There's not much info on the Web to make things more clear. I googled for information on this and couldn't find anything, so hopefully a few tips will be helpful. I also won a SSHRC for my master's (which some say is the best way to ensure it at the doctoral level) so I have been through this process twice.
Before beginning, visit SSHRC website and find out some eligibility basics, such as does your research fall under the domain of SSHRC (social sciences and humanities), NSERC (science and engineering), or CIHR (health). Unofficially, I heard that NSERC grants are easier to get than SSHRC grants (but I'm not sure if there are less applicants or more money to give out) so if your research can apply within their mandate you may want to consider applying there.
SSHRC hands out two types of doctoral grants: scholarships and fellowships. The terms appear to be used interchangeable for the various grants SSHRC offers. Luckily, only one application is needed to be considered for them all (and in some cases, it's as easy as checking a box on the application form).
SSHRC publishes some application tips, which are good, but rather general. The first and most important tip I have is don't consider any instructions or tips from SSHRC as optional; they are commandments. Don't deviate from their instructions - no matter what. If you think you have a compelling exception, change it so it follows SSHRC rules.
SSHRC also states, rather vaguely, how they evaluate applicants:
* past academic results, as demonstrated by transcripts, awards and distinctions;They don't give specifics or offer a weighting for doctoral applicants. They do offer the weighting for master's students . Academic excellence is weighted at 60%, research potential is 30%, and communication skills is 10%.
* the program of study and its potential contribution to the advancement of knowledge;
* relevant professional and academic experience, including research training, as demonstrated by conference presentations and scholarly publications;
* two written evaluations from referees; and
* the departmental appraisal (for those registered at Canadian universities)."
I've heard speculation from various sources that there is a SSHRC bias for certain regions, universities, faculties, etc. SSHRC releases their applicant data and I went over it. There does appear to be some carefully balancing to ensure that the awards to match Canada's regional population distribution and by university. There does not appear to be a significant bias by the year of doctoral study, as I had heard. Considerably less people apply in year four of doctoral students, yet the award rate is still roughly the same as other years - so one's odds are definitely better in this year.
Below are my tips for grades, application form, publications, program of study, and references.
Everyone I have ever heard speak of SSHRC tends to agree with the prime importance of good grades. If your grades suck, then there is no use applying - anything lower than an A- average in your master's degree would probably be too low. I don't know how far back they look though - my first couple years of my bachelor's degree I didn't do that well, but managed to pull my grades up for the final couple years (even then they weren't that great - it was only once I became an old student that I really started to care about my grades). There's not much you can do to improve your grades - but I included my transcripts from two college certificate programs I did. I got great grades in that - so perhaps that outweighed my bachelor's.
My suspicion is that since all candidates that get forwarded by their university (most major Canadian universities have a quota of how many applications they are allowed to submit) will represent the best and brightest, I am not convinced that one's grades and academic awards alone are that influential. It opens the door, but your program of study, publication record, and letters of reference are what closes the deal.
The application itself is rather onerous. The application is filled out online - you can save and edit it right up to submission. The application asks general, expected questions and questions about your research and background. My thought was I don't like to leave sections blank or almost blank. I don't advocate square pegging anything into inappropriate holes, but think outside the box. For example, I included professional awards in the awards section and a volunteer position in my work experience.
They ask for your publications twice - in the application form and as an attachment. I think that doctoral applicants really need to have at least one peer-reviewed article. I also included my writings from non-academic sources. I'm not so sure that self-published sources (e.g. your own blog) is necessarily great - but if you blog is picked up by another source or syndicated (as mine is) then that would help. I also think the articles one mentions should be relevant to the program of study or at least academic. Still, I think some publications regardless of the topic are better than nothing.
Program of study
I think this is often underestimated by applicants. I think applicants need a kickass, flawless, unique proposal to stand out from the crowd. Also be clear on what you plan to do, how exactly, and why. Obvious rules for any proper academic work apply. Avoid jargon or concepts only understandable by one's own field as the reviewers are from a broad range of departments. Be sure to define key terms.
I frequently hear that "telling a story" is vital with grant proposals. I think it is true as reviewers do have a stack of papers to go through so a lively, concrete, compelling narrative can convince the reviewer of the interest and importance of your work. Also, include how you (your interests, academic and professional background) fit into this story - it's not an autobiography, however. I also think the last paragraph should end the work on a strong note, reestablishing the "so what" of the work.
Considering the current political climate in Canada and budgetary concerns of government agencies, I have a hunch that SSHRC is also looking for research that has contemporary social value - not esoteric academic navel gazing. I've seen a few proposals that had the Miss America syndrome, in that they promised their research would save the world.
You should also demonstrate that you have experience and ability to execute your study, so explain relevant coursework, access issues, necessary skills and how you have or will attain them. Your method section should have the specific steps of your plan, but you don't need to go overboard and specify minute details such as your transcription strategy. Also if you plan to study humans (or animals), be sure to briefly mention your ethical review process.
Make sure you have ample, but not wanton citations. Initially, I only included works I referenced, but I believe there may be a limit of up to 5 pages of bibliography. Someone advised me to show my knowledge of the relevant literature in this space, so I did. I still only used 2.5 pages as I really doubt any reviewer will ever read 5 pages of bibliography. I believe it is better to have 2-3 pages of great references than 5 (or more) pages of filler - at that point it seems like shameless padding.
As with any time you need a reference, make sure they will give you a great one. After that, choose your references wisely - not just who likes you and who you like, but also consider your referee's position and credentials. For example, I was told that letters from adjunct faculty (ie. non-tenure track) don't count very highly. Can one infer that a letter from a dean would then be more impressive? I was told that at least one reference should come from the university that you'll be studying at and one reference should be your current advisor. It makes sense that you should get an internal reference as in most cases applications must be vetted by one's department, so if you don't have someone there officially vouching for you it certainly doesn't help. Your references should definitely be familiar with your program of study - ideally even incorporating it into their reference letter.
I heard a good tip to help get referee's to return their letters quickly is to open a courier account so they can easily express deliver it without having to worry about the cost.
The reviewers have huge stacks of applications to review, so they are looking for ways to weed out so be very careful in following all the rules. Have someone proof every word in your entire application. Actually, have two or three people proof it.
The best thing that helped me get the grant was listen to the advice of professors, university staff, and colleagues. Most universities, I suspect, hold seminars on how to apply for grants - don't miss them. Just the process of following all the steps is daunting, so it's best to get help. It also helps to get to know the contact person at one's university (e.g. an awards officer, registrar, etc.) as they are an invaluable source of information on the process. Another source of help and comfort in numbers is GradCafe.com. It has a forum thread where grad students get advice, fret, and lament with fellow stressed-out applicants.
In the end, the odds of winning a SSHRC are not great. Only a handful of candidates get selected by a given university to be forwarded to SSHRC and of those less than half this year got an award. One can do all the "right" things, have a great academic record and still not get it. So it does almost seem like winning a lottery.
If you do get it is definitely worthwhile to apply again, particularly if you improved your grades, added peer-reviewed publications, or wrote a better program of study.
It is painful to even apply for these things, but it does represent a decent amount of money for a grad student. But lest I be tempted to get a swelled head, I have other colleagues not in academia and when I told them I got a SSHRC grant, it means nothing to them and they are still puzzled at why I walked away from a truly decent professional salary.