We interviewed Prof. Hakan Ürey from Koç University’s Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, who is a recipient of ERC 2013 Advanced Grant and ERC 2015 Proof of Concept Grant, and also an ERC Starting Grant Panel member in 2014. Ürey is also the Director of Optical Microsystems Laboratory.
I received an e-mail invitation from ERC for Starting Panel 2014. Panel chair and ERC officer work together to form the panel about 1 year before the panels. After two years a panelist can be invited to serve again.
To become a panel member, you can contact the panel chair and express an interest to join the panel. Panel chair is typically the same every two years, their names are available online. Try to get your name in the ERC database (submit a proposal, act as a reviewer). For step 2 evaluations, we select 8-10 external experts per proposal. I got several scientists whom I know into the system by nominating them as external reviewers. It could be a good step to act as external reviewer to get a feel for the work.
It is really a lot of work and huge time commitment. I remotely evaluated 37 of the 137 submissions in our panel for Step 1 (5 page short proposal and 5 page CV); then we got together in Brussels for 3 days for panel discussions, ranking of proposals, and assignment of lead reviewers and the selection of external reviewers. Every proposal is evaluated by at least 3 to 4 panel members (no external reviewers in Step 1). Help from other panels is solicited for some of the interdisciplinary proposals. Then I evaluated 12 Step 2 proposals (15 page long proposal), I was the lead reviewer in 3 of them. Later we got together in Brussels for the interviews of total of 36 candidates in our panel, followed by panel discussions and the final ranking. In the end 12 or 13 proposals were funded.
Let me give some tips for the interviews. Interviews are stressful for the candidates, there is time pressure, room is small and crowded (12 panelists, 2 officers) and in the end only 3-4 people seem to be paying attention, which is disappointing and distracting for the uninformed candidates. Each panel format is slightly different but in our panel, the chair is the person who first greeted the candidates, after their presentation (7mins), first questions came from the lead reviewer (10 mins), who also reads all the external reviews carefully and reflect their questions as well. Subsequently, other 2-3 panel members who actually read your proposal will ask additional questions (3-5 mins each). Panel discussions for ranking of proposals are sometimes quite draining and lengthy. In any panel, a proposal would need at least 2-3 strong supporters to pass. Sometimes a simple remark by a candidate tips the balance in the panel discussions, therefore, candidates must rehearse several times before the interview to make sure they get their message right.
Proposals provide a condensed overview of a broad range of areas and they are all very well written. I learned a lot from the proposals and got a very good sense about the challenges and the future research directions in a wide range of areas.
According to your experience, what is an “excellent ERC proposal”? What would you recommend to ERC candidates in general, and to engineering scholars in particular?
Excellent proposal should not be incremental; it needs to address challenging problems. Panel members are generalists and read many proposals and do not fully understand all of them in Step 1, it is PIs responsibility to make it understandable for the generalist (e.g., another faculty member in their department). In Step 2 though, both short and long proposals become available to panel members and external reviewers. In particular, the external reviewers are the top experts and specialists in the field of the proposal. I think PIs should write short and long proposals by keeping both the generalists and the specialists in mind.
For starting grants, most of the European applicants are postdocs and do not have their own groups and have limited independent research experience. Applicants from Turkey typically have permanent faculty position, independent researcher experience (grants as PI, senior author papers with own students, own group), which are all positive and need to be emphasized in the CV. How CV is presented is also very important, PIs should focus on their strengths, fill the 5 pages but refrain from mentioning unimportant details. Some PIs explain their contributions and the impact of a few their publications and how it is relevant to the proposal, I enjoyed reading them. I believe there are many more qualified candidates in Turkey who could receive an ERC grant; they need to try it, if it fails, revise and resubmit. Do not forget, many people receive in the 2nd or 3rd try.
To check the evaluation method and scoring form for the Advanced Grant (starting and consolidator forms are very similar), click here.