Beginning my Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions individual fellowship: An honest account

Introduction

My name is Karina Marsden and this blog will detail the journey of my Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions (MSCA) individual global fellowship. It is intended for anyone who might be interested in applying for one in the future or are curious about what it is like if you successfully achieve one. I intend to update on my progress as I go along, this first blog is written roughly 4 months into the fellowship and provides a personal account of my journey so far.

Deciding to apply for an MSCA fellowship

It was during my first post-doctoral position that, naturally, I began thinking about what would come next and how I could develop my future academic career. I thought about ways I could improve my future career prospects – broadening my research skill set, gaining international experience and evidence of securing grant money seemed like aspects I needed to improve upon, so I started looking at fellowship opportunities. The MSCA grants seemed to fit the bill perfectly, a prestigious fellowship allowing international mobility and knowledge exchange. So I attended a MSCA grant writing workshop – I would highly recommend attending such a course if you can. Here I picked up many hints and tips on how to write a successful proposal. I also found out I could apply in the current year, and if successful, delay the project start (so that I could still finish my current post-doc position). This also meant that if I was unsuccessful in the first round I could potentially resubmit in the following year whilst still being in a job. On reflection, thinking about your next career move early on in your current position is important in securing that next step.

The application process

Deciding to apply in the current year didn’t give me particularly long to write the proposal – just over two months. In hindsight, committing to submit that year with a tight deadline probably helped motivate me to get the proposal written. First was to decide where in the world I would like to spend the outgoing phase. I had visited Melbourne for a conference a few years back and really liked the place. Luckily there was also highly reputable researchers working in a similar field as mine that I could approach to ask for supervision and training during the outgoing phase. So I chose to apply from Bangor University in North Wales, with The University of Melbourne as the host for the outgoing phase. A great thing about these grants is that you bring your own salary and research money, making collaboration more appealing to any potential hosts. I spoke about my ideas with colleagues during the writing process and tried to get as much feedback as possible. It took a lot of personal time, writing in evenings and weekends, but I managed to get the submission in on time.

Winning the grant

I remember the day well where I received the news that the research project had been successfully funded. It was my first application so I was in shock and disbelief that it was actually successful and I was relieved all that hard work had paid off! Writing one of these proposals is a big time investment, and I was worried that if I was unsuccessful all that time would have gone to waste. However, I was told even if unsuccessful you can always reuse a proposal either for a different fellowship or as a resubmission. So don’t view it as a waste of time and be persistent, even if it takes a few attempts.   

After notification of receiving the grant, the next steps were sorting out visas for myself and my husband and ensuring the contracts were sorted between the two institutions I would be working between. So there was a bit of administration type work to do to ensure everything was in place for the start date. As I had a fair bit of time to plan for the move I slowly sold off most of my possessions and managed to fit my life into a couple of suitcases.

Disaster strikes

About two weeks before my departure date I suffered from a complete mental breakdown and even had to go to hospital. Unfortunately I was not well enough to begin my project on time. This was devastating for me and the last thing I anticipated writing about in this blog would be overcoming a mental health issue. But these things are not to be ashamed of and more common than people think. I did not know how long it would take to recover, but in a month I went from not being able to write properly with a pen to being adamant that I was well enough to leave.  

Settling in

It has taken me a fairly long time to settle in. In reality I think my recovery has been a longer process than I would have at first liked to admit. I was trying to manage bouts of anxiety and depression (which I had never experienced before) alongside moving to a completely new place and having to adapt to a new work environment. I had worked in the same institution for my entire academic career so it was a big change for me. My supervisors have been great and helped me realise it is normal to feel a drop in productivity when moving to a new place. I am also grateful to my husband who has been very supportive throughout the whole process. I now feel like I have turned a corner with my issues and that things are looking up. I have some data coming in and my first big field trial underway and a lovely international student has come to help out with some of the experiments as part of a CLIFFGrad scholarship. I’ve really enjoyed living in the city of Melbourne and now I am currently on a research visit in Brisbane at Queensland University of Technology.

Me conducting field research in a dairy pasture in Australia

It is great to get to see different parts of Australia and work with different research groups. If you plan on writing a proposal putting in a research visit to another research institute or industry partner is recommended. It is a great way of increasing your network and to potentially see more of the country you are visiting at the same time.

What’s next

Next I will be continuing working on the project from Australia until December 2020 before I return to Bangor University in the UK for the return year. It will be interesting to see how much I will learn and what will lead on from this position, so follow my blog to hear more about my fellowship in later posts.