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What did I learn from applying for an ERC Starting Grant? The half-full glass.

Date:20 October 2017
Author:Andrea Sangiacomo
Alta via dei monti liguri, M. Toraggio (Photo: Andrea Sangiacomo)
Alta via dei monti liguri, M. Toraggio (Photo: Andrea Sangiacomo)

In the last few weeks I attended two Spinoza conferences (on both sides of the Atlantic). I spent the last ten years working on Spinoza. I consider him a friend. Yet, for the first time, I felt that I was somehow disconnected from the surrounding conversations. Let me explain. When I went to other Spinoza conferences I had the sense of engaging with other people on a topic I cared about (Spinoza’s philosophy). It was always a pleasure to talk about Spinoza for days in a row, without much rest. Be assured, I still care for Spinoza and genuinely love such gatherings. However, these last couple of times I was contemplating debates and problems as if they were a remote province in a vast and (to me) largely obscure landscape. A bit like when you’re discussing Santa Claus but you know that he… never mind.

To be fair, I was a bit distracted. During those conferences I was in the period of putting the ‘final touches’ to my ERC Starting Grant application, a period that lasted around 2 months. Yes, a lot of ‘final touches’ were needed before the proposal was finished (actually, I finished it 21 hours before the final deadline!). However, I don’t think that the ERC was an external distraction, something else and foreign that ruined my Spinozist concentration. Instead, by working on the ERC application I changed the way I look at my work and research! In this post I’ll tell you how and why.

Warning: this is just my personal experience, take it cum grano salis.

Preparation. When did I start thinking about the ERC? I guess that the official period was in the Spring of 2015, when, in one of my job interviews, I promised to apply for ERC in 2017. Nobody forced me to, and, actually, applying was not part of the job. So, I can’t blame anyone. I had some experience with grant applications. Between 2013 and 2015, I had already applied to five other grants: FWO (Belgium), SIR (Italy), NWO-veni (two times, Netherlands), and Von Humbolt (Germany). Three of these applications were unsuccessful (FWO, SIR and my first veni shot). In 2015 I got a permanent position and, a few months later, I was awarded a veni. I believed that I finally had a more concrete idea on how the grant system works and what its demands are. With a mix of optimism and naivety (which I think is a condition for embarking on any new adventure), I convinced myself to apply to ERC.

To this end, between 2015 and December 2016, I tried my best to improve my cv (probably the best long-term preparation you can do, besides attending a few workshops about how the ERC Grant system works). I tried to secure the crucial (and quite predictable) indicators for excellence that any applicant wants to have on her or his cv (e.g. prestigious publications, supervision of students, administrative duties, international network). I didn’t see any harm in pursuing these goals and they all seemed worthy of my efforts in their own right. By December 2016 I was under the impression that the ERC ‘preparation’ was going okay and that writing the grant would not be a big deal. At the time, I was already keeping a record with rough ideas about the topic of my project (something about the notion of nature – which is what I always do, in one way or another). I believed I had all I needed in order to start.

Writing the application. In early January 2017, I began the writing process. I contacted professionals whose job is to offer individual support and coaching with such applications. They provided important guidelines about how to structure the proposal and how to think about it. In the beginning, I decided to devote 1-2 days per week to work on the ERC. I was very naive. Very soon I realised that I needed more time to just get clear about the what-why-how of my proposal. I needed more evidence. I had to do actual research to better understand the scientific vision that I was trying to articulate. And I needed to talk with a bunch of people. My working time was quickly saturated by the ERC preparation. It is difficult to estimate how much precisely, but say that, if on average I work 7 days per week, 6 hours per day – working on the ERC occupied 5 of those days. I ran into several dead ends. I lost (better: I dissipated) a lot of time. And yet these are the two key points I learned along the way, which I deem somehow valuable.

1) Find a way of surviving outside your current comfort zone and make the outside your new home.

Finding a topic for a grant proposal takes careful balancing between different (and seemingly contradictory) desiderata. The grant proposal should be on something that falls within your area of specialisation (after all, you should be able to claim that you’re the expert on that niche), but it should be also on something ‘new’ (so you can’t be the expert on that, because it can’t be something you already did). Of course, we could now complain about how bad and nonsensical all of this is. But to see the half-full glass (yes, I’m the half-full-glass-guy), all of this shows that the grant system intentionally pushes you outside your comfort zone. And this is good. Outside of one’s niche there is always the rest of the world. So, what should I choose? Where should I look? No a priori answer is available. What I learned is that, in order to find an answer, you just need to make a few steps outside the niche. However, you have to advance in such a way as to build a path of communication between your niche and the wild-outside-world. In this way the new insights you gain will make the original niche somehow better and more comfortable.

Ok, an example: I was very much a ‘traditional’ historian of philosophy, all for close-reading of texts. This approach is also what I passionately try to teach to my first year bachelor students. But… working on my ERC converted me to Digital Humanities (ta-da!). Or, to be more precise, I realized how quantitative methods could be beneficial for my field and how little had been done on this. I discovered that in literary studies it’s becoming increasingly normal to consider digital ‘distant reading’ as a complementary approach to traditional close reading. And I thought: wouldn’t it be great to do this in the history of philosophy as well?*

During the Spinoza conferences I mentioned above, I was thinking: “Dear Spinoza, you’re just one guy. Thousands of other authors were around you. How can we learn about them and about your relationship with them? Reading them all? Hopefully not” (I’m sure Spinoza is sympathetic with this thought). I won’t explain here how digital approaches can help the history of philosophy, this will be the topic for another post, perhaps. The point is that back in 2015 during a presentation on the role of digital humanities in the history of philosophy, I was the sceptical guy sitting in the back of the room thinking “all of this is rubbish”. I now know that I was wrong, deeply wrong (Dante’s contrappasso rule, here I am).

2) Listen to others, but trust yourself.

While writing my proposal, I received a lot of help (from colleagues, friends, professional proof-readers, random people with whom I talked in order to test ideas, etc.). Yet, the more people you involve and listen to, the likelier it is you will get contradictory feedback. People always disagree. And we don’t find agreement all that interesting anyway (have you ever managed to publish a paper which does nothing else but to repeat the standard view?). So, what to do with this disagreement? You might rank the feedback depending on its source: people with no background in your field react differently than your colleagues do. The feedback is interesting in both cases, but it has different meanings. Also, people who do not know how the specific grant system works (the ERC in this case) might be misguided about the requirements that a proposal should fulfil (e.g. my impression is that the Dutch grant system is quite keen in funding solid projects that ‘cannot fail’, while ERC is much more favourable to ‘high-risk’ stuff, which means that you can actually fail, and that’s part of the game). However, I found out that ranking the feedback (although helpful) is not enough. There are points on which you just face genuine disagreement among different (otherwise equally competent) readers. Since this is inevitable, I reacted into two ways:

(1) I tried my best to foresee which points in my proposal would raise the ‘obvious’ objections. Then, I tried to explain in the clearest way possible the reasons why I took the approach I took. For instance, I planed to study works from three countries. Why these three and not others? (By the way, I got this question – why-this-instead-of-that? –in my NWO-veni interview as well; think about it!) I don’t have a priori theoretical answers. I have pragmatic answers. I stated them and crossed my fingers. I think that at some point all historians must make choices. These choices need to be acknowledged and justified somehow. And I ended up being convinced that pragmatic justifications (feasibility, existing scholarship, already available materials…) are better, since they do not rely on theoretical principles with which the reviewers or the panel members might disagree.

(2) Trust your intuitions. At the end of the day, it’s your proposal, your project, your idea. If people disagree it might be a good sign: you’re proposing something which they didn’t not think about yet, or they did not do yet. You can’t write someone’s else proposal anyway, so better stick to what you find genuinely interesting for yourself. After all, keep in mind that, in the remote case you’ll be funded, it is you who will be doing the research. As Oscar Wilde said, there are two tragedies in life: not achieving one’s desires, and achieving them.

What’s next? I spent ten months working on this application. I think that the final result is decent, but of course this doesn’t matter. Thousands of brilliant people apply each year for ERC and similar grants. Getting the money might depend on a number of other external factors on which we have no power (what Spinoza would call ‘fortune’, i.e. the system of external causes affecting us, which in this case is made of reviewers, panel members, etc.). This means that engaging in this whole ERC-writing process will surely be a hugely time-consuming enterprise, with low probability of success. Thus, my take home message is this: it makes sense to apply for an ERC Starting Grant (or similar large-scale grants) if you can see it as an opportunity to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and to explore possibilities you never considered before. If you’re ready or willing to do that, then go for it. If this is not your cup of tea, then stay away. Far away.

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