Peer Story

Securing the Emmy Noether Grant: The journey and key takeaways in the field of neuroscience

Casey Paquola, a Klaus Tschira Boost Fund fellow, recently secured the prestigious Emmy Noether Grant. In this interview, she shares what contributed to her success.

Dr. Casey Paquola is a neuroscientist and research group leader at the Forschungszentrum Jülich, specializing in human brain development. She is also a recipient of the Klaus Thschira Boost Fund. Recently, she secured funding through the Emmy Noether Programme from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). This program supports early career researchers, allowing them to lead an independent junior research group and facilitating qualification for a professorship.

We asked Casey to share her insights into the grant application journey. She offered advice on crafting applications, emphasizing the importance of preparation and support from a mentor.

What is the typical processing duration for Emmy Noether grant applications? Is it a waiting period similar to the DFG grant submission process?

Yes, exactly. From my experience, it took around a year. I submitted my application in early November 2022 and received a response back in October 2023. I had an interview scheduled about four weeks later and just two days after that I found out, I was accepted. It was about a year in total.

When preparing an application, could you identify two or three critical factors to consider? What aspects would you emphasize as especially significant to keep in mind?

One aspect was refining the text to ensure its readability by a broader audience beyond my field. Working with someone in a related but different field who was highly critical proved particularly helpful. If they indicated something did not make sense, I would rewrite it.

It was not about receiving guidance on how to rewrite something, rather, it was about someone expressing their lack of understanding. I noticed that from the start to the end, the text became clearer for everyone.

Another aspect is that while I typically approach manuscript writing pragmatically, with this project, perfectionism was key. I found myself repeatedly revising every detail. Unlike other projects where good enough sufficed, this required months of refinement. However, I believe this approach paid off. Though it may not be a usual practice, it truly proves valuable in the end.

What to keep in mind when crafting a grant application:

    • Stay open to critical feedback to enhance text clarity for a broader audience.

    • Dedicate ample time for refinement, as it can lead to significant success in the long run.

Was the involvement or support from your institution, Forschungszentrum Jülich, necessary, such as collaborating with departments like human resources or third-party funding?

There was minimal interaction with them. They posed a few minor inquiries, such as the current DFG rate. As for the budget, they conducted a thorough examination.

Your academic standing, research, and output played an important role in securing this grant. Beyond these metrics, do you perceive additional factors that could influence the acquisition of such grants?

Yes, upon reviewing the comments from reviewers, I observed several key points they emphasized. One aspect was the focus of my project proposal, which centered on building a generalizable framework with wide-reaching outcomes across various fields of neuroscience. They also appreciated my reliance on open data sets, enabling the pursuit of ambitious yet achievable goals due to readily available data.

Having something that looks grand in terms of the aims, but very manageable in terms of our own tasks on the ground was something they complimented.

They consistently expressed their expectation for highly original proposals. I believe I related to that since they appreciated how my past work served as a solid foundation for the project, yet introduced novel elements. You have to find that balance between your past work and innovative ideas.

I also authored two reviews during the year when the grant was under review. These reviews covered two of the main elements of the project. Consequently, the reviewers acknowledged my comprehensive knowledge of the field and that I have been progressively building towards it.

So, I believe shaping it in a way that truly reflects the continuous progression towards this goal throughout your entire career is something that’s valued.

Another thing they appreciated was that I had already established international collaborations, continued to disseminate my work, and was able to leverage different types of opinions and datasets.

What the evaluation committee values:

    • Proposals with broad-reaching outcomes and reliance on open data sets.

    • A balance between ambitious aims and manageable execution.

    • Originality while building on past work.

    • Comprehensive knowledge and progression in the field showcased through relevant reviews.

    • Establishing international collaborations and actively disseminating your work.

Are you hoping or maybe also expecting that this grant will make your next steps in your academic career easier?

Definitely. I almost set up in my mind as a bit of a turning point. If secure this grant, I could have a long-term career here in Germany. On the other hand, if I do not, I should start looking into industry or other sectors.

It was a pivotal moment for me.

The response I received from the head of my institute was incredibly positive. He had always been supportive, but now, with this grant possibility, he has expressed even more support, confirming that I have the institute’s complete support. This assurance is particularly valuable, especially considering the current budget constraints prevalent across Germany.

It played an instrumental role in keeping me in academia long-term. Now, I am very hopeful that I can continue with my desired path toward a professorship and studying in academia.

Have you obtained a permanent position?

No, not yet. The next grant you can apply for is the Heisenberg, which serves as a bridge toward a more permanent position. Institutes are often encouraged to offer tenure-track positions to Emmy Noether recipients. My official start is in October, once I finish maternity leave. So, we will see how things progress from there.

What role did the KT Boost Fund play?

It was fantastic. Because it took so long to get the Emmy Noether grant, the first part of it was already something we were working on with the KT Boost. There was only one critical question that came up in my interview. Namely, whether I had truly considered the difficulty of working with post-mortem data. Thanks to the KT Boost, I could confidently respond that my PhD student had been focusing on that for the past year.

It was perfect that the section of my grant, which seemed the most uncertain, was something I had used the KT Boost to address. Then, during the interview, I could confidently state that I had the preliminary data and could inform them accordingly. It was perfect.

Did you receive any coaching for the interviews, or did you prepare on your own and navigate through them independently?

I changed institutes just a month or two before the interview invitation. The head of my new institute is incredibly supportive and he often serves on these DFG panels. I presented to him twice and to other colleagues. He was particularly helpful because he knew precisely what people were looking for on these panels.

So, it was mostly guidance from colleagues and having a mentor who was knowledgeable and willing to provide constructive criticism while also being positive and supportive. It was the perfect combination.

Is there anything else you would like to mention?

I am glad we covered the KT Boost funding because it truly played a crucial role in addressing that critical interview question with preliminary data.

Additionally, it helped illustrate leadership within the institute: I already had a leadership position, the institute supported me and provided funding, I had a PhD student. It showed that I was already on my way to being a good project leader. This evidence likely reassured them that I was capable of handling such a big project on my own for the next few years.

Thank you so much, Casey!

Five key insights from the interview:

1. Crafting a clear and successful application demands meticulous refinement, which ultimately pays off.

2. Finding the right balance between ambitious aims and manageable execution is crucial.

3. Comprehensive knowledge and progression in the field should not be underestimated.

4. A supportive mentor and constructive criticism from colleagues greatly aid in preparation.

5. Building confidence and preparing for challenging interview questions are essential for success.