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Image: Blondinrikard Fröberg [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Ambition is the watchword for this early career fellowship scheme

The Swiss National Science Foundation’s Ambizione scheme lives up to its name. Reviewers for the scheme—which funds early career researchers from around the world to lead a project in a Swiss lab—put a premium on showing readiness for the challenge of scientific and scholarly independence.

Roughly 80 researchers will receive funding through the programme, and each project is granted up to CHF400,000 (€372,000), usually covering four years. A general Ambizione grant covers the applicant’s salary and the funds needed to carry out their project, while an Ambizione project grant covers project funds only.

Researchers from any discipline can apply, as long as they finished their PhD between one and four years ago. Medically qualified applicants who have done at least three years of clinical work can submit an application up to nine years after they complete their basic medical training. The deadline for submissions is 1 November. 

Antonio Currao, who leads the scheme, explains its rationale.

How long has the Ambizione programme been going?

It began in 2008 and we are currently on our 15th call. Before Ambizione, we ran a scheme that allowed applicants to do a postdoctoral stay abroad—which is now our postdoc mobility fellowship scheme—and we had a scheme at the assistant professor level, which is now called Eccellenza. 

We had calls targeted within Switzerland at postdoctoral and a more established level, with a gap in between for career support. This is why Ambizione was introduced.

How many people apply?

A lot! The average has been more than 400 for the past three years. This is why the success rate is quite low—around 17 to 21 per cent. The high demand also means that competition is tough—we have to reject a lot of really good applicants. But you can apply to the scheme twice.

At one to four years post PhD, the eligibility window is narrow.

Yes, that’s to encourage early independence, although there are options to extend the eligibility window; for example, for those with caring responsibilities. 

You [will need to] have had one year at postdoc level. Because the work carried out at postdoc level and the experience an applicant has gained has to be assessed, it is useful to have at least one postdoctoral output when applying.

Do projects have to be based in Switzerland?

Yes, at a Swiss higher education institution or at a non-commercial research institution outside the higher education sector. But all applicants have the option to spend up to 12 months abroad. 

If the project requires it, you can plan to go for six months to Oxford, four months to Boston, and two months to Sydney, for example.

Do you offer any matchmaking assistance for applicants looking to find a suitable host department in Switzerland?

No, the applicant has to find and contact potential research institutions themselves. There are commitments that a research institution must fulfil. To ensure compliance, we provide a template for the confirmation letter on our website.

What is the visa situation like?

For citizens of a Schengen Area country, no visa is required. For other countries, Switzerland may have special agreements. But in any case, if a grant is awarded, a residence permit will be issued by the authorities and a working contract will be prepared by the research institution for the duration of the funding.

What is considered important in applications?

It is very important that your project is truly independent. The goal is not to do more of the same postdoc work; we really want to see that your project is something you would like to do, and that it is based on your own idea. Of course, each project will be based on the applicant’s background, what they learned on their PhD and during their postdoc, but they cannot just continue in the same vein. There must be more than that.

Is there an interview stage?

Yes. We have a two-step evaluation process. In the first stage, the panel makes a preselection based on the application. If you are selected for the second phase, there is peer review and the applicants also have to present their work. This is usually a 10-minute presentation and a 15-minute discussion with the panel. Candidates are then ranked, and we decide how many candidates we can fund based on the ranking and the available budget.

What increases the likelihood of making the shortlist?

First we look at the applicant and what they have done so far. Have they got the competencies? We look at their track record, and we look at the applicant’s career plan. Then we look at the project itself. We look at what the project is and whether it is original, relevant and feasible. We also look at the host institution—is it a good choice for the project? Will there be the option for scientific exchange? It’s all in the evaluation criteria. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com