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Career Advice

Tips and myths to consider when preparing your SSHRC application


While at Congress 2017, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council hosted a Career Corner presentation called “SSHRC Talent: Scholarships, Fellowships and Beyond.” The two presenters, Melissa Dubreuil, the an acting manager of the Research Training Portfolio, and Stephanie Robertson, a SSHRC program officer, highlighted 10 tips to ensure a successful SSHRC application, as well as dispelled some of the myths that tend to pop up on the web about the application process.

10 tips for submitting a great SSHRC application

1. Be clear

Ensure you submit a concise and complete application, without errors. The research question, the objectives, the methodology, the expected results and the impact should all be clearly stated. Be sure to avoid technical jargon, as the application will be reviewed by a multidisciplinary committee.

2. Demonstrate your scholarly achievements

The academic record portion of the application should include: official transcripts (when applicable – this is not required for the postdoctoral fellowships) as well as any publications, awards and distinctions. You should also demonstrate that you have excellent potential to conduct advanced scholarly research. Your program of study or work should highlight its potential contribution to the advancement of knowledge. And it should also demonstrate timely completion of graduate studies. However, if special circumstances have interrupted, delayed or had an impact on the completion of your current or previous degree, SSHRC will ask the adjudication committee to take that into account when evaluating your application.

3. Take your time

Read the funding opportunity description and the application instructions carefully. Many of your questions can be answered by reading this information. SSHRC also has an online resource centre available year-round that includes FAQs, and speaks to the components of an application. It is also recommended that you start your application early. It is very important not to wait until the last minute. It’s a complex application process, and it needs time to do be done properly.

4. Review subject matter eligibility guidelines

The guidelines regarding subject matter eligibility can be found on the SSHRC website, and should be reviewed in detail by the applicant. The proposed research or related activities must primarily be in the social sciences and humanities. The intended outcomes of the research must primarily be to add to our understanding and knowledge of individuals, groups and societies. If your proposed research is interdisciplinary, where it may be more appropriately evaluated by NSERC or CIHR and the guidelines haven’t really clarified for you which agency would be more appropriate, contact SSHRC and they will help you out.

5. Selecting your referees

Contact your references early in the application process and advise them of the deadline date for application. It may even be wise to give them an earlier deadline than yours: whether that be a couple of days, or even a full week in advance. This is to give yourself some wiggle room in case there is an unanticipated delay with your referee and the required letter. Don’t forget – you will not be able to submit your application on time without all of those letters being successfully attached.

6. Getting support letters

You will need to guide your referees and provide them with the info that they need in order to complete a really strong reference letter for you. Be sure to first provide them with your CV and with your proposal, because it will make it easier for them to acknowledge your contributions. The letter of appraisal should support the information in the application. It should also focus on your skills and past achievements. When you provide your referees with this information, you can remind them of some of your accomplishments that you might want them to highlight. This will help them craft the letter for you. It should stress your strengths, as well as your personal attributes – such as participating in academic activities, any kind of mentorship or leadership activities that you might have participated in as well. As well, it should demonstrate why you are of superior calibre and why you should be selected for this award. Essentially, the letter should state what sets you and your research apart.

7. Following up with your referees

Don’t be shy to check in with your referees. They are undoubtedly completing lots of reference letters, so don’t hesitate to remind them by email about the upcoming deadline. SSHRC highly recommends that you monitor whether you have received a letter of reference or not. It is also a good idea to have a couple of extra people in mind to ask in case one of your choices falls through. All of the required documents are needed in order to successfully submit an application. This also applies to the Doctoral Awards submissions (which are paper-based): SSHRC will look at the postmark date on the envelopes. So if your letter of reference is not postdated by the deadline, your application will be considered incomplete and therefore, ineligible.

8. Selecting your committee

Did you know that committee members volunteer their time to SSHRC? And they can spend the equivalent of two weeks of work to review all of their assigned applications. Committee members are professors, researchers and deans from across Canada and abroad. SSHRC recruits committee members based on disciplinary trends in applications that are submitted to SSHRC, but they also balance their committees by taking into account representation in terms of language, gender, and regions. While SSHRC strives for a representative committee, they cannot guarantee that an expert in your field will be reading your application. This is why it’s so important to avoid jargon, acronyms and highly technical language. Based on the subject and disciplines of your program of study or research, choose a selection committee that is most appropriate for your research discipline. If you are not sure which selection committee to choose, you can always consult with SSHRC staff, or those in your department. What SSHRC normally advises applicants, especially for those in interdisciplinary programs, is to look at the people who are the non-academic experts listed on the committee, and to see which ones would be most appropriate for reading your application. That normally helps sort things out.

9. Do a final review

Some of the funding opportunities can be quite competitive, so you are essentially competing against the best across Canada and the world, so it’s important to take into account any little detail that might edge your application a bit higher than others. So taking that last step and ensuring that everything has been verified and is complete, and that there are no grammar mistakes, typos, things like that. It’s those small little details that make the difference.

10. Don’t hesitate to contact SSHRC

SSHRC is here to help you through your application process, whether it is by phone or email, staff are more than happy to provide that support to you.

Myths about SSHRC application process

Applicants face challenges, and sometimes those challenges end up on the internet. More often than not, SSHRC is aware of the forums, the wikis and the blogs that discuss these challenges, and many times there are misconceptions that are spread around about the SSHRC application process.

1. SSHRC provides feedback on individual applications

As indicated in the FAQ section of the SSHRC website, SSHRC staff and committee members cannot provide feedback on your application, due to the volume of applications received. Committee members do not submit feedback speaking to the individual strengths and weaknesses of an application. Always keep in mind that your application score is relative to the number of eligible applications received in your committee, and not absolute.

2. SSHRC times its mail outs of results

There are no strategic mail outs. SSHRC does not send results in batches, i.e. “successful” applications do not get sent out on one date, and then “unsuccessfuls” on another date. SSHRC does its best to run the competitions as quickly and efficiently as possible, and send out result letters as soon as they can, all at once. Results are announced via the Research Portal for the CGS Master’s, ResearchNet for the Vanier CGS and Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships, and regular mail for the Doctoral Awards and SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowships. For the Doctoral Awards candidates who applied through a Canadian university – your faculty of graduate studies will have access to the results via a secure site, so you may be notified a little earlier, as soon as the results are released. For result packages sent by mail, you should allow for at least a two week waiting period.

3. Success rates vary by committee

Success rates are the same across the board. For example, if you choose Committee Three (includes sociology and anthropology) or Committee Five (usually includes management and poli sci), they will have the same success rate in both committees, regardless of the number of applications submitted. What’s important is that you choose the most appropriate committee to review your proposal.

4. There’s a better chance of success depending on how you apply

For the SSHRC Doctoral Awards funding opportunity, the pre-selection process mirrors what happens at the university level as well. So whether you apply through a Canadian university or directly to SSHRC, the application will go through two reviews. It is a highly competitive program, whether you apply through a university or directly through SSHRC.

5. Once unsuccessful, always unsuccessful

Since 2012, about 30 percent of candidates to the Doctoral Awards funding opportunity that didn’t receive funding in their first year of applying, did receive it in the second year. So don’t be discouraged, keep applying. Also, the selected area of research does not have an impact on the odds of receiving funding.

6. Applying to hold a scholarship or fellowship abroad vs. a Canadian university will make a difference in the evaluation

For the Postdoctoral Fellowships funding opportunity, one of the evaluation criteria, under feasibility, is the “appropriateness of the intended place of tenure.” So when reviewing your proposal, committee members look at it from this perspective: they will ask “is this the best possible place for the applicant to undertake their research?” “Is the applicant expanding their research networks?” “Has the applicant completed all of their studies at the same institution?” So they are looking at mobility as well. It doesn’t always have to be an institution abroad, to showcase that you are expanding your research networks. However, it’s very important to demonstrate in your application what makes this location so important for your research. If you are proposing to do your research at the same institution where you received your PhD, you need to explain this decision.

At the doctoral level, the “appropriateness of the intended place of tenure” is not evaluated by the committee members. And this is done by design, because with this funding opportunity, the applicants don’t necessarily need to be admitted into their program of study in order to apply. It’s based on best laid plans. What is important to keep in mind is that if you are applying to a SSHRC doctoral fellowship or a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship, and you are intending to take up an award at a university abroad, you must have completed your previous degree in Canada. The eligibility requirements are such that you need to have completed a PhD in Canada.

7. It’s who you know, not what you know

Applications to SSHRC funding opportunities are reviewed by high calibre experts in the field and the recommendations for funding lie with the adjudication committees, and they are based exclusively on the evaluation criteria. So during the adjudication meetings, SSHRC staff are there listening to the discussions, ensuring all of the decisions are made in relation to the evaluation criteria of the funding opportunity. SSHRC also has observers who participate as well. They are academics from universities across Canada that participate and listen to the discussions during the adjudication meetings, and they also create reports. So there is a lot of monitoring that happens. SSHRC also takes into account conflict of interest. They look at it in terms of the university at the time of application, as well as the applicant’s department. SSHRC tries to avoid a lot of those situations before they assign applications to committee members. In addition to that, in line with the Tri-Agency policy on Conflict of Interest and Confidentiality, committee members need to declare any further conflicts of interest, and SSHRC ensures that those applications are assigned to other committee members for review.

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