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A new report sheds light on the varied funding schemes available for postdocs in Europe.

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The many shades of European postdoc funding

Finding the right grant or fellowship to fund a postdoc can be a challenge, and the situation is all the more complex in Europe, where academic systems, career prospects, and living costs vary widely among countries. To help navigate through the options, a report released Wednesday by Science Europe, a pan-European association of research funders and institutions, offers some pointers about what to expect and look for in postdoctoral funding programs across the continent.

The report covers about 100 funding schemes offered by Science Europe member organizations in 23 European countries and by the European Commission, the European Research Council, and the European Molecular Biology Organization. Although not all relevant funding bodies are represented in the survey, and research institutions—many of which directly support young researchers—are largely absent, the report gives a feel for the wide variety of funding programs that are available.

All of the programs are dedicated to fostering postdocs’ career development, but beyond that, the specific objectives cover a variety of topics. Many aim to promote international mobility by offering funding to go abroad. Some support young researchers in building their own research groups. Others help postdocs hone their leadership skills. A small number support postdocs who are developing new businesses and moving into industry and other sectors. Three aim to promote career development for women (in Austria and Switzerland—not all European countries legally allow funding programs to be gender specific). Seven of the schemes, in France and Germany, offer tenure or tenure-track opportunities, although, as the report points out, such remit usually falls to the research institutions rather than the funding agencies.

The amounts offered and time periods covered vary as well. Thirty of the schemes are reported to award up to €200,000 per grant; 27 offer up to €500,000; and 12 give above €1 million, generally to support new principal investigators over a period of 5 years. Around a third of the schemes provide funding for no more than 2 years, and half for 3 or 4 years. The funding can generally be spent on salaries for the awardees, and it often also includes money for living costs, equipment, or travel—and sometimes even for staff salaries, training courses, and networking activities. For the 26 most competitive programs, less than 15% of applicants were awarded the grants. At the other end of the spectrum, five programs have a success rate of greater than 50%.

In most cases, the grant is attached to an employment contract with the recipient's institution that includes public social security coverage such as health insurance and pension benefits. A minority of the schemes—most of which promote geographic mobility—do not include social security benefits, but many of these try to offset this downside by offering allowances for travel, family support, and private pensions.

It’s clear from the survey that funders generally view financial support as the most potent aspect of a grant when it comes to helping young scientists develop their careers, but the report also points out that “[a]bout half of the schemes contain some form of career development features, for example career planning, networking activities, travel grants for interviews, supervision, mentoring, training and alumni events.” However, “[i]t was not always clear whether these opportunities were offered by the funder or in co-operation with the host institution,” and only in rare cases did funders obligate or evaluate provision of such services by institutions. Some schemes require that the supervisor and postdoc, and sometimes the institution as well, design an individual career development plan, and some postdocs in Ireland have to report on their progress every 6 months. As part of their application, some postdocs in Norway must provide a personal career development plan to help them get the training they need and stay on track with their aspirations.

Check out the full report to see what options might work for you or how your program measures up to others.

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