This is a very important topic indeed and one that worries and baffles lots of candidates who get invited to them. We have been asked over the years to provide training expressly for this aspect of the ERC process and are currently in discussion with some colleagues about how this might best be done – probably we’ll run this training in Brussels and hopefully it will be organised in the near future, so watch this space! and let us know if this training is something you might be interested in.
In the meantime and as I often get asked about this topic I’ll put down some general impressions that I have gained over the years from speaking to the most important people in the whole process – the ‘victims’ i.e., the researchers who have undergone the interviews. I have spoken to many researchers who have received the money and many who were not successful and their experiences vary very widely as I’ll try to indicate below.
Firstly, however, I’ll just touch on an interesting type of experiment that I have been involved with a few times over the years in one or two places and which I think serves as an excellent illustration of how candidates can be prepared quite effectively for this aspect of the process. I am speaking about fully and formally staged mock interviews. The best case I was involved in was in a large regional administration who were very determined to win as many ERC proposals as possible – and were, and still are very successful in doing so – and so it was pretty well resourced. The event followed the ERC rules precisely with invited experts from the ERC, with previous winners, some senior academics from the general scientific domains being dealt with on that day and then me to make sure there was a constant flow of questions should we suffer any radio silence problems and to look at presentational issues and logical flow, communication etc. The correct times were kept according to the panel guidelines and there was strict timetable of appointments with a waiting room for candidates and an air of gravity about the whole thing which, if the nervousness of the candidates in the first moments of their presentations was anything to go by, was certainly picked up by the participants.
I think this is a good model for other organisations who are promoting clusters of ERC candidates for a number of reasons. Lots of academics still exist in quite cloistered worlds – although fewer and fewer manage to hide away in their corners – and are not used to having to present against tight time deadlines in what is, after all, a competition for cash. You can see immediately the individuals who have had experience in more entrepreneurial academic cultures as they have often received first class training in making presentations and clarifying ideas while many other candidates have not got much beyond staring at their shoes and talking intensely about over complicated slides with bits flying in from the left and right.
Here at least is a chance to introduce some very simple behaviours about making sweeping eye contact, ‘active listening’ and replaying questions before attempting to answer them and doing so in a respectful way – it is surprising how many arguments can start between academics even in these one sided encounters when the presenter takes a stand and won’t budge and the expert audience doesn’t see the world in the same way. As the panel are holding all the cards and all the cash it is mostly wise to act more like the supplicant before the bishop than to alienate any members of the audience. It is also worth keeping in mind that the ERC are hoping to buy scientists who look good in public and with ideas that are similarly attractive – take a look at a recent ERC project about making ERC projects interesting to a wide audience at www.ercomics.com. The BBC, for example, is awash with agreeable and attractive professors, lively and interesting and brainy all at the same time (they seem to think…) it is a good sell to a certain vision of a modern audience for publicly funded research work, a certain philosophy of knowledge. It is difficult to change your personality, but as with any other job interview it might be necessary to adjust it to context for a short period.
With input from a wide range of perspectives, including from ERC officers and very realistically put together this was a fascinating way of preparing people for the real thing. And it was well received. Feedback was very positive indeed and the process worthwhile and worth repeating for other organisations wondering how to get people ready for this ordeal.
But what about the experiences of candidates who have been to Brussels and undergone the real live interviews? what do they report back about it? Well, it varies to a rather extraordinary degree and so the candidate, it seems, had better be ready for pretty much anything.
At one extreme, people found it a positive experience whether or not they won funding. Typically for these candidates some of the panel seemed prepared and had questions that related to core issues in the proposal while other less expert members probed from relevant but different perspectives. It all seemed well organised and well chaired and the candidate was given a good chance to shine with tough but focused questioning with space enough to answer.
In the middle there was a sense of it not being very well done, again regardless of winning or not. Some members seemed distracted and not really paying attention. Questions seemed to be too few and far between and not really aimed at bringing out the best or probing deeply – there was a sense of not really having read carefully or of caring in particular about this piece of work. I guess in this sense this experience is like any other job interview and while you can control the presentation and how you respond to this stressful situation there are many things which are out of your control. In these, probably typical, situations it is down to the candidate to add some energy to the proceedings, to get people sitting up and taking notice and to try to take control of the situation. Here crystal clear ideas and objectives and a easy to digest presentation and personality can make a big difference.
At the other extreme some candidates – and not only a few – found it a very difficult experience indeed, again regardless of the result. In the same way that I have heard fairly frequently after the written comments for evaluators have been received that ‘it appeared that they had read another person’s proposal’ so some have found that the interview didn’t seem well focused on their particular project and the core issues of the science and research. I won’t go into the detail of the strange and wonderful stories that I have accumulated over the years as some really pretty jaw dropping and I am sure not all would be believed – but of course, should we ever meet I’d be happy to spill the beans.
What I conclude from all the information I have gathered from all the people that I have spoken to about the interviews is that you really do need to be prepared for a very tough session and be pleased and relieved if it isn’t. It is possible that you will be grilled pretty hard on the detail of the text and so you need to be absolutely 100% on top of the material and all the latest things in the field that might have emerged since the proposal was made. It is also possible that you’ll be grilled even harder on something that you hadn’t anticipated or prepared for well.
Some of these things are in fact possible to anticipate – one very strong tendency is for interdisciplinary proposers to be questioned very hard on their ‘weaker’ field i.e., the one that they are drawing on or merging with but which isn’t where they are from. I have heard some real horror stories here and so it is clearly necessary to be as much a master of all that you say when you take the bold step of giving them work across frontiers (which I needn’t point out is a slight paradox as this is the kind of work that they are trying to promote) and to make sure that you are in as strong a position as it is possible to be.
It is probably necessary to do a fairly thorough ‘autocritique’ and to stand outside of your proposal and presentation and try to hack into it quite aggressively to find the weak points and get trusted colleagues to do the same in a very frank way to try to build some robust defences to all possible attacks. Technology companies have all their employees try to hack their systems monthly in some cases to anticipate routes in and this kind of ruthless openness about weakness that you hope no one will see is a good way of preparing for tough questioning.
But, in the end, however straightforward your presentation might be, however urgent the issues and forceful yet flexible you are trying to be you might just run up against some gap in knowledge that you had not seen or simply someone who doesn’t like the ‘cut of your jib’ – the inter-personal dynamics between you and them and also often between the members of the panel themselves are simply unknowable and beyond your control.
Should things go wrong there is nothing to do but chalk it down to experience and come back fighting again as soon as possible – too often I have seen academics suffer quite a serious ‘narcissistic wound’ as a result of this process and there are some delicate blooms about. Well, don’t allow it to get under your skin in anyway – control all the elements that you can, commit completely to doing a winning job and if something comes out of the blue and throws a spanner in the works it is just a setback on the route to getting better luck next time around. As ERC officials have told me, while it is easy to sift out the bad ones pretty quickly they are much less sure that they can choose with confidence between the very good ones and don’t really know and can’t really measure if their selections between all the excellent candidates interviewed are accurate i.e., at the margins there is a finger in the air element to it and I’d take heart from having been in the competitive group and from knowing how to get back in there again, that is the really important stuff to know, for the ERC and all funding programmes.