Research page of Jan Claes | Tips

Disclaimer. Below are my personal notes from information sessions on various topics. If you consider these notes to be genius, all credits go to the person listed at the end of the note. If you think they are rubbish, you should blame me. Consider the date at the end of each note to assess if the information provided is still up-to-date. There are no warranties that these tips work. I deny all responsibility if your paper/proposal that was based on these tips is rejected.

Proposal writing

My selection of most compelling tips from the lists below
General tips for proposals.
  • TIP-1: Have a direct and linear relation between problem statement, objectives and research questions, and methodology and data (in both directions). Identify research gaps (not just literature gaps), derive testable research objectives or answerable research questions (one per gap), translate each objective/question into exactly one (measurable) hypothesis/observation.
  • TIP-2: Describe your empirical model precisely. Be explicit about the measures, relations and equations, statistical techniques. The more details, the better. Also describe backup scenarios.
  • TIP-3: Put the problem statement in the very first lines of the proposal.
  • TIP-4: Always stress both the academic and societal importance.
  • TIP-5: Don't use (quasi) synonyms. This confuses non-expert readers.
  • TIP-6: Write your best possible proposal and have it read and improved by colleagues with experience in research councils ("they will shred it to pieces and then you can restart").

Specific for BOF.
  • TIP-1: Mention important literature in other fields (in BOF, the expert panels are broad and people want to see their domain listed if relevant).

Specific for personal funding.
  • TIP-1: Write in the personal statement which specific skills (analysis, statistics, ...) make you the best possible candidate to bring the research to a good end (nobody else than you). Don't base your application only on enthusiasm or don't be too implicit about your skills.
  • TIP-2: Show how research fits within your track record (e.g., "I have 20 years of data and you allow me to add 4 more years, after which I will know X, Y, Z, which I did not know before and which nobody else could know").
  • TIP-3: Show an international orientation, so that your current university is not your only possible employer afterwards (mobile researchers have a higher chance to get a job).

Specific for travel grants.
  • TIP-1: Use a "science" narrative (I NEED to go abroad for IMPORTANT part of SCIENTIFIC WORK and can not do this in Flanders), not an "output" narrative (publications), nor a "career" narrative (network, or future applications).
  • TIP-2: Stress the importance of the travel ("This plan is important for (my) research (group)").
  • TIP-3: Stress the necessity of the stay ("For that plan the following is missing in my research group in Flanders").
  • TIP-4: Describe the partner expertise ("I need to go to X as they have the expertise, equipment, patients").
  • TIP-5: Don't use as argument that you will visit your (co)supervisor, you will visit a member of your supervisory committee, you will visit the editor of an important journal, you have to apply in order to get funding from your own university.
ERC grants
  • TIP-1: Understand the process: read guide for applicants AND guide for reviewers
  • TIP-2: Start many, many months before the deadline.
  • TIP-3: Reserve several weeks for writing.
  • TIP-4: Get plenty of feedback.
  • TIP-5: Rely on local expertise: university support, grant holders closeby, etc.
  • TIP-6: Sell yourself: provide irrefutable evidence for impact and excellence.
  • TIP-7: Have unique selling points.
  • TIP-8: No risk, no fun: talk about the risks and focus on novelty and potential impact.
  • TIP-9: Clear title, clear abstract.
  • TIP-10: Have a clear structure and plan.
  • TIP-12: Get to the point. How does your proposal compete against "curing cancer once and for all"?
  • TIP-12: Polish. Polish. Polish.

From: Prof. dr. Andreas Zeller, Blog post, 23/02/2013

FWO and BOF projects
  • TIP-1: Have a direct and linear relation between problem statement, objectives and research questions, and methodology and data (in both directions).
  • TIP-2: Start with an important issue in practice and show that it has received attention in literature, but insufficient.
  • TIP-3: Start with a "striking observation".
  • TIP-4: Put the problem statement in first lines of the proposal.
  • TIP-5: Mention important literature in other fields (especially in BOF, the expert panels are broad and people want to see their domain listed if relevant).
  • TIP-6: Always stress both the academic and societal importance.
  • TIP-7: It is always interesting if you can observe two conflicting theories in literature, which you will investigate.
  • TIP-8: Describe your empirical model precisely. Be explicit about the relations and equations that you will test.
  • TIP-9: Don't propose pure "observational research". It is not enough to collect data, observations, or insights, but you have to go beyond: anlayze and interpret.
  • TIP-10: Don't use (quasi) synonyms.

From: Prof. dr. Freddy Heylen, member UGent Alpha committee, Brown bag seminar FEB, 12/01/2018

FWO mandates and projects

Acceptance rate is about 20% for both proposals and projects. The expert panel contains about 20 people (from psychology, educational sciences, and other human sciences). There will be up to 3 external reviews. Then, 3 people from the panel will read your submission and these reviews. They will provide a score from A+ to D (B-D is not funded). They are not from your university (typically 2 Belgian and 1 foreigner), so they will look for weaknesses. Keep in mind that (only) these 3 will decide whether you get the money.

  • TIP-1: Describe research in such a way that its importance and newness are clear (e.g., hypothesis testing will decide between traditional and new view).
  • TIP-2: Show how research fits within your track record (e.g., "I have 20 years of data and you allow me to add 4 more years, after which I will know X, Y, Z, which I did not know before and which nobody else could know").
  • TIP-3: For mandates, show an international orientation, so that Ghent is not your only possible employer afterwards (mobile researchers have a higher chance to get a job).
  • TIP-4: Pilot data are always good.
  • TIP-5: If there are potential ethical problems, ask for ethical clearance before submission (such that reviewers cannot question whether it will get cleared by the ethical committee).
  • TIP-6: Write your best possible proposal and have it read and improved by colleagues with experience in research councils ("they will shred it to pieces and then you can restart").
  • TIP-7: We need more good submissions from departments PP04, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, so good proposals from those side may have a higher chance.
  • TIP-8: For mandates, write in the personal statement which specific skills (analysis, statistics, ...) make you the best possible candidate to bring the research to a good end (nobody else than you). Don't base your application only on enthusiasm or don't be too implicit about your skills.
  • TIP-9: Don't count on your publication list. It is no longer explicitly evaluated (because it relates also to the group and environment). Reviewers may look at it, but expert panels not so much anymore.
  • TIP-10: Don't count on your track record. Only if the current application is strong, you have a (40%) chance of getting something.
  • TIP-11: Think of power issues and open science (certainly if your research is controversial, think about preregistration options; involve citizens, publish open).

From: Prof. dr. Marc Brysbaert, member expert panel FWO (G&M 3), Research afternoon PPW, 20/12/2017

FWO travel grants

The travel grants are assessed by the panel for international collaboration (CIS, for group grants) or the International Collaboration Committee (CIWS, for individual grants). The latter committee has 17 members from all scientific disciplines (3 members for Social and Behaviroal Sciences: social sciences, law, and another one, currently no psychology expert anymore). They meet monthly to decide on about 250 mobility applications (short and long stays, international conferences/workshops/courses, sabbaticals, etc.).

  • TIP-1: Use a "science" narrative (I NEED to go abroad for IMPORTANT part of SCIENTIFIC WORK and can not do this in Flanders), not an "output" narrative (joint publication, help with publication, associate editor, etc.), nor a "career" narrative (networking, future research project (FWO, ERC), postdoc application).
  • TIP-2: Explain your research or research line (background and rationale). State what you have done and what you plan to do.
  • TIP-3: Stress the importance of the travel ("This plan is important for (my) research (group)").
  • TIP-4: Stress the necessity of the stay ("For that plan the following is missing in my research group in Flanders").
  • TIP-5: Describe the partner expertise ("I need to go to X as they have the expertise, equipment, patients").
  • TIP-6: Describe the added value of the trip ("My research will benefit, and also the research group (dissemination of competences)").
  • TIP-7: Describe a work plan or work packages!!!
  • TIP-8: Don't use as argument that you will visit your (co)supervisor (because expertise is lacking in your university).
  • TIP-9: Don't use as argument that you will visit a member of your supervisory committee.
  • TIP-10: Don't use as argument that you will visit the editor of an important journal who will help you with writing and will make it easier to publish in a top journal.
  • TIP-11: Don't use as argument "I have to apply in order to get funding from my own university".
  • TIP-12: Don't put too much focus on deliverables: joined publications, grant proposals (FWO, ERC, ...), networking and career building.
  • TIP-13: Don't have several applicants in the group that apply for the same travel grant.
  • TIP-14: Don't 'copy and paste' the letter of recommendation.
  • TIP-15: Rather don't apply at the end of your PhD/Postdoc.
  • TIP-16: Read instruction and evaluation criteria carefully. Take your time and take the job seriously. Personalize your application and motivate enough. Ask feedback on the proposal to supervisor/senior researchers (even for conferences).

From: Prof. dr. Geert Crombez, member UGent Research Council and former member expert panel FWO (CIWC), Research afternoon PPW, 20/12/2017

FWO individual grants

This personal note focuss on FWO postdoc mandates. Success rate among postdoc submissions is about 25%. The submission is ranked by assessing the submission score A+, A A-, B, C, D AND the priority within the panel.

  • TIP-1: See integrity statement: evaluators are instructed to be aware that "also negative results can be published".
  • TIP-2: Be very personal in the personal statement. Use it to highlight personal differences from the evaluation standard.
  • TIP-3: The recommendation letter should be convincing: the project and the candidate are really fitting the goals of the group.
  • TIP-4: Criteria are: track record, scientific independence, research capability and potential, originality, feasibility, purposefulness, methodology fit, and support (fit in the team, with the supervisor).
    For postdocs: more independence than in PhD, track record evolution, other progressions compared to PhD (show that you are a more mature researcher), more advanced and more ambitious project, more personal about the project/skills/contributions, focus, relevance.

From: FWO, FWO info session, 04/12/2017

Grants in general
  • TIP-1: Change your writing style.
    Grant writing
  • TIP-2: Write text that people like to read. It will make the reader more acceptable.
  • TIP-3: Start has to be perfect, because people quickly take a decision. The first impression is the topic, title, abstract, keywords, etc.
  • TIP-4: Don't be afraid to say things as "what if we would be able to", etc. Very personal and informal writing style.
  • TIP-5: Polish. Polish. polish. Ask yourself: "how can I make this better, what's wrong with it". Ask colleagues or think about what they would say.
  • TIP-6: Things like "They have done interesting things, but they forgot about... and I know how to fill this gap!" May not be that bad in grant proposals.
  • TIP-7: Discuss literature overview in straight-forward bits and focus on the strongest and recent ones, don't try to convince with length of literature overview!
  • TIP-8: Spend a lot of attention to the problem description! Should be understandable, relevant, etc.
  • TIP-9: Idea: address the reviewer. "Do you recognise this?" "You had to apply a technique that did not feel right..." "Imagine you could use a tool that..."
  • TIP-10: ERC: is it enough high-risk, high-gain? High risk should be obvious, high gain can be shown with prototype/initial results...
  • TIP-11: TIP: talk about concrete artefacts: clearly delineated project.
  • TIP-12: Talk about impact: should impact the whole way of working, teaching, software in the future?
  • TIP-13: IDEA: use quotes to structure and keep attention?
  • TIP-14: IDEA: find quote by recognised (!) researcher or specialist that points to the problem to illustrate its significance
  • TIP-15: TIP: fallback, fallback, fallback, ... Provide backup scenarios in case of high risk!
  • TIP-16: Search grant database. No similar projects = illustration of underfunding, argument to convince (but you still need to proof the need), similar projects = get inspired, get in touch, ...
  • TIP-17: TIP: Typically: 1 goal, 2-4 research objectives (best is 3).
  • TIP-18: Everything in the proposal should target the goal and objectives (as) directly (as possible).
  • TIP-19: Use same language as key review criteria descriptions in the call, so they know directly that you meet that criteria.
  • TIP-20: "This project helps ERC to reach his goals..."
Some typical reviewer comments
  • "The problem statement, such as it is, is too global, showing no relationship to reality with no potential solution being indicated or even possible."
    > Focus, make it as specific as possible
  • "This problem has been studied to death. I'm surprised the writer doesn't know this."
    > Know your literature! Everything!
  • "It is almost impossible to understand what the author wants to study or what the main theme is. The problem is full of jargon and totally unclear as stated."
    > Don't use terms and abbreviations too much
  • "I cannot ascertain what approach the researcher will take in examining the problem as outlined."
    > Methodology!
  • "The writer has a flair for the dramatic. The world will not collapse if we do not fund a study of students' daydreams."
    > Significance!! Relevance! Importance!

From: dr. Robert Porter, Writing successful grants, 11/05/2017

FWO Data Management Plan (DMP)
  • TIP-1: Describe the datatypes (surveys, sequences, manuscripts, objects, etc.) the research will collect and/or generate and/or (re)use.
  • TIP-2: Are the following provisions in place in order to preserve the data for at least 5 years after the end of the research? Designation of responsible person. Storage capacity/repository (during/after the research).
  • TIP-3: Is there a reason why you wish to deviate from the principle of preservation of data and of the minimum preservation term of 5 years?
  • TIP-4: If issues concerning research data are indicated in the ethics questionnaire of this application form, will those data require specific security measures; if yes, can they be put in place?
  • TIP-5: Are there other issues related to the data management you think relevant to mention?

From: UGent research tips, 16/04/2018

Paper writing

General tips for writing a journal article.
  • TIP-1: Start with a real problem (not just a gap in literature), this answers the so-what question.
  • TIP-2: Perseverance: revise and resubmit after rejections, address everything of the reviewers. Keep improving the work. Don't give up.
  • TIP-3: Think about journal articles as a journey, not a product. You can even see it as a joint discovery with the reviewers and editors.
  • TIP-4: Distinguish yourself, but at the same time, contribute in your community. Be different without giving up on the existing work in the field.
  • TIP-5: There will be good and bad moments. Learn from failure, accept and search for help or training.
  • TIP-6: Publication should not be the main goal, rather a constraint. The main goal should be the contribution (measured by the publication).
  • TIP-7: You can ask editors before submission if your work fits the journal (but first read the mission statements, aims and scope of the journal!).
  • TIP-8: To select a suitable journal, first think about your audience, then consider the type of paper you want to write or have written, and within this shortlist, target the journal with the highest impact factor.
  • TIP-9: Design research so that either results are publishable (maybe it just requires to change the story).

From: consortium faculty, ECIS 2013 doctoral consortium, 03/06/2013