Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships

Black and white portrait of Marie Curie
Scientist Marie Skłodowska-Curie

As I said in my previous post, I’m just starting a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship, and I wanted to say more here about what these fellowships actually are and what the process for applying for them is like. The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) are part of the European Union’s Horizon research funding scheme; the specific type of fellowship I have, an MSC Individual European Fellowship, provides funding for 1-2 years for postdoctoral researchers who are moving to or within Europe (for information on other kinds of MSC fellowships, see here: e.g. there are fellowships to support spending time outside of Europe or returning from a career break).

Mobility is a key part of this scheme: you have to be moving to a country where you haven’t already spent a long time living or working (specifically, no more than 12 months in the 3 years leading up to the application deadline), so in my case, from the UK to Greece. You can be moving from any country, European or not; it’s the country you’re moving to that has to be either part of the EU or associated with the Horizon scheme. The idea is to enable researchers to acquire new skills and contacts, as well as contributing their own expertise to the institutions they move to. (NB, at time of writing and to the best of my knowledge, there is no association agreement in place for the UK after the end of 2020: unless such an agreement is made, then it will not be possible to apply for MSCA schemes to be carried out in the UK, though UK-based researchers can still apply to move to European/associated countries. Note also that 2020 is the last year of the current Horizon scheme, and although, the MSCAs are supposed to be continuing in the next round, I don’t know if their exact format will be the same. I hope the general picture presented here will still be useful, and will try to update when more specific details are available).

With the ‘mobility’ element in mind, a key part of the application process is showing the suitability of the host institution (a university, research centre, industrial research organisation, etc.) that you’re proposing to work in – in fact, the application is submitted jointly by the researcher and the institution, and as well as the research proposal (more on that in a minute) and details of the researcher’s experience and suitability for the project, it includes information on the institution’s relevant facilities and expertise, including that of the nominated project supervisor. So the first step in the process is to get in touch with your prospective host/supervisor – bearing in mind that many institutions may have their own internal application processes for people wanting to be put forward as an MSCA candidate, obviously with much earlier deadlines than the actual MSCA application (at least I know this is the case with some UK universities, and imagine it may be in other countries too). A large part of the research proposal will be showing what the benefits will be to you as the researcher of working in that host institution. It might be (particularly in the more scientific fields) that they have access to particular equipment and can provide formal training in specific skills you don’t yet have; it might be that you’d be able to work with people whose area of expertise or methodologies are different from yours and so gain experience of new approaches to your research topic; there might be important library resources, archival material, or museum collections at the host or other nearby institutions; and so on. It’s just as valid to cite relatively ‘nebulous’ benefits – participation in new academic communities, making new contacts, exposure to new approaches – as it is more ‘concrete’ ones (training course X, access to archive Y). Equally, showing that your particular expertise will contribute to the host – through broadening their research profile, bringing skills they currently lack, experience in teaching/outreach/etc you can put to use while there – is important.

When it comes to the actual research proposal, you need to not just have a well-thought-out topic and to show how it relates to previous research and how it will advance the research field, but also to be very specific about your exact objectives and details of how these will be accomplished, with concrete plans for how you will disseminate the research, both academically (e.g. conference presentations, publications – specifics of particular conferences you would plan to go to or journals to submit articles to are good) and more broadly (e.g. writing for non-specialist audiences via social media, school outreach, etc). Bullet points/ numbered lists/ breaking down sections with sub-headings are all helpful for being very clear about all this!

The application itself is divided into 3 parts:

A: General information, like your name/details, those of your proposed supervisor and institution; project title, acronym, and abstract; ethics questions; and budget details. You don’t have to calculate these: there are fixed amounts allocated for the researcher – living allowance (which covers salary and employers’ social security contributions), a separate mobility allowance (basically a salary top-up because of having to move countries), and an extra family allowance for those with dependants – and for the institution, to cover the costs of hosting, research expenses, etc. Also the panel into which the application fits (e.g. ‘social sciences and humanities’), and some descriptors of its (slightly) more precise field – more on those in a minute.

B1: the main proposal, maximum 10 pages. Use the various headings given in the application template to structure your proposal – the template also includes explanations and examples of the kinds of things you might address under each section, e.g. in 1.2 “Quality and appropriateness of the training and of the two way transfer of knowledge between the researcher and the host” it asks you to outline what new knowledge you’ll gain during the fellowship, and what knowledge/skills you’ll bring to the institution, and then suggests various kinds of training activities you might take part it. Again, bullet points are good! Of course, many features of your project will fit into more than one heading, so you can discuss them in detail once and then cross-refer – e.g. once you’ve described the training you’ll receive in section 1.2, you can then refer briefly back to it in 2.1 ‘Enhancing the future career prospects of the researcher after the fellowship’ to explain its longer-term benefits.

B2: your CV, and details about the host institution and supervisor (facilities, research record, etc). Again, see the template for the exact format.

Bear in mind that although the proposal will be evaluated by people broadly in a similar field, they may well not be experts in exactly what you do, so you need to write for people who are not necessarily familiar with all of the relevant literature, terminology, etc. Evaluators are selected based on the ‘scientific area’ and ‘descriptors’ you choose in the application – as I mentioned above, the former are things like ‘chemistry’ or ‘social sciences and humanities’ (yes, that’s a single area…); the latter are more specific fields, of which you can choose several (so it’s fine if there isn’t one ‘descriptor’ that fits your research exactly – I had ones like ‘numismatics and epigraphy’, epigraphy being a very broad category I could fit into but numismatics definitely not being). Additionally, you need to show how the proposed project fits into your longer-term plans – how will the skills, experience, publications, etc, that you gain from the fellowship help you further your academic career?

I’m not going to lie, it’s fairly daunting trying to cover all of that in a 10-page proposal, but there is lots of help available. If you’re currently at and/or applying to an institution with a research support team, they may well have experts in EU funding who can offer advice, run information events, etc. The National Contact Point for the country you are applying to move to can also help with technical queries about things like eligibility: you can find their details here. There is of course lots of information on the MSCA site; Net4Mobility+ also offers answers to FAQs. Finally, the thing I found most helpful when starting to apply was seeing some examples of successful proposals from current MSC Fellows, which really helped to see what all the different sections of the proposal were about and how to approach writing it, and for which I’m extremely grateful to the researchers who let me read theirs! If there are MSC Fellows at your current or proposed institution in broadly similar areas to your own, I very much recommend getting in touch with them to ask for any specific advice and to see if they are willing to let you read their proposal (if your proposed supervisor has previously been involved with MSCA applications/supervision, then of course they should also be able to advise). I’m also happy to try and answer any questions you might have in the comments here, though obligatory disclaimer here that I am definitely not an expert in EU funding or in how MSCA applications are evaluated; this is only based on my experience of one application, so do get advice and help from as many sources as possible!

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 885977.

Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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