Lessons learned from switching an intensive MSCA proposal preparation event online due to COVID-19 restrictions
Format: Pecha Kucha
Topic: Proposal Development
Thursday 5 May 11:45 a.m. - 12:45 p.m. (UTC)
Eurac Research has organized the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Week (MSC Week) since 2016. It is an intensive proposal preparation event for researchers who wish to apply for the MSCA Individual/Postdoctoral Fellowships with Eurac Research as their host. Annually, we invited around 10 researchers to Bolzano (Italy) for intensive training and proposal development together with the Research Support Office, prospective supervisors, and our current MSCA Fellows. In 2020, we shifted the in-person event online because of the pandemic and also held it online in 2021. Shifting between formats has allowed us to reflect on what makes for a good proposal preparation event.
The benefits of the in-person event seem obvious. Once physically in Bolzano, the applicants more easily connect with the host, can collaborate directly with their prospective supervisor to define the scope and the objectives of their proposal, and to experience first-hand the training and research support available in Eurac Research. As RMAs the in-person event allowed us to get to know the applicants as persons and moderate their discussions with the supervisors.
But there were also limits to the in-person events. The organization was both time and cost intensive (Eurac Research paid the travel and accommodation costs of applicants). We could invite only a limited number of applicants and lost some strong applicants who could not travel to Europe because of visa or other reasons. The in-person events also required us, the RMAs, but also prospective supervisors and their teams to block off extended time for hosting the applicants.
The online events resolved some of these issues. We can accommodate more applicants and it eases the participation of non-European applicants. Both applicants and prospective supervisors and their teams more easily fit an online event in their schedules. But we have also seen that the online events compete for attention with their other obligations and applicants struggle to begin drafting their proposals already during the event. Here, the format of the online events is key. In 2020, we just delivered our planned in-person event online, which was too much content and too little exchange. In 2021, we delivered content via pre-recorded videos and reserved live sessions for discussion and exercises. Together with the online MSC Weeks, we also started weekly live Q&A sessions in the months before the submission deadline which have given more structure to our exchanges with the applicants during proposal preparation. These Q&A sessions have improved proposal quality and streamlined our work as RMAs.
We do not know yet which pandemic-related restrictions await us in spring 2022, but even if there were no restrictions, we are undecided about how we want to proceed with our MSC Weeks. And this is our take away message. Both in-person and online events have their benefits and limits, one format is not better than the other. Rather we must understand what we as RMAs want to achieve and the resources – including time – we have available. And we cannot discount changes to the willingness to travel, and to habits of working, that the pandemic has caused in our applicants.