) or a variety of unhelpful fatalism which can be used to soften the blow if things don’t go according to plan – and which like all such negative prospective imaginings tend to be self fulfilling prophecies, at least in part. There seems to be myth and legend circulating (there are many about the ERC) to do with the fact that only certain people can win and that certain people (of course, never well specified, like most phantoms) will win whatever they write. This is comforting to some extent as it removes the question of the quality and appropriateness of the ideas from the equation and shields the work and the researcher from failure to some extent – and some researchers do take it very personally indeed and so this story telling is perfectly understandable.

My own story about this aspect of the programme is not quite the same. I’ve seen a couple of things that make me think slightly differently and a bit more optimistically about the chances of any eligible candidate winning. I remember, for example, seeing some very, very senior people in early rounds submitting what were effectively outlines of work attached to their very weighty cvs and reputations and losing and being suprised by that. This was either a warning shot across the bows from the ERC to the science community about the seriousness of their intent or a sign of a fair system working well. Either way, it was something that impressed me very much and I still think this evaluation system works outstandingly well. I also saw researchers who thought they had little chance because their cv was not as good as they would have liked develop really sharp and fresh proposals and win from what they saw as the margins. These examples and others have convinced by that it is possible to win with an excellent idea and a just eligible cv (mostly this refers to starting and consolidators) but far less easy to win with a poorly thought out idea riding on the back of a big reputation. Once the flag goes down it really does seem possible to win the Grand Prix from the back of the grid if you work hard enough at it – and even easier if the favourites makes some basic errors. From which I take that the idea is really the thing – which is lucky as it is the part of the package that can be controlled and optimised. Of course, there is some noise and play in this system as in any other but that as a general tendency it is the hard bit – the responsibility to commit to and develop leading edge science and to accept the risk of it not being liked – that wins or loses. So, in conclusion, I’d recommend that eligible candidates write a clear cv following the guidelines, perhaps wrtie a targeted paragraph using the evaluation criteria to create a convincing case as to why you are the person for this job and then worry about getting the ideas in perfect shape with objectives that they can’t resist buying.