I received the following question from a reader:
My MA is completing end of August this year, and I plan to go on to PhD. My department has recommended I apply for SSHRC and other grants. I am completely green when it comes to applying for grants/scholarships, and have no idea where to start. There are very few people specializing in my field, so that makes it a bit of a challenge even finding a potential supervisor. What type of advice can you offer to someone in my position?
Figure out what you are doing first
The fellowship (any fellowship) is going to be adjudicated on several criteria. And things like the quality of the proposed project, and fit with proposed supervisor are going to make a difference.
If it is challenging to find a supervisor, figure out that challenge first. One way of doing that is to try to write a one page summary of what you think your doctoral research project will be and what you want to get from doing a PhD. Trying to clarify this will also help when you come to apply for fellowships.
You might find that there are potential supervisors/programs in related fields that actually suit your needs better. A supervisor doesn’t have to be working on exactly the same thing. They need to know the broader field you are in and be able to guide your formation as a whatever-it-is-you-are. And it is often helpful if they use a similar methodology and/or theoretical approach.
The institution has an interest in you securing funding
Wherever you end up going to do your PhD, the institution has a considerable interest in you securing funding.
It may be that they offer some internal funding and that securing funding from other sources frees up internal funds for others. Or simply that having students who are funded by nationally (or provincially, or internationally) competitive fellowship programs increases the prestige of their program.
Whatever their interest, this fact means that there are people in the institution that will help you with applications (and even in identifying potential sources of funding). Those people are unlikely to be academics. While some academics are going to know about sources of funding for doctoral students, this is not their job. Speak to someone in the office of the Dean of Graduate Studies or in Student Services. Or ask the department administrator who you need to talk to about financial support.
When you ask for help, remember that it is in their interests. You are not wasting their time or making unreasonable demands. Be polite but confident that you are entitled to some support from people more familiar with these fellowship programs than you are.
Keep in mind that the institution where you did you MA also has an interest in you securing a fellowship in a competitive program. The prestige of their masters program is enhanced as is the prestige of your supervisor. Don’t hesitate to ask for your supervisor’s help in appropriate ways.
Your lack of planning is not someone else’s emergency
Just because there are lots of people out there who’s job it is (at least partially) to help you, doesn’t mean that you can expect people to drop everything and provide comments, information, letters of recommendation, or whatever to a tight deadline.
If you respect other people’s time, give clear requests, and negotiate reasonable time frames for getting things to you, you will get better quality support.
Details are probably available online
Most organizations offering doctoral fellowships will have a website with details of their particular program. You will want to pay particular attention to the following details:
- mandate of the organization and objectives of the program
- evaluation criteria and their weighting (if the latter is available)
- information about who adjudicates applications: disciplinary committees? multi-disciplinary committees? committees that include non-academics
If there is a name and contact details for a program officer or administrator then it is part of that person’s job to answer questions from potential applicants. Read all the information available on the website first but if you aren’t clear about your eligibility, or what you need to put in the application, or whatever, you can contact them and ask.
The contact person administers the program. They are probably not involved in the actual choice of who gets the money. Their interest is in ensuring that the program gets a good field of high quality applications. This increases the prestige of their award. They are not there to trick you or mislead you. They are there to help you put in a good application and to make sure that you understand the rules.
You only have control over some of the criteria
Most fellowship applications are going to put considerable weight on your academic record. Your grades are what they are. You can’t change them. Same with past awards.
This is a competitive process. If there are a lot of people who have better grades at undergraduate and Masters level than you have, you are at a disadvantage. This might suck. I think there are a lot of reasons that the people with the best grades might make absolutely awful academics but I don’t rule the world. You have to live with the fact that there are parts of this process you can’t control.
You can ensure that your recommendation letters are as strong as possible. If you don’t know how to ask for a recommendation letter and ensure that it is going to be a good one, read this article from University Affairs or this post from the office of the Dean of Graduate Studies at Dalhousie University.
You can write a strong research proposal. Make sure the potential contribution to knowledge is clearly stated, that you’ve summarized the debates to which you are contributing, and that you give a clear indication of your theoretical framework and research approach. This is hard to do in a couple of pages. Assume you’ll write several drafts and ask others to read and comment on your drafts. Asking your supervisor (or even your MA supervisor) to read and comment on the draft is not unreasonable.
This is where the importance of who adjudicates comes in. Make sure your proposal makes sense to the kinds of people that will be reading it and making a decision. If it is a multi-disciplinary committee you may need to articulate things that would be obvious to people in your own discipline. The mandate and objectives of the funding organization are also important. You need to make sure your objectives are compatible with these and make that compatibility clear.
You have some control over the fit with the proposed program and supervisor. That said, there are lots of reasons you might decide not to attend the best program. You do need to take responsibility for those decisions though, and the impact they might have on your competitiveness for certain types of funding.
Specifics about SSHRC doctoral fellowships
For the Canadians in the audience … SSHRC administers two doctoral fellowship programs in one competition: the Canada Graduate Scholarships and their own doctoral fellowships. The evaluation criteria are basically the same but some of the eligibility criteria differ.
The adjudication is in 2 stages, and the first stage is done within universities (though SSHRC runs a first-stage adjudication for those with no Canadian institutional affiliation at the time of application). Each institution has a quota of how many names they can forward to the national competition. Because the first stage of adjudication is done at the institution, it is important that you get information from your Graduate Studies office and attend their information meetings. They will have better information about how that adjudication works.
Information about the program is available on their website.
This post was edited July 2, 2015