What it took to get an ERC starting grant in 2016: Your own research group

The starting grants of the European research council

logo-erc[…] are designed to encourage young talented research leader to gain independence in Europe and to build their own careers. The scheme targets promising researchers who have the proven potential of becoming independent research leaders.

(from the official mission statement) Following this statement, I apparently misinterpreted the goals of the starting grant: I believed that it should enable young researchers to become independent, but seeing the recent grantees it rather enables already independent researchers to become research leaders. I came to this conclusion by looking up the job positions of the recent 2016 grantees where I found that only about one quarter of grantees in the German sub-sample are post-docs while the vast majority of grantees already lead independent research groups, or are professors. In the following I detail my findings and distil a bit of career advice.

Recipients of ERC starting grants in Germany in 2016

The ERC provides a list of all recepients of starting grants in 2016. In total 325 proposals were accepted (11% success rate). In terms of individual countries, most grantees were based in Germany (61) followed by the UK (59) and France (46). I decided to look only at the German sub-sample, because that interested me most and I know the scientific landscape in Germany well. The German grantees have diverse scientific backgrounds, but the distribution leans towards the physical sciences and engineering (see the ERC starting grants statistics).

One statistic that the ERC does not provide is the statistic over the state in the career of the grantees, i.e., their job positions. To fill this void I went through the list of German grantees and looked them up in the internet. Except for 2 of the 61 I found more or less up to date career information. In 2 further grantees I wasn’t completely sure about their current position, but included them in the analysis anyway. I classified all positions into three categories: post-docs, (independent research) group leaders and professors.

Types of job positions

Post-docs are researchers who work in the group of someone else, that is, they cannot, or rather have not, independently hired an employee. I classify them as experienced, but dependent researchers.

Independent research group leaders have their own research group, but are not tenured, yet. In Germany there is a famous funding programme for this kind of position: the Emmy Noether programme. Another position on the same level is the so-called Juniorprofessorship, which may correspond to an assistant professorship in Britain and the US, but is much less common in Germany. Additionally there exist group leaders in pure research institutes such as the Max Planck institutes which are not associated to universities.

Finally, there is the tenured professorship as the holy grail of the science career. I put all professors whose title was not ‘Juniorprofessor’ into this category.

Distribution of job positions among German grantees

I found 16 post-docs, 29 group leaders and 14 professors among the recipients of starting grants. Therefore, about one quarter of grantees will become independent researchers through the starting grant while three quarters of grantees have already lead independent research groups at the time they applied for the starting grant and one quarter of grantees have already held tenured positions.

I have published my list of grantees together with my analysis on Github in case somebody wants to look that up. Also, feel free to add information or to extend the analysis!

So what does the starting grant enable?

The ERC starting grant is very attractive, because it endows the recipient with up to 1.5 million Euro over a period of up to 5 years while proposals are evaluated only based on scientific merit and risky, interdisciplinary research is encouraged – scientist’s heaven. Everyone who has obtained a doctorate within the previous 7 years can apply and 2935 people have done so in 2015 for getting the grant in 2016.

These conditions are equally attractive to post-docs and already independent researchers. The difference is that post-docs hope to become independent with it while group leaders hope to use it as leverage for professorship applications. While I see how the starting grant can help group leaders in “becoming independent research leaders” in the sense that they are not truly independent until they are tenured, I wonder how tenured professors fit in this scheme? What part of their scientific career are they expected to start that they haven’t started yet?

The low number of post-docs among the recipients of starting grants should be no surprise in a competition in which scientific merit and proven potential are the sole criteria and researchers at all career levels can enter. After all, group leaders and professors are in their positions, because they have been selected based on similar criteria before. The starting grant, therefore, does not generally enable researchers to make first independent steps, but to continue on a previously successful path of independent research, perhaps with a slight change of direction.

Career advice

The advice is clear: Don’t wait for the ERC starting grant to become an independent researcher. The name is misleading. It is unfortunate that the starting grant, to my knowledge, is the only grant that enables you to found an independent research group more than 5 years after your PhD. This means that you should try to become independent within the first 5 years after your PhD.

In Germany, possible paths to an independent research group are the Emmy Noether programme and the Freigeist fellowships of the Volkswagen Stiftung where anyone (who does ‘excellent’ research) can apply with a proposal. Alternatively, you can look out for Juniorprofessorships at universities and group leader positions in dedicated research institutes, but my impression is that they are sometimes not openly advertised and given to internal candidates.

For all those who are past the 5 years after their PhD there is not much left but to apply for professorships or for an ERC starting grant. At least there are some post-docs who got a starting grant. I don’t know how many post-docs applied to get a starting grant, but I assume that the fraction of post-docs among applicants was higher than the fraction of post-docs among grantees. Given this assumption, the success rate for post-docs should be below the overall success rate of 11%.

In any case, do what you like as long as you can and then find something else to do that you like! 😉

[Update 1]

I originally estimated the success rate for post-docs by dividing the overall success rate of 11% by 4. This is only valid when 4-times more post-docs applied for a grant than all other researchers.

[Update 2]

Kristin Lohwasser got in touch with me and clarified her position so I updated the post which now counts one more post-doc. She recommends to post-docs who wan to apply for a starting grant in the future:

to point out, where you have designed projects for other students and have been their primary supervisor (even if not officially).