Writing a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship Proposal

Earlier this year, I promised that I would write a post on the feedback which I received on my Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship proposal. I just completed the piece below and am happy to share my experience with this EU research grant scheme.

In September 2016, I applied for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship (MCIF). If you do not know what an MCIF is, you can find further information here.  I submitted my proposal to the evaluation panel “Social Sciences and Humanities” (SOC). Alas, I did not make it at the first try. Since my proposal received a high score though, 91.40/100, my supervisor and I decided to submit the proposal once more in 2017: with success – the proposal was granted a few months later, with a score of 97/100. I am writing this post, since I learned a lot from the application process and the feedback which I received. And I think that particularly the reviewers’ feedback could also be useful for others who are currently preparing an MCIF application. Also, I hope that this post will inspire those whose project was rejected once and are still in doubt whether it makes sense to revise their proposal. I know how frustrating receiving the rejection letter is and I hope you will consider resubmitting after reading this post. : )

Obviously, many factors were crucial for the success of the proposal: I received excellent feedback and support from many people, especially from my supervisor and the staff at University of Sussex as well as Maastricht University. Apart from this, and many other things, I carefully consulted the template (which you will find in the online proposal submission system) before and while writing the proposal.

Moreover, once I was done with the proposal, I went back to the template and made sure that the terms used in certain sections also returned in my proposal. In doing so, you a) make sure to cover relevant points and b) you make it easier for the reviewers to find what they are required to look for. For example, in the 2017 template you are i.a. asked to cover “Introduction, state-of-the-art, specific objectives and overview of the action; Research methodology and approach: highlight the type of research / innovation activities proposed; Originality and innovative aspects”. Thus, I addressed all these aspects and I moreover used exactly this terminology.

Learning from feedback

Once I received the feedback on my first proposal, I understood even better what the reviewers consider and what I had neglected. The “Evaluation Summary Report” that you will receive after submitting an MCIF proposal is divided into three sections, corresponding with the three main proposal sections (part B1):

  • Criterion 1 – Excellence (possible score 1-5; weight: 50%)
  • Criterion 2 – Impact (possible score 1-5; weight: 30%)
  • Criterion 3 – Implementation (possible score 1-5; weight: 20%)

As you can see under “possible score”, your proposal is scored in each section from 1-5, standing for:

  • 0– The proposal fails to address the criterion or cannot be assessed due to missing or incomplete information.
  • 1– Poor. The criterion is inadequately addressed, or there are serious inherent weaknesses.
  • 2– Fair. The proposal broadly addresses the criterion, but there are significant weaknesses.
  • 3– Good. The proposal addresses the criterion well, but a number of shortcomings are present.
  • 4– Very good. The proposal addresses the criterion very well, but a small number of shortcomings are present.
  • 5– Excellent. The proposal successfully addresses all relevant aspects of the criterion. Any shortcomings are minor. (source)

Based on the score you receive for each section, your total score is calculated (max. 100%). I had particularly ‘lost’ points in the “Excellence” section (4.4/5.0), i.a. because I had not sufficiently stressed the interdisciplinary aspects of my proposal. I scored okay for criterion 2 (4.7/5.0) and 3 (4.8/5.0), but you need to consider that criterion 1 counts for 50%. Besides, the grant scheme is so competitive that you need very high scores for all three sections leading up to your total score.

Below, you can find a short summary of my proposal and an overview of the comments which I received. In my opinion this feedback is useful because it gives you a better idea what the reviewers are looking for. These comments will of course differ from proposal to proposal, although some key points and more general issues will likely return, especially if you submit to the SOC panel. In addition however, you should definitely also consult the latest MCIF “Self-evaluation form”.

Proposal summary

To understand the feedback below, you might also want to know what my project is about. If not, just skip the next paragraph.

The project will advance our understanding of how individuals acquire information technology (IT) expertise in informal learning environments. IT skills, such as coding, are crucial for economic growth in the European Union (EU). But it is estimated that there will be a shortage of 900,000 IT professionals by 2020. Women are underrepresented in IT professions in all EU countries. These issues impede the competitiveness of the European IT sector and prompt questions about its inclusiveness. In order to develop effective, inclusive educational policies and initiatives addressing this IT skills shortage and gender gap, we need answers to pressing questions: Why, where, how, and by whom are IT skills trained? The relevance of informal learning for IT professions has been emphasised in this context. Yet, empirical, particularly observational research on IT learning in informal environments is largely missing. My project will tackle this research gap by conducting a digital ethnography of ‘hackerspaces’ in the United Kingdom.

Feedback: Rejected proposal 2016/17

Criterion 1 – Excellence (score: 4.40/5.0; weight: 50.00%)

Strengths:
– The proposal makes a convincing argument for the research and presents a clear set of research questions and objectives.
– The methodology is appropriate, the digital ethnography approach is innovative and the empirical investigation of informal IT learning is original.
– The proposal identifies in detail the areas of knowledge and skills development that the researcher aims to achieve with the research.
– The supervisor is a leading researcher in the field.
– There is a good fit between the researcher’s pre-existing expertise and the host institution, which is a leading institution in Europe.
– Knowledge transfer to the host is well-articulated; the researcher brings novel pedagogic approaches for which proper transfer approaches are foreseen in the proposal.
– The hosting arrangements are of high quality.
– The attention to gender issues is positive.

Weaknesses:
– Though the state-of-the-art is described well, it is not made sufficiently clear how the work moves beyond it.
– The proposal does not present a strong degree of interdisciplinarity.
– The information provided about the integration of the researcher is not fully detailed

Criterion 2: Impact (score: 4.70/5.0, weight: 30.00%)

Strengths:
– The proposed work has a clear potential to enhance the future career prospects of the researcher.
– The proposal presents evidence of advantages to other researchers at the host institution to be visited during the fellowship.
– The dissemination strategy is solid, with good identification of target groups and a good variety of channels, and the dissemination goals are  highly appropriate. Open access issues are appropriately addressed.
– The communication strategy is valuable including connection to students and teachers, emphasising the social interest of the research.

Weaknesses:
– The proposal fails to address impact on policymakers in sufficient detail.

Criterion 3: Implementation (score: 4.80/5.0; weight: 20.00%)

Strengths:
– The workplan is suitable to the proposed work, with clearly described work packages that cover all aspects of the work. The deliverable are clearly listed, as are milestones.
– Resource allocation is clearly justified and linked to the research objectives.
– The proposal provides realistic detail regarding the management structure and procedures, and financial issues and reporting are well handled.
– The proposal provides clear information regarding progress monitoring.
– Research and methodological risks are addressed realistically, and appropriate contingency measures are proposed.
– The host institution provides an appropriate institutional environment.

Weaknesses:
– The distributed writing phases are well-paced but the timeline is insufficient for journal article publication.

This is the feedback I received with the evaluation for the rejected proposal. For all three sections, the comments on both “Strengths” and “Weaknesses” helped me identify which aspects I should highlight even further, and which points I had to add and correct. Based on this feedback, I revised my proposal and then received the comments below. I add them here too, because the detailed list may again help you understand which points should be covered.

Feedback: Granted proposal 2017/18

Criterion 1: Excellence (score: 4.80/5.0; weight: 50.00%)

Strengths:
– The proposal makes a convincing argument for the relevance and timeliness of the proposed research.
– The proposal adequately presents the state of the art, provides appropriate objectives related to clear research questions, and presents a concise and convincing overview of the action.
– The three-fold research methodology, yielding observational as well as conversational data, using digital ethnography is sound.
– It is an innovative and original proposition to empirically investigate European hacker spaces.
– The intention to pay thorough attention to gender issues is highly commendable.
– The combination of learning through empirical research as well as by participating in group activities at the host institutions is well conceived.
– The training objectives and training elements are clearly listed and relevant to both the project and the researcher’s development.
– There is a good fit between the researcher’s pre-existing expertise and the host institution.
– There is strong evidence that the researcher would add capacity to the host organisation through dissemination of prior knowledge on research and pedagogic practices for which the researcher has certification and expertise.
– The proposal clearly demonstrates that the supervisor, who is a world-leading scholar in the field of this proposal, would closely co-operate to bring this proposal to a successful conclusion.
– The researcher would be well integrated in the team with provisions for planning this integration in detail at the start of the fellowship.
– The hosting institution offers an excellent working environment and would be able to support the proposed qualitative research in computational cultures very well.
– There is a clear indication of the opportunities for connecting the researcher to disciplines and areas of expertise related to the interdisciplinary nature of the project.
– The proposal gives a good overview of the researcher’s relevant past experience.
– There is sufficient justification indicating that the fellowship would enable the researcher consolidate current research interests and contribute in a holistic manner to progression as an independent researcher.
– The researcher’s publication and funding track record is good and would be beneficial to the success of the intended work programme.

[Please note: What struck me here is that interdisciplinarity is not mentioned, although it is part of the template and a lack of interdisciplinary aspects was pointed out in the feedback on my first proposal. I think however that one should be careful not to misinterpret this: just because a point is not mentioned, that does not mean the reviewers did not consider it a plus and in my opintion interdisciplinarity is very important for MCIF proposals.]

Weaknesses:
– The proposal does not sufficiently clarify that the training objectives fully justify the duration of the secondment.
– The proposal lacks detail on the specific international networking opportunities available for the researcher.

Criterion 2: Impact (score: 4.90/5.0, weight: 30.00%)

Strengths:
– The researcher has a clear career plan.
– There is adequate evidence of opportunity for honing research management skills, along with skills in research grant application and other activities commensurate with independent, high-quality research.
– Justification is convincing for the added value in the training and capacity it would provide for the creation of new, innovative knowledge.
– With digital knowledge dissemination and interventional pilot projects, the dissemination of the results of the proposed programme is well conceived.
– The proposed written output of the research is substantial and would include a policy paper as well as a monograph and journal articles.
– The dissemination strategy offers a feasible detailed plan for disseminating the new knowledge in appropriate venues and outputs including by means of new technologies and social media.
– There is appropriate consideration and justification of novel and standard measures to communicate the action which are in keeping with the relevant target audiences.

Criterion 3: Implementation (score: 4.90, weight: 20.00%)

Strengths:
– The work packages are clearly conceived and very well presented, deliverables and milestones are appropriately presented.
– The Gantt chart is included and shows a good spread of the different work packages over the duration of the proposed programme.
– There is due consideration given to the organisation and management structure and progress-monitoring mechanisms
– There is a detailed consideration of the risk factors and appropriate contingency planning indicated.
– The duration and timing of the project is appropriate to the proposed work.
– The duration of the distributed writing phases that appear in WP 5 are well envisaged.
– The foreseen support for the researcher from the management and administration team of the host is encouraging.
– The monitoring presented is adequate and properly based on monthly meetings between the researcher and the supervisor.
– The proposal includes a well-developed risk assessment and contingency plan that includes all of the WPs.
– The proposal indicates that the beneficiary would provide a dynamic and supportive environment where the research and training could be carried out successfully.
– There is a detailed and appropriate consideration of the infrastructure and logistics that would be at the disposal of the project in order for a successful implementation of the action.

Weaknesses:
– The proposal does not sufficiently address the breakdown of spending resources needed for each task

Good luck and thanks…

In conclusion, if you are considering/preparing an MCIF proposal, I hope that this overview of the feedback which I received will support you in writing and revising your proposal. Good luck! I would also like to use this as opportunity to thank the reviewers for their detailed, extensive comments on both of my submissions: I found their feedback immensely useful for understanding which points required attention, needed to be revised and added.

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