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How to successfully apply for international research funding

By Huw Merfyn Hughes

15 March 2017 - 15:26

What's the best way to sort through overseas research opportunities, and make your application stand out? We asked Huw Merfyn HughesEuropean Projects Director (Research) at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Why apply to do research abroad?

I am a project manager, not an academic. Over the past ten years, I have helped researchers put together applications that have won over £35 million in European Union funding for research. During that time, I’ve developed an appreciation for the transformative power of a period abroad on an academic's career prospects, especially when undertaken at an early stage.

Reviewers of funding applications, especially those involving international collaboration, are far more likely to award grants to applicants with strong overseas networks. They also look for applicants with a record of having worked with the best in their field, irrespective of geographic location. A period abroad, early in a researcher's career, gives a long-lasting boost to his or her CV.

Why is it important to travel early on?

Understanding another culture, learning a new language, and making new professional contacts, all take time and effort. It is easier to immerse oneself in another country while unencumbered by financial and family responsibilities, which tend to accumulate as we get older.

Where should you go?

Instead of simply considering which country you’d like to work in, ask yourself: where are the most state-of-the-art institutions in my research field? These institutions are often clustered together geographically, e.g. Stanford and Caltech, both in California, for the tech industry.

Next, find out whether the government of the country in question has a strategy that sets out priorities for funding different areas of research in the medium term. This will tell you about the political appetite to grow research expertise in your field.

How do you get the process started?

Initially, talk to your academic supervisor or line-manager as they will know the go-to places to find information about opportunities in your research area. Next, consider approaching your university's international or research offices. Several universities, including mine, act as Euraxess local contact points, where you can tap into a Europe-wide network of advice and support.

Draw on all the expertise you can find, to learn what opportunities are out there. Rather than wade through all the paperwork yourself, seek advice from those at your institution, like me, who work each day with the funding programme guides, to determine whether you are eligible.

What opportunities exist for undergraduates and postgraduates?

If you are still on an undergraduate or postgraduate course, you could consider a shorter period away, on an Erasmus+ Key Action 1 mobility project. Ask your university’s international office about it. Millions of young people have benefited from mobility grants over the years. Do not let Brexit put you off, because for the time being, the funding is still there.

What opportunities exist for researchers further on in their careers?

Do you have up to five years of full-time equivalent research experience? It is worth investigating the Euraxess portal, because it is a condition of several (but not all) EU Commission grants that all associated project posts are published there. You’ll find lots of opportunities associated with the Marie-Sklodowska Curie Actions (MSCA) in particular.

These form part of the world’s largest research funding pot, Horizon 2020, which is managed, like Erasmus+, by the European Commission. There is over €80 billion or so available in Horizon 2020, which has a myriad of funding sub-schemes, all with differing eligibility requirements. This is where your university's research office can help, as they can tell you which schemes are the best match.

If you’re not based at a university, find out where your MSCA National Contact Point is, and ask them for advice.

You've decided where to apply. What happens next?

Having located your relevant geographical clusters, why not look at the online jobs pages for institutions based there and consider making a direct approach?

Each country has its own mobility rules and regulations, so you will need to know how easily you can relocate. Euraxess UK is a great source to establish this aspect, for researchers travelling to and from the UK.

How should you put together your application?

When making approaches to prospective employers, keep things ultra-professional. Do not expect that a hastily cobbled-together application will cut the mustard. If you want to work with the best people in your field, ditch the last-minute mentality that might have got you adequately through your degree course, and take your time to develop a detailed and concise application. Ask a critical friend to help you polish it, and make sure that your passion for your research field shines through the narrative section.

Most importantly, give yourself enough time to draft and redraft your application. When you land your job and start making applications for funding, apply the same timely approach. Your research office will love you for it.

Find out more about Euraxess, a British Council-managed hub that encourages researchers' career development, and supports researchers moving abroad or moving to the UK.

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