Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Tips to Help Get a SSHRC Doctoral Grant

I recently found out that I won a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) doctoral grant. The immediate reaction from my academic colleagues is "How did you get it?". Sometimes a colleague stresses the "you" too much for my liking, but the comment does belie a degree of mystery over how exactly winning applications are determined. Part of this mystery arises from the fact that SSHRC does not return accepted or rejected applications with comments. Mystery also arises from the difficulty of evaluating anything with subjective components.

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;
* 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)."
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%.

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.

Application form
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.

General tips
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 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.


Anonymous said...

This is good advice and very nicely put together.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Impressive. Well written. Very resourceful. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Can you please let me know where SSHRC states they allow 5 pages of references? I can't seem to find that anywhere. Thanks :)

Glen Farrelly said...

I'm not sure where I saw a limit of 5 pages of bibliography. I can't find it on their website now (is it on the online application form?). So it is possible that SSHRC allows more pages or doesn't have a limit. I can't think of a circumstance, however, that would require more than 4 pages of references. No one is going to read them all and no one is impressed by endless references as it is so easy to do nowadays. I believe it is better to have 2-4 pages that people will actually glance at of all great sources that show your knowledge of the canon and contemporary studies - in this case more is not better.

Tiffany said...

Hi Glen,

Thanks for this article! I found it online and it's quite timely. I know you said that you wouldn't leave any sections blank/almost blank, but for my "funded research" section, I actually did not get any funds for my Master's (I'm one month into my 1st year PhD). I can't really see how I could play with this one...can you?

Any help would be appreciated.


Glen Farrelly said...

Hi Tiffany:

Thanks for the comment - I'm happy if my blog can help.

First, I wouldn't square-peg anything in that is a big stretch as that is no doubt worse than a blank.

For funded research, I feel it would be safe to include any professional, industry, or association funding you may have received (e.g. a grant from a company you worked for, a professional association award, etc.).

It's possible a paid research assistanship or internship position might be able to fit - but that might be stretching too far.

Anonymous said...

Good Evening Glen,

Thank you very much for your invaluable advise. Does the 'Plan of Study' section need to be single spaced or double for the two-page limit? I was unable to locate that information on SSHRC's site.

Thanks in advance,

Glen Farrelly said...

Hi Maryam:

I see what you mean about SSHRC not posting their formatting instructions on their website, as I tried to find them and could not.

I saved the instructions from when I applied and the program of study was to be single-spaced. However, this was a couple years ago.

I seem to recall that the formatting instructions are available once one begins the online application process.

I'd recommend contacting SSHRC directly to be sure, however. I've heard that not following formatting instructions is deadly, so it's crucial to get their official instructions.

Anonymous said...

Hi Glen,
Thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing such an informative article!

I am completing my SSHRC Doctoral application now, and am wondering were the "funded research" section is located? I can't seem to find it but would love to put in that I received a master's SSHRC.

Thank you!

Glen Farrelly said...

Regarding "funded research", it has been awhile since I filled out the online application form but I thought there was a section for that? Either way, I mentioned all my prior prestigious awards in my program of study. Something along the lines of "In my SSHRC-funded master's research I investigated..."

Anonymous said...

Very well written article. Thanks for the info.

Apart from my Master's thesis, I do not have any publications. What suggestions can you offer especially as I will be applying independently (I am currently not registered in a school). Thanks

Glen Farrelly said...

Applying independently - I have heard very little about this route, except that it is possibly more difficult. It seems like one would discuss their intentions in the program of study as regards the university and program one hopes to study at. Have you tried posting your question to TheGradCafe ? Hopefully, someone with this background would be of more help.

As for publications, I don't think they are essential (particularly the more junior one is in their studies) but they don't specify that publications have to be peer-reviewed (or at least they didn't when I applied) or print - so that leaves the possibilities more open. If you don't have anything suitable, at the very least you should be able to get a couple online articles or guest blog posts out of your master's thesis or coursework research.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your tips.

I don't have published research. I was paid to do a literature vew for a federal government department a few years ago and I won a journalism award long ago, which was unrelated. Can either of them go in?
- Sydney

Glen Farrelly said...

I'm not an expert on what exactly can or shouldn't go into a SSHRC program of study and/or application. But I would think a literature review that was written for an internal audience (e.g. a government dept.) would not be suitable as a "publication". To me, the term publication implies to an external or public audience.

As for work-related awards, I included two I won on my application. I think they are a good idea to include.