Five whys

Gepubliceerd op: 25/11/2021

During an ERC or NWO interview, you want to share as much reasons to give you the research money as possible. These five questions will help you find them.

If you want to sell your research, it helps to make your unique selling points explicit. During my career coaching sessions and the training of ERC (e.g. StG, CoG) and NWO (e.g. Veni, Vidi, Vici, Zwaartekracht) candidates, I often brainstorm about these USPs. By asking a sequence of questions (and only accepting answers I understand) I harvest the strongest arguments speaking for the candidate and proposal. The thus found plusses find their way into the presentation, but also serve as input for the Q&A. Although I have a great variety of things to ask, it all comes down to the following five whys.

Why this?

By the end of their interaction with you, you want the panel members to be convinced of the importance of the problem you address. I search this importance in three places. The first is the narrow academic impact, the contribution to your field, the things you will have completed at the end of the project, the answers to your research questions. Questions that can help to formulate this could be: What of this research will be part of the first years textbooks ten years from now? Or: what will your most important publications be about?

The second place is the broader academic impact. What new research will your project inspire? What other fields will benefit? Think of the methodology, the equipment, the approach you develop to do your research. Researchers in other fields could apply them to answer different questions. The third place is the societal relevance. What does the tax-payer get in return for their money? Why should your neighbour care?

While discussing impact, I often encounter a tension between academic and societal relevance. A study dealing with fundamental scientific questions automatically feels as societal irrelevant. Why should society pay for your intellectual hobby? If there is societal relevance it needs extra highlighting. On the other hand, a study that very clearly impacts society feels as not scientifically relevant. Why should this be done with public money if it could also be done on the R&D department of a company? A proposal with obvious societal relevance becomes extra interesting if the scientific challenges are made explicit.

Why now?

Great, the panel members see the importance of the proposal. But why should it be done now? What is the urgency? Can it wait ten more years? The answer is clear when the problem heads towards an irreversible tipping point. Also an increase of what should be decreasing (deaths, tumors, costs, suffering, sea levels (unless it is the Death Sea)) or a decrease of what should be increasing (income, equality, life expectancy, acres of tropical forest) ask for a solution as soon as possible. That is also true for an obstacle that hampers the advancement of your field. But hey, if it is so important, why did you not start the research five years ago? The answer can be that the machines are available for the first time, or recent discoveries (maybe they are even yours) brought to the desired breakthrough within reach.

Why like this?

So, the problem you address is important and we want a solution now. Why should we try to solve it like you propose? Are there better ways to do it? Why do you deviate from the way things usually are done in your field? Will it work? And, what if not? A clear research setup (with a plan B) that makes explicit where it rests upon existing work and where it will need innovation helps to answer these questions. A thing to consider here is the balance between ambition and feasibility. The more ambitious a proposal is, the more it raises questions about feasibility. At the same time a very feasible proposal can be perceived as unambitious. An already successful pilot study can contribute to the feasibility of an ambitious plan. And, a very feasible plan needs highlighting of its challenging aspects.

Why you?

You have convinced the panel members that your approach is going to solve the problem they now care about. Why are you the one that should execute the research? Obviously, answers to this question come from your CV. Ideally, the key challenges of the proposal match your competences and experience. Proofs of these are your publications, presentations, awards, grants, etc.

But, equally important is your drive. Why do you prefer an academic career over a much better paying and more secure job in industry? Why do you come out of your bed every morning and go to the lab? The first answer that comes to mind, is the moral obligation you might feel to make the world a better place. However, what really helps you to overcome setbacks and deliver what you promise, is your intrinsic curiosity and love for doing research. Genuine enthusiasm is a vital selling point.

Why here?

You might be the one who is able to do the research that will contribute to solving the problem, but you are not going to make it on your own. Without professional support and the right research facilities you are nowhere. Why did you choose the host institute? The host may have the unique museum collections or the cutting-edge technology needed to do the research. Also, it can be the expertise and knowledge of the people working there. If the host institute is not that well-known (yet), it might for instance be the opportunity for pioneering they offer you that makes it a great place to do the research.

You can also answer this question by looking beyond the walls of your host institute. Think about the network you built over the years, the institutes that are willing to open their doors for you, to give you feedback, to do some of the work. Who does what? What is your contribution, where do you rely on the expertise of others? Ideally it becomes clear who is contributing to each challenge and why they will be able to deliver. Try to find a nice balance between the work you do and what you delegate. In the end, it is your proposal.

How to use the five whys

The above mentioned questions can help you to construct the most favourable picture of the proposal and yourself. These tips help you to put them to use:

  • Brainstorming becomes more effective if you ask an outsider with knowledge of the academic world (it can be me, it can be a friend, your spouse) to ask you these questions and only accept concise answers that they understand. A bit of Dutch directness helps.
  • Create a list of separate answers. Write them down as catchy phrases.
  • Order these answers per key question from crucial to trivial. Take the response of your sparring partner into account while doing this. Things that are obvious to you can be new and exciting to the other.
  • Place the most important answers repeatedly in your presentation script. Repeat the crucial ones (e.g. societal relevance typically is mentioned in the beginning and end).
  • Train yourself during mock interviews to recognize opportunities to repeat your USPs during the Q&A.

Main image: RossMannYYC on Pixabay

Hermen Visser

Hermen Visser

Hermen Visser (1985) studied Biology at Leiden University. Already during his studies he developed a passion for science communication and took his first steps as a trainer. He taught students in layout skills and the graphic software Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. Since his graduation in 2011 he works as a freelance science journalist and trainer. He was radio and web editor at the editorial offices of the Dutch broadcasting agencies. VPRO and NTR. Currently he writes as a freelancer for VPRO Gids and Trouw.