22 Mar / ERC personal interview – what should the applicants expect?

The ERC interview is known to be challenging and many find it stressful and difficult. By nature, the ERC is a highly competitive grant, seeking for the best PIs with the best research projects. The ERC personal interview serves as a unique window of opportunity (for StG and CoG applicants only), which enables the PIs to present themselves to the ERC review panel and defend their project proposal.

Technically speaking, the ERC interview is highly demanding, while the specific instructions vary between the various review panels. Typically, the time allocated to the PI’s presentation ranges between 5 to 12 minutes only, followed by 15-20 minutes for Q&A. Many review panels will restrict the number of slides that can be used. Some review panels may restrict the presentation aid to be one slide (or one sheet) only!

The most common mistake in preparing for the interview presentation is the attempt to summarize the full proposal. We can report based on our experience that this simply does not work. The interview presentation should thus focus on highlighting the aspects that would appeal to the review panel members. But what are these aspects and what is the best way to present them? This tends to be elusive.

Operationally speaking, the PI should be aware to the fact that the interviews are being held back-to-back, one after the other, a few days in a row. In the process, the panel members will interview dozens of applicants, which compete with the PI on the same spot. Thus, it is 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 uniqueness and capability – an exciting, timely, high risk, high gain project led by an excellent researcher.

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 his/her presentation skills. Keep in mind – this interview is not similar to the regular conference presentation or teaching a class. It requires unique attention and preparation, conceptually, technically and mentally.

The PI should expect a scientific debate as part of the Q&A phase. This debate can go either way: pleasant, positive and encouraging, or it can be unpleasant, negative, provoking to some extent and confrontational. It is essential to be well prepared for any scenario, by training and simulations.

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, power outages, presentation malfunctions, and more. Experience shows that these are more common than expected, and the PI should realize that the review panel will not stop the clock in light of these distractions and should be well prepared to overcome them.

A lot is at stake. It is thus critical that the applicant prepares well and knows what to expect.

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By Yoram Bar-Zeev in ERC posts