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Don’t wait for a perfect CV to apply for ERC funding

Jill Walker Rettberg has been awarded EUR 2 million in funding from the European Research Council (ERC) to conduct research on how new technology affects how we see ourselves and understand the world. She is glad she did not try to fill in all the gaps in her CV before applying for an ERC grant.

"You’ll always have doubts about whether you're good enough. There will always be something lacking in your CV. But you shouldn’t give in to the naysayers," says Professor Jill Walker Rettberg. She applied for an ERC grant and won close to NOK 20 million for a new project on how new technology affects our perception of our surroundings. (Photo: Eivind Senneset, UiB)

"This is a fantastic chance to devote myself to research I find exciting," says Jill Walker Rettberg. She has recently returned from a semester-long stay at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA.

Over the next five years she will have EUR 2 million – almost NOK 20 million at today’s exchange rate – to work on a wide-ranging question relating to our use of modern media and technology. In her project, "Machine Vision in Everyday Life: Playful Interactions with Visual Technologies in Digital Art, Games, Narratives and Social Media", she will be looking at how the use of technology affects how we see ourselves and understand the world. ERC Consolidator Grants are awarded to the top projects from the best applicants, from a pool of researchers in the process of establishing themselves as independent project managers. The funding gives Dr Rettberg the opportunity to launch a research team that includes three research fellows, another researcher in addition to herself, and administrative and technical support staff.

See €2 million to study the cultural effects of machine vision (UiB website 19 January 2018)

Professor Rettberg works in the Department of Linguistic, Literary and Aesthetic Studies, University of Bergen. "Digital culture" is a relatively new subject that started at the Faculty of Humanities as "Humanistic informatics" in the 1990s. Today, she is one of five tenured staff researching and teaching in "Digital Culture", as the subject was renamed in 2009.

"I heard about ERC Starting Grants many years ago. I had the impression there was almost no point in even trying because the standard was so high. Nonetheless, I ended up attending a course held at the University of Bergen for people thinking about seeking ERC funding. Then, after a research sabbatical three to four years ago, I encountered some questions that I couldn't answer without the help of others. That was when I decided to apply for ERC funding," Dr Rettberg explains. She and her team will be starting their project in the summer 2018.

ERC requirements for projects are very stringent, and applicants need to have experience in international research, demonstrate independence in their careers and be capable of leading a research group. At the time Dr Rettberg was planning to apply for an ERC Consolidator Grant, there was a hole in her CV: she had not yet supervised any doctoral fellows. She was advised to wait until she could also include supervisory experience in her CV, but chose to apply anyway. Today, she is glad she made that decision.

The application process is useful in itself, according to Jill Walker Rettberg. "I felt I learned a great deal from the considerable follow-up I had from my institution. What is most important is that you get to work on your own ideas." (Photo: Eivind Senneset, UiB) "You'll always have doubts about whether you’re good enough. There will always be something lacking in your CV. But you shouldn't give in to the naysayers. You can apply for an ERC grant before you think you are ready," she says.    

Support from her institution

The encouragement, support and follow-up provided by the University of Bergen have been extremely important. According to Dr Rettberg, applying for an ERC grant completely on your own would be difficult. 

"The Division of Research Administration at UiB offers help to everyone who wants to seek ERC funding. They organise courses and provide an administrative support person. I received Project Establishment Support to compensate for my salary costs, to use for a consultant who gave me feedback on my draft proposals, and to hire an academic coach – who was amazing! I talked with my coach once a week on Skype. That helped me prioritise and better organise my time and tasks and gave me the guts to make a go of it. The university also helped me draft a budget for the application. And I got excellent support from a philosophy professor who has assisted multiple applicants from the university. The external consultant was not an expert in my field, so it was very valuable to have an academic expert who could help me think my ideas through. In other words, I had support on a number of different levels," she explains.

When Dr Rettberg's application advanced to stage two of the evaluation process and she was called in for an interview with the ERC panel, the Faculty of Humanities sent her to a local communications resource centre to develop a five-minute presentation. It was smart to prioritise the presentation. "Five minutes is no time at all and I had to get my main points across," she says.

A "mock panel" might be wise

Dr Rettberg was worried about the panel's questions, but the process went smoothly. When you have worked on a project idea over such a long time, you know it so well that you know what to answer.

"I was given a tip to google the panels. The names of the panel members are not disclosed, but finding out the backgrounds of panel members from previous years gives you a better understanding of the kind of panel member you'll be dealing with. If I were to offer one piece of advice, it would be that institutions should put together a local mock panel, modelled on the ERC, to assess the application and provide feedback before it is submitted," Dr Rettberg suggests.

The panels are comprised of individuals with widely different academic backgrounds. This entails both the opportunity and the risk of encountering unexpected points of view or objections to the project proposal. When an application advances to the second stage, only the panel has access to all of the experts' assessments and any objections, not the applicant. So there may be some unforeseen questions during the interview.

Like an audition

"I was very nervous the evening before the interview. It must be how musicians feel before auditioning. I have a sister who is an oboist in the Kristiansand symphony orchestra, and I asked her for advice on what to do. 'You shouldn't practice more on what you are going to perform – relax instead,' was her recommendation. So I sat in my hotel room, ate cake and watched Netflix. I didn't go through the presentation I was going to give or even practice it."

Living the way she researches

Jill Walker Rettberg was one of the first to conduct research in this new field of technology. What set her research apart was that she is taking a humanities-based standpoint, i.e. the effect of this new technology on culture, ideas and perceptions. She was an early adopter of the new technology herself. She started the first academic blog in Norway in 2000, and continues to update it to this day. She is also an active user of other social media, not least when interacting with her international academic network, and has received an award for her research on Snapchat.   

How we present ourselves: Jill Walker Rettberg is researching among other things how people present themselves in social media, for example via Snapchat’s selfie lenses for creative selfies. The same technology can be used to manipulate reality in more dangerous ways and challenge our ability to think critically. (Photo: Jill Walker Rettberg)

Sharing and discussing

"It's tremendously inspiring to build networks this way. For me, using social media to stay in contact with others working in my field has been academically important. Even if we aren't always working together on specific projects, we can discuss each other's research questions, share articles and give each other feedback using social media. When I first started out there were few people actively studying the subject. It was natural for us to communicate via social media – and it was a big advantage over meeting only once or twice a year at conferences or having to travel all the time," Dr Rettberg explains.

When preparing her ERC application, Dr Rettberg was advised to update how she presented herself in her social media profiles, and she had new photos taken to publish on Flickr. The experts who assess the applications google the applicants as well.

When the ERC notified her that she had been awarded funding, she used her blog post to let the world know. For more information about the project, a short summary is available on her blog.   

Jill Walker Rettberg's tips to others planning to apply for an ERC Consolidator Grant:

  • You'll always have doubts about whether you're good enough. Go ahead and apply for a grant even if you think something is missing or someone says you need more on your CV.
  • The application process is useful in itself. I felt I learned a great deal from the considerable follow-up I had from my institution. What is most important is that you get to work on your own ideas. The process would have been a valuable experience for me even if my proposal had not won funding.
  • When your application advances to stage two: Think of your presentation and the interview as an audition. It is important to relax the evening before.
  • To institutions: Put together a panel with members similar to the scientific make-up of the ERC panel that will be assessing the application and interviewing the applicant. The mock panel can assess the application, provide feedback and, if the application advances to stage two, conducts a trial interview with the applicant.

Translation: Glenn Wells/Carol B. Eckmann

Written by:
Brita Skuland Senior Adviser +47 22 03 75 02
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