Congratulations! You have successfully passed the first stage of evaluation and have been invited to the ERC interview in Brussels. The panel members have assessed your B1, and have decided that the proposal concept, your CV and track record are of sufficient quality to pass to the second stage. By now, external reviewers are asked to evaluate the full proposal. Their input will be in place by the time of the interview.
The ERC interview is known to be challenging. Many find it stressful and difficult. By nature, ERC is a highly competitive grant, seeking for the best PIs with the best research projects. Other than ERC StG/CoG/SyG, (and the EIC Accelerator / SME instrument) no other funding scheme within Horizon 2020 allows the applicants to present themselves and defend their proposal. As of 2021, the ERC AdG applicants will be invited to the ERC interview as well.
It is thus a unique window of opportunity to communicate with the ERC evaluation panel, clarify open questions that might have come up in the evaluation, and further impress them.
The ERC Interview – a technical overview
Technically speaking, the ERC interview is highly demanding, while the specific instructions vary between evaluation panels. Soon after receiving notice on having passed the first stage of the evaluation process, you will receive an additional letter detailing the technical instructions relevant to your interview – presentation and interview duration, presentation requirements, presentation print-outs, screen size and operating system used in the interview room, etc.
Based on past experience, the total duration of the interview is 25 minutes. The first part is the PI’s presentation, which is typically allocated between 5 to 12 minutes only. The rest of the interview time is dedicated to Q&A. Naturally, in panels which restrict the presentation time to the minimum, more time is left for the Q&A and discussion with the panel members.
Not only the presentation time is limited: Many evaluation panels will restrict the number of slides that can be used. Some evaluation panels may restrict the presentation to be three or even one slide only. Other evaluation panels may not allow using PowerPoint presentation at all!
In correspondence with the structure of the interview, the preparation process includes two parts: one is preparing the presentation itself and rehearsing it; the second is trying to anticipate potential questions and practicing how to answer them clearly and efficiently.
It is also important to note that per panel, interviews are being held back-to-back, over several days. In the process, the panel members interview dozens of applicants potentially competing with the PI on the same spot (under the scope and variety of applications handled by the panel). This means that the panel members also have a demanding task, and their ability to grasp the enormous amount of information presented to them may be limited. This must be taken into account during the interview preparation.
Let’s discuss the two parts of the preparation process:
Preparing the presentation
The most common mistake when preparing the presentation is the attempt to summarize the full proposal. We can report, based on our experience, that this simply does not work. First, time does not allow the PI to cover everything. Second, the panel members simply do not need to hear everything at this stage. Some have read the proposal and remember the details. Others haven’t, but cannot grasp this amount of information in such a short time. The interview presentation should thus focus on highlighting the aspects that would make the PI and the proposal stand out in “ERC standards” and appeal to the evaluation panel members.
Don’t overcrowd presentation slides with information. In line with the previous point, there is a limit to the amount of information one can take in, especially when seeing dozens of presentations one after the other. An overwhelming slide could cause the viewer to lose focus and miss crucial points. Make sure slides have a manageable amount of text and visuals. Be sure that the bottom line – the core message – is clear to you and would be clear to others from the slides.
Make the presentation stand out. As noted earlier, the panel members will see and hear presentations of dozens of applicants, one after the other, over a few days. It is thus essential that the PI and the project presentation will stand out. The key is to find the fine balance between the various elements and factors that need to be addressed within the time limit. The main message that the PI should convey is of the uniqueness of the project itself and capability to lead it, in “ERC standards”. Simply put – convey a message about an exciting, timely, high risk, high gain project led by an excellent researcher.
Revisit your presentation skills. Presentation skills are essential for this occasion. There isn’t a second chance and the interview framework is rigid. Even if the PI is well-accustomed to presenting in front of an audience, it is highly recommended to refresh presentation skills. Keep in mind – this interview is not similar in any way to the regular conference presentation or teaching a class. Whereas in the latter, the audience’s interest is to learn, here, it is the presenter’s interest to intrigue, convince, catch the audience’s attention and essentially to stand out. The PI is expected to go above and beyond a regular presentation and offer something that is exceptionally unique.
Preparing for the Q&A
The PI should expect a scientific debate as part of the Q&A. This debate can go either way: pleasant, positive, supporting and encouraging, or it can be unpleasant, negative, provoking to some extent and confrontational. It is essential to be well prepared for any scenario. Experience shows that repeated training and simulations of such a Q&A session are essential. When rehearsing your presentation, preferably in front of various audiences (peers, students, ERC experts, etc.), ask them to challenge you with all kinds of potential questions. You might be surprised and receive questions you did not expect and it is best to be prepared.
The panel is a given at this stage, however it is a good idea for the PI to refresh his or her memory about the potential panel members that will be in the interview, what would intrigue them and what type of questions to expect from them, based on their background and research interests.
Beyond ‘pure’ scientific questions, some questions can address more logistic and managerial aspects of the project. These can relate to the team, access to relevant equipment or infrastructure, the timeline of the project and even the budget in some cases.
The PI should aim to answer questions clearly and succinctly, so as to best utilize the allocated time. Over-elaborating on one answer might result in some unanswered questions by some of the panel members, which might not leave the best impression.
Some panels allow the use of “back-up slides”, which are additional slides beyond those used for the presentation, which can assist in answering some of the anticipated questions. Make sure your panel allows this before preparing such slides. This information will typically be provided in the letter you’ll receive from your panel with all the technical instructions for the interview. If you are allowed to use them, please prepare them carefully. First, think of visual aids that can assist in answering complex questions. This can be illustrations of complex experiments or workflows, schemes of novel equipment or methodologies, figures of preliminary results, etc. Second, remember to keep the number of slides to the minimum needed. You don’t want to find yourself losing precious time (and the panel members’ patience) while browsing for that specific slide.
Expect the unexpected during the ERC Interview
In addition to extensive practice and mental preparation, the PI should also consider that unexpected distractions may happen. These may include external noise and interference, presentation malfunctions, and more. Experience shows that these are more common than one might expect. Though this may come as a surprise, rest assured that the evaluation panel will not stop the clock in light of these, or any other, distractions. Therefore, the PI should be well prepared to overcome any setbacks. This could mean, in extreme cases, presenting without the prepared slides (in case of technical issues) or with distracting and ongoing noise in the background.
To conclude, the above points can only serve as the basis that will help the PI prepare for the interview. A lot is at stake at this point, and it is absolutely critical to thoroughly prepare for what is to come. Knowing what to expect is only the start. Now is the time to move forward from concepts to a specific presentation that will award the PI the best chance at passing the interview with success.
For additional assistance in this process – our team is here to help. Learn about our individual ERC Interview training service that covers all of the above, and more.