Memories about failed grant applications

Aline Sierp, Associate Professor in European History and Memory Studies, is renowned for her contributions to the field. As the co-founder and co-president of the Memory Studies Association and the Council of European Studies’ Research Network on Transnational Memory and Identity in Europe, she has delved deep into the intricacies of collective memory, particularly in the context of European integration.

Despite her notable successes, Aline acknowledges the inevitability of setbacks. One of the most memorable instances was a failed grant application, where she took what turned out to be a risky approach.

Memory politics

Aline’s research interests cover collective memory after experiences of mass atrocities, questions of identity and European integration. Specifically, she examines how societies confront their difficult pasts, such as wars and human rights violations, and how these memories shape European integration. Aline has published extensively on European memory politics. She explores the disparities between Western and Eastern memory narratives and also investigates the EU’s dealing with the memory of Colonialism. Aline also writes about the Dachau concentration camp memorial site (where she worked as a researcher before joining Maastricht University) and Munich’s delayed reckoning with its Nazi past.

Stepping (not too much) out of the comfort zone

Every academic knows that grant applications are brutal. “Competition is fierce and basically everyone is fishing in the same pond. Success often depends on the interview stage.” Aline recounts her experience with an ERC Starting Grant, where she advanced to the interview but ultimately fell short. The ERC emphasizes innovation balanced with feasibility, pushing applicants out of their comfort zones. However, Aline feels she may have ventured too far, facing tough questions and feeling the pressure mount. Despite her experience as a reviewer for grants like the Marie Curie and ERC, navigating the interview proved challenging.

“The surroundings of the interview feel like they are set up to make you nervous: all applicants need to arrive at the same time, your competitors are in the waiting room with you, and there is a big clock behind you when you are presenting your proposal, which everyone just keeps staring at. I was taking a huge gamble with the methodology that I proposed. It could have worked both ways: either the panel would have loved it, or there would be someone in the room who would be able to kill it. 

The latter happened, as the data analyst in the room dissected every bit of my methodology. In hindsight, I was offering something that I didn’t know enough about, and the data analyst looked right through me. I should have stayed on the safe side with my methodology and should have innovated in my theoretical model. I knew right there and then that I wouldn’t receive the grant.”


From ERC to Vidi to Aspasia

Aline refused to give up and decided to rework her ERC proposal and hand it in for one of the NWO (Dutch organization that funds scientific research) funding schemes. “The NWO is much less focused on the innovation angle, and more on solid research.” Aline initially applied for the Vidi, a funding instrument meant for more experienced researchers who want to develop their own line of research. She unfortunately didn’t secure it, but the NWO did offer her another grant: the Aspasia. This grant is awarded to female researchers who have excellent proposals. “In a sense, I may even be happier with the Aspasia grant than the Vidi grant, because the Aspasia offers quite a bit of teaching buyouts.” Aline adapted her proposal based on feedback, ultimately finding success with a different funding avenue.

How to deal with rejection

Rejection is an inevitable part of academia, whether in grant applications or journal submissions. “It’s important to not take rejection personally. It is a judgement of a project rather than the researcher. Regardless of how demotivating rejection is, feedback should be viewed objectively and alternative avenues for publication or funding should be considered. Setbacks are integral to the research process and can sometimes lead to unexpected opportunities. You get to learn from rejection and failure.”

Aline's journey through grant applications underscores the resilience required in academia. Despite setbacks, she remains committed to her research and encourages others to persevere in the face of rejection. Reflecting on her experiences, she advises researchers to embrace setbacks as part of the journey, knowing that each challenge presents an opportunity.


By: Eva Durlinger

Portrait picture by: Eric Bleize

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