We interviewed two Chinese researchers who attended our webinars in the past and have started or will soon start their Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) ostdoctoral Fellowships (PF) in Europe; Dr Lingju Meng (LM) a postdoctoral fellow at Aalto University in Finland and Dr Andong Wang (AW) postdoctoral fellow at Oxford in the UK. Read their personal experiences and tips to prepare a successful application!
The application process
Have you applied many times before being selected for MSCA PF? If so, what were the problematic parts in your previous proposals? What kind of guidance and support have you received? Do you have suggestions for other prospective candidates?
The 2021 MSCA PF call for proposals, when I was selected, was the second time I applied. So, I’m not a rookie :-)
I submitted my first application to the then-called MSCA Individual Fellowships in 2020 under the Horizon 2020 framework. I was close to the control threshold in this first attempt. According to the comments received, I believe the problems in my proposal were mostly in the third section, the one about implementation. I think I didn’t provide enough details on the collaboration work and the key performance indicators, so I lost some points in this section.
During the preparation of both applications, I joined multiple webinars by EURAXESS China, EURAXESS North America, and also by my host institution. Here, I need to thank EURAXESS China once again for providing high-quality webinars: the one organised in collaboration with National Contact Points from France was the best MSCA-related webinar I have attended so far. Some ideas I gained from this webinar have even formed the basis of my current grant writing methodology. Besides all these webinars, of course, I also got guidance and support from the grant office at my host institution, my colleagues and my supervisors.
My suggestions to prospective applicants are: 1. Set yourself goals with proper motivation. 2. Start as early as possible. 3. Pay attention to the details. 4. Do not be afraid of asking questions.
I applied twice and succeeded the second time. The ‘deadliest’ weakness of my previous proposal was mainly in the impact sections (graded 4.0), pointing to the lack of a detailed commercialisation plan and broader impact to potential policymakers and professional organisations. Reflecting on the comments I received, I realised that I over-emphasised the scientific parts, but paid less attention to other parts. This failed to meet the high-standard requirements of MSCA. In my second attempt, I paid more attention to those sections, and developed careful plans with my supervisors. Finally, I obtained a 5.0 in this section.
Reflecting again on these experiences, my most important suggestion is to understand fully what is required by MSCA and address each of the potential requirements. The programme guide gives a very detailed explanation and examples of the requirements, so a careful read is helpful even though it is a bit long.
Another small piece of advice I want to share is regarding how to find people to check your proposal. Previous MSCA awardees or your supervisors will surely offer invaluable advice, yet they might be difficult to find or too busy to read your proposal many times. Therefore, I applied another approach, which is to find other applicants who are also applying during the year to do a cross-check: they will devote more time to check your proposal, and they know much more about the rules. A joint journey is not only helpful during the writing process, but also beneficial for relieving the stress in the long application process!
Which institution will host you? How did you get in contact with it originally? Did they provide any kind of support to you during the application process? How should an applicant identify the right host institution for his/her MSCA PF?
Aalto University in Finland is my host institution. At first, I accepted a postdoctoral researcher job offer from them. Indeed, during that interview, I already discussed the possibility of applying for MSCA PF in 2021, and my future supervisor was up for it. I arrived in Helsinki in April 2021. After the call was open, I started reaching out for collaboration and also designing the structure of the proposal.
The topic of my proposal is in nanotechnology. Aalto University is home to the OtaNano infrastructure, which is one of the most cutting-edge facilities of this kind in the world. This is actually a point I could play with in my proposal. Aalto University has a large grant supporting team. I must say they provided a lot of support to me. The grant writing team helped me edit the proposal at least three times, and the post-award team literally took care of every administrative thing after the awarding. They are super professional: definitely a dream team! For prospective applicants, if there is any similar service in your host institution, do not be afraid to ask for help.
Regarding identifying a suitable host, what I can suggest is from the academic side. One should always think from two different perspectives: the hardware and the software. If you are an experimentalist like me, you definitely need to check out the scientific infrastructure of the host institution, because that will be your playground for at least two years. You should also pay attention to the scientists in the institute to see if they are people you would like to work with. Even though you will mostly work independently in your postdoc career, it is still great to have someone to exchange ideas with and that could help you grow. Anyway, if you have other variables over the academic ones, just set them as your priority. One rule above all: follow your heart!
I had a clear research plan in my mind, so I knew which research group to contact to fit my plan. I contacted my current host, from Oxford University, with an email which briefly explained my research ideas and my interest in applying for MSCA PF. My projects raised interested, so we decided to give it a try and apply. During the writing process, I was the main driver to prepare the draft and submit the proposal, yet my hosts offered precious experience and did some important revisions to my proposal. The host institution also offered general guidance and documents to help me.
Regarding how to find the right host institution, I believe MSCA is mutually beneficial for both candidates and hosts. Therefore, if you have any good research ideas, don’t hesitate to reach out to the institution you would like to be your host.
Secondment and intersectoral mobility
Are you going to do any secondment? Which benefits do you expect from it?
Yes, I have two secondments and they are both academic institutes in the UK. They are actually key collaborators for me, because they have the necessary scientific equipment and skills for my project. They will help make the project run smoothly and I can also learn new things from them.
My host is in the UK, and I included a secondment in France. This allows me to benefit from a wider network and stronger support from more research groups. The secondment group will also bring complementary knowledge from another discipline which fits well with the aims of MSCA.
Aalto University, Finland
Dr. Lingju Meng was born and raised in Hebei, China. He is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Fellow at Aalto University, Finland. Under this framework, he will develop nanoelectromechanical devices (NEMS) for superfluid helium.
Lingju acquired his B.Sc. degree in applied physics from the University of Science and Technology of China, in a southern China city, Hefei, China. After that, he moved to Edmonton, a prairie city close to the Rockies in Canada, for further education and research. In 2020,he obtained his Ph.D. degree in solid state electronics at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Alberta.
In 2021, he joined Aalto University, Finland as a postdoctoral researcher at the Microfabrication Group for a new adventure, and he was awarded the MSCA-PF under the Horizon Europe frame in 2022. Lingju’s research interest covers a large area in nano/micro sensing devices, especially MEMS, NEMS, and quantum dot devices.
Dr. Andong Wang passed the evaluation of MSCA Postdoc Fellowship in 2022 with a score of 98.
His main host for this fellowship is from Oxford University, and his secondment host is from CNRS, France.
His research interest mainly concentrates on laser matter interactions.