Called for an ERC interview and “wanna die”? 14 points to carry you through

The number 14 is avoided in China because it sounds like “wanna die”. I compiled interview tips to help fellow candidates move from procrastination to preparation. They happened to add up to 14, and I kept the numbering to acknowledge the hardship.


«Brokerage» is a key term in my ERC Starting Grant Project «Brokering China’s Extraversion: An Ethnographic Analysis of Transnational Arbitration». Preparing for my own Starting Grant interview a year ago, I encountered a number of brokers. Like many other candidates, I sought advice from people who knew two worlds – the world of EU funding and the world of academia – and were willing to help me bridge them.

Some claimed to possess exceptional insights into the purportedly mysterious decision-making in ERC scientific committees. Academic consultancy firms have a commercial interest in presenting the committees’ work as a black box that only they can give you a peek into.

Others emphasized the random nature of decision-making in the committees and limited importance of the interviews. There were typically other academics, who didn’t think of themselves as brokers, but had gone through the ERC process and were willing to share their experiences. They had been in the cramped interview room, and helped me envision myself inside it (“there’s no place to put down your water bottle”; “regard the committee as fellow researchers: they’re visionaries, but also petty”).

In between the eager salespersons and conscripted volunteers were research officers at my university and the national level. They desired nothing more than for my application to succeed, and dished out a mix of encouragement and advice even as their uncertainty in my ability to make it sometimes was blatant.

My preparations included hours and days of procrastination and paralyzation. I searched around for advice even though I knew that focused preparation was what I needed the most. The list below is prepared with fellow applicants in mind.

1.       Speak with contagious enthusiasm. You are addressing to fellow researchers. They think research is awesome, but they are also tired, hungry, nervous, and/or distracted. Make them forget this as they get excited about the prospects of funding your project.

2.       Provide short replies. Around twenty of your peers will evaluate you, and many have prepared questions based on your application. Give them the opportunity to pose these questions by offering short answers.

3.       Provide concise replies. Most of the questions I got could be anticipated. Yet, I did not have adequate answers at hand during early trial interviews or conversations. The most important preparation I did was to prepare concise replies and straightforward examples in response to key questions. Some questions were broad enough to structure academic articles after the project was funded. No researcher is impressed by an answer that mostly conveys that “it’s complicated.”

4.       Prepare a Q&A list. This relates to the two previous points. I found it helpful to write out the questions and my answers, often in bullet points. I practiced presenting the answers in order not to find myself lost in a line of reasoning that I regretted having started during the interview. By the time I went to Brussels, the list was internalized and the physical document was destroyed.

5.       Take special care to reply adequately to the first interviewer. This person knows your application and the external experts’ opinions the best, and will ask questions based on this information. The advice to remain concise is still relevant, and relatively short answers can be followed by indications that you’re happy to elaborate in the direction the interviewer deems useful (eg. “did that address your concern?”).

6.       If you anticipate a difficult question, acknowledge the challenge. ERC projects are supposed to entail risks. When committee members bring up a risk you have anticipated, you have communicated the relationship between risks and gains well. Acknowledge the challenges in your project, and provide well-prepared answers to explain why you are well-equipped to deal with them and how you plan to do it.

7.       Treat negative committee members as if they are genuinely curious. If an adverse attitude shines through, handle it with grace and earnestness. If you react defensively, other committee members may pick up on your negative body language or tone and become more critical towards you even if the criticism raised is unfounded.

8.       Make those asking the questions feel respected and intelligent. The committee members too are in front of their peers. Sometimes a question will come across as misplaced. A reflection that’s related to the question may put both the person asking and yourself in a better light than digging for clarifications.

9.       Start addressing key challenges in your presentation. It’s tempting to hope that the committee will overlook the key challenges in the proposal. It’s also unlikely. By bringing up the main one(s) in your presentation, you can start address some of the questions the committee members will have during the Q&A. To convince the committee that you don’t have blind spots, your replies are strengthened when they refer back to the presentation as well as the application.

10.   Time and test your presentation. Timing is simple. Just do it. There are many things applicants can’t control, but everyone can keep within the designated time. Test the presentation on colleagues, fellow applicants, research officers, or friends. Invite questions. Take critique seriously. A good research article requires formal and informal peer review, critical comments, painful choices, and numerous drafts. So does an 8-minute presentation of a 1.5 Million Euro research project.

11.   Wear clothes you’re comfortable in. If you don’t wear blazers, don’t buy one for this occasion. If a suit makes you feel like an awkward teenager, there are other options. If you feel great in a tie, pull out your favorite one, even if your university’s research officer says it’s way too flashy. To present the best version of your researcher self, it helps to feel like yourself.

12.   Have a waiting room strategy. You have to wait for an hour alongside other candidates. The atmosphere in the room can be tense—or very congenial. Be prepared for both, and decide whether you want to shut the world out by wearing headsets or get warmed up through small talk with fellow candidates. (If you go for the latter, be ready for annoyed glances from cramming candidates.)

13.   Have a strategy for entering and exiting from the interview room. If you’ve never felt like a deer in headlight, skip this point. For me, it helped to envision the first 30 seconds of the interview: I would shake the hand of the committee leader, look at him, look at a section of the people in the room, and say “Thank you for this opportunity.” “Good morning” or “I’m glad to be here” would have worked just as well, but having the sentence ready helped me get on the right track before the presentation. I didn’t have a strategy for exiting from the interview room. When the clock suddenly beeped in the middle of my answer, I kept on finishing replying as the secretary dragged me out of the room. Stopping mid-sentence to say a calm “thank you” would have made for a more dignified sortie.  

14.   Present a compelling vision for future work. The list has gone full circle: You have great ambitions, you have done solid research in the past that enables you to realize these ambitions, and all you need is the funding from the ERC to get on with it. Be prepared to convince the committee of this during your designated 20 minutes.

The language of economic development: "Greater Bay Area"

The development plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area (粤港澳大湾区发展规划纲要) was published yesterday. It contains lots of interesting material for economic geographers, but it was my early training in physical geography that first kicked in: Is “bay” a fitting description for the region? I jumped down a rabbit hole into the world of coastal geography. Came out with lots of fun facts (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides a legal definition for “bay”!) and strengthened in my belief that policy objectives rather than coastal morphology inspires the terminology.

At midnight the day the plan was released, Global Times wrote: “China on Monday released a grand plan for the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, aiming to build a global economic and technological powerhouse in the country's south region that could be on par with bay areas in New York and San Francisco” (emphasis added). 24 hours later, Global Times raised the bar: “With a combined GDP of $1.5 trillion in 2017, [the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area] is on track to surpassing the world's three existing major bay areas - San Francisco, New York and Tokyo - to become the world's most vigorous and largest bay area by economic output, analysts said” (emphasis added).

The strategy is devised at the national level, according to Xinhua by Chairman Xi himself: "It is a national strategy General Secretary Xi Jinping has planned for, made decisions about and promoted in person."

The plan and the change in vocubulary are relevant to some of the key questions in BROKEX: What does the plan say about the role of the Pearl River Delta region in national development strategies? Does it imply less autonomy for local governments in devising development strategies? How does the plan condition how actors in the PRD engage with the rest of the world?

Greater Bay Area graphics.jpg

Figure explanation: Google hits on the phrases “粤港澳大湾区” and “珠三角” by 1 January each year. The last count plotted, where “粤港澳大湾区” surges, is from a search 20 February 2019, 9:00 a.m. Beijing time. Versions of “珠三角”, such as “珠江三角洲”, are not included in the search since the main purpose of the figure is to show the surge in the use of the term “Greater Bay Area”.

Conference surprise: Gene-edited children!

Member of the BROKEX Advisory Group, Dr Joy Yueyue Zhang, told me that she’d present at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. I made a note in my calendar. Then I didn’t think more about it.

Right before the summit commenced, the internet blew up. A Chinese scientist claimed that he had created the world’s first gene-edited children. Twins, no less. The scientist, He Jiankui from Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, would present his finding at the summit in Hong Kong.

As a former bureaucrat in the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, I imagined the frantic backroom discussions before the opening of the Summit. I watched the opening webcast this morning. The strategy seemed to be to continue as if nothing had happened. Hon. Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of HK SAR, kicked off the conference by promising research investments and collaborations with the Mainland of unprecedented scale and ambition. Leaders of the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, The Royal Society, and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine followed up with polite remarks.

Joy Zhang has written compellingly about the tension between what she terms “post-hoc pragmatism” in STEM in the PRC and the need to adhere to regulatory procedures to gain international recognition. Many Chinese researchers want to get rid of an image of the “Wild East,” where there are no ethical boundaries placed on research. This is not confined to the hard sciences: Anthropologists, for example, have called for institutionalized ethical reviews.

While Professor He proudly presented his results on YouTube, many of his Chinese colleagues were furious. A letter co-signed by more than 100 Chinese scientists reads: “We can only use the word “insane” (疯狂) to describe the experiment conducted directly on human beings.”

The Chinese authorities seem to run with the “crazy scientist”-explanation, denying knowledge about the experiment. This may do more harm than good to the frustrated Chinese researchers — it gives the impression that they operate in an institutional vacuum when it comes to ethics.

The example illustrates how institutions can be matchmakers or deal breakers. Unless there are institutional third parties that independently guarantee ethical standards when Chinese and foreign researchers work together, collaboration may be impossible. Again, this challenge is not confined to STEM: With the introduction of GDPR and no equivalent regulation in China (yet), European social scientists can’t hand over data with personal information to colleagues in China.

UPDATE: He Jiankui’s institution SUSTech denies any involvement with the experiment. (I’ll stop updating now, 1:30 pm HK time).

Heidi Østbø Haugen, Guangzhou 27 November 2018.

Photo by Tom Vanhoof on Unsplash.

Photo by Tom Vanhoof on Unsplash.

Contract with the ERC signed!

As it turns out, signing a contract with the ERC is a marathon, not a sprint. The message from the ERC that they would fund BROKEX was delivered without much fanfare (“your proposal has been retained for funding in this call”). In fact, I had to read the email several times to be sure that it delivered good news.

Then there were a bunch of Ts to cross and Is to dot. Yet, the signature date for the final contract with the ERC set to November 17 2018 seemed so far away. Surely, we’d be able to work things out way before then!

Today, November 16, I was informed that the BROKEX grant agreement and been signed and counter-signed. We’re entering a new phase where building a team and collecting data is the main focus. I’m very excited to be recruiting two postdocs and a PhD student to work with me on this project!

The signing itself is done electronically. It did not make for good visuals. Instead, I include an image of a genius patch they sold at the corner store outside my home in Guangzhou when the school year began. They stopped selling it after students had moved from summer holiday mode to bright-and-studious mode. I too am definitely awake now that the actual research can begin!

Heidi Østbø Haugen. Guangzhou 16 November 2018.


Brokers, brokers' brokers, and termites

A foreigner hunting for a home in Guangzhou inevitably relies on brokers. The street that runs along Sun Yat-sen University’s North gate has more housing brokers than restaurants, many of them located right next door to each other. I entered three such shops, drank the glasses of lukewarm water placed in my hand, and added them on WeChat.

Offers soon started flowing into my WeChat account. Duplicates of blurry photos taken in dimly lit rooms proved that each house owner worked with several brokers. The broker charges a month’s worth of rent, half form the owner and half from the tenant. They work for a small number of companies, and offices within the same company compete to close deals. In order not to lose their spirit in the face of tough competition, they start the day with a half-hour session of loud upbeat music, pep talks, and slogan chants. Sometimes hundreds of employees gather to hear the company founder or regional manager give an inspirational speech.

Sitting across from a lovely couple in their 30s to sign the lease contract with them, I was felt relief that the intense interaction with housing brokers soon would come to an end. I thought.

When we moved into the apartment, it looked nothing like the slick place we’d viewed two days earlier. It reeked of cigarettes and alcohol, and it turned out it had been rented out through AirBnB. I started doubting that the couple were the real owners — who would turn their own apartment into a party space? My suspicion was confirmed when we needed to register with the police. The real owner, a middle aged woman who lived in another city, had to be with us. The agents did their best to keep us apart, and to hide information about what we actually paid in rent from the actual owner. We had to play along to get the papers we needed to legally live in the apartment: Our down payment was already in the no-longer-so-lovely couple’s bank account.

My Chinese vocabulary related to plumbing and electricity was already quite advanced after having rented apartments in China twice before. In our new apartment, the housing brokers addressed water and power-related emergencies effectively. However, when we informed them that termites (白蚁 has been added to my vocabulary) were eating up the apartment from the inside, they were completely uninterested. Eventually, the apartment will be completely gutted by the termites, but by then the brokers are long gone. And so will we.

Heidi Østbø Haugen. GUangzhou 9 November 2018.

Enjoying the view from our temporary home.

Enjoying the view from our temporary home.

Banner photo by Dustin Lee on Unsplash.