Perspective: Learning from Others’ Mistakes

Should you want to witness a heartbreaking human drama or learn about other people’s failures and successes in real time, there’s no need to watch reality TV. Instead, visit one of the online forums frequented by some of the world’s most prestigious research-fellowship applicants. As they wait for their potentially life-changing decision letters, thousands of applicants scour these forums for support and early signs of their fate.

“Previous applicants, successful and unsuccessful, offer advice and feedback and share reviewers’ comments.”—Evgeny A. Podolskiy

One such online forum is a hub initiated by rider_tiger, a self-described university associate professor. I spent a lot of time lurking on this hub after applying for one of the Marie Curie fellowships last summer.

European Commission programs such as the Marie Curie fellowships use a selection system in which only proposals that score above a predetermined threshold are considered for funding. A fraction of those applications go on to be ranked on one of two lists, the priority list (the winners—the so-called “A” group) and the reserve list (the “B” group).

For a period of months, applicants have some information but not enough. First, they learn that others have received their scores and become anxious to receive their own. Then, they receive their own scores and learn whether they are still in the competition. For those above the threshold, a month or so passes before they learn whether they have been placed on the priority list, the reserve list, or neither.

Throughout this time, forum-dwelling applicants try and figure out how they measure up by comparing their scores with the self-reported scores of other applicants or with previous years’ cutoff scores. Those on the reserve list must then wait longer still to see if enough people withdraw from the competition to bump them up into the winners’ circle.

Only a few scientists head to the bar to celebrate. Today, the acceptance rate for Marie Curie fellowships is less than 20%. Most applicants experience only frustration, such as the one who wrote, “game over. … What else can I apply for” and “I am getting tired of academia.”

There is much at stake for all of the applicants. Winning a fellowship such as this can make your career and change your life profoundly. But there is even more at stake for people like me—non-E.U. researchers with residency permits tied to temporary employment contracts, often with spouses or children in tow.

I am from Russia. I came to France in 2011 for a 1-year postdoc after earning a Ph.D. in Japan. I prepared my application with the same care and attention as someone who is preparing a parachute before jumping off an airplane. I won my Marie Curie fellowship but if I hadn’t, my wife and I would have been forced to leave the European Union within a month of the announcement. That would be especially difficult for us because we come from different countries—she is from the Republic of Korea—and due to our immigration statuses, we cannot live together in our home countries for more than several weeks. Making things worse, my foreign Ph.D. would need to be validated in a complex and time-consuming process before it would be recognized by the Russian educational system. Nothing I have done abroad would entitle me to unemployment benefits while I waited for that process to conclude.

It’s hardly surprising that, as expectations rise about an imminent announcement, thousands of well-educated men and women find themselves unable to concentrate on their experiments, students, seminars, and unfinished manuscripts. According to posts on the forum, they become, variously, “a bit nervous,” “nervous,” “very nervous,” “really really nervous,” and “as nervous as hell.”

“My boss just came to my office to ask if I wanted to go for lunch,” one forum poster wrote. “I think I better go otherwise I will just sit here and refresh this page every 30 sec. I am too nervous to be hungry, though.”

The forums also provide psychological support, including reassurance that you are not alone in hitting your e-mail refresh button every couple of minutes to see whether your results have come in, and doubting your sanity as you do so. It’s good to learn that you are not alone in working evenings and weekends to prepare new funding proposals in case the ones you have already submitted fail. It’s also good to realize that, like you, other young scientists feel a little bit jealous when they hear from people in other professions—or in permanent positions in science—about their month-long rock climbing trips or weekends spent skiing. But who needs skiing or rock climbing when you can get an adrenaline rush just by thinking about your fellowship application?

It is true that all this sharing of advice and information could cause the overall quality of the proposals to increase every year—that everyone has the same advantage. But I believe that forums offer an opportunity to gain an edge. Taking full advantage of the forums requires hard work to extract the best information and to put it into practice through detailed, thoughtful, and meticulous writing—which not all applicants are ready to do.

I’m reminded of the Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kōkichi, who took about 20 years to figure out how to culture perfect pearls, while two of his contemporaries solved the problem much more quickly during a stay in Australia. They just asked the right people.

Today, it is much easier for us to tap into existing knowledge and experience. We have an enormous amount of collective experience at our fingertips, thanks to the Internet and the readiness of young researchers to support each other. Simply by listening to the advice that is out there, and doing the hard work needed to incorporate that advice into our proposals, we can reduce the probability of falling into the same traps as those before us did.

The official Web page for The“EU FP7 Marie Curie People program IOF IEF IIF tips” hub Marie Curie fellowintroducing the nuts and bolts of the fellowship application process

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