Having been a research director at a technical institute in Ireland, Sean McCarthy changed careers in 1988 and started a consulting firm with a focus on knowledge about the EU’s funding system and what a successful research application should look like. This means that he has all of Europe as his place of work, and he has given courses at about 290 universities and research institutes in 29 countries with a total of 48,000 participants.

Sean McCarthy has been working with Stockholm University and the Research Liaison Office for almost ten years. He usually comes here at least once a year to teach researchers how to write a successful application for the EU framework programme. In the end of September, he was here to train about thirty researchers for two days.

Sean McCarthy is enthusiastic when he talks about how researchers should approach the EU’s funding system, a topic that many people find to be impenetrable.

“The Irish are a storytelling people, and I like to use stories. My driving force is to see the participants light up as they realise how the system works and what they need to think about when they apply for funding. The course I give is the course that I would have liked to take before I wrote my first applications for EU funding.”

Crucial to have a good idea

The determining factor of a successful application is if there is a good idea behind it, but the researcher also has to be able to convey and sell the idea.

Sean McCarthy has reviewed about 200 applications on behalf of the European Commission. Experience as a reviewer is important for any applicant. As a reviewer, you have to read applications from fields other than your own and learn what is required for an application to be intelligible to someone in a different field of research. As a reviewer, you learn the system and how successful applicants present their project ideas.

In the past year, Sean McCarthy has gained another important insight based on his own study: many researchers do not understand the larger context that their research is a part of. This insight is now part of the training. The researchers have to explain the relevance of their projects in a broader context. According to Sean McCarthy, researchers must be able to place their projects in a larger context in which they consider political, financial, social, technical, and legal factors.

Do not underestimate coffee-drinking

Researchers often have four months to submit their applications after the call for proposals. This time must be used properly; it is not enough to start working on the application a month before the deadline.

Any successful researcher will start long before that, and networking will be a central part of the work effort. Sean McCarthy speaks of “five critical seconds”. This is when somebody who is considering  applying as a project coordinator reads the email with the call for proposals and starts to create a list of people they want to work with.

“If you do not drink coffee around Europe, forget this business,” as Sean McCarthy succinctly puts it.

If you want to know more about Sean McCarthy’s training or have any other questions about help with applications and presentations of research projects, please contact the Research Liaison Office at info@fs.su.se.

Five questions to ask yourself

1. Why should this particular research receive funding?

2. Why should the EU finance it?

3. Has this research been conducted before?

4. Would it matter if your project is not carried out?

5. What makes you the most suitable person to lead this project?

Four keys to success:

1. A good project idea.

2. Find the right partners for your collaboration. The best partners are usually the ones who can make the biggest contribution, not the ones who add the most prestige.

3. You should be able to explain the importance and relevance of the project in a broader context.

4. Understand how the system for EU funding works. Those who are successful with their applications are familiar with the system.


This article has previously been published in Universitetsnytt 2014.