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In my opinion

Is sympathy for certain topics influencing SSHRC doctoral awards?

How else to explain different rates of success for different topic categories.


Looking for SSHRC funding for your doctoral research? Results from the past decade tell us that your best bet is to study children or indigenous peoples. Stay away from women and ethics. And, although the environment is still popular, you wouldn’t be amiss if you took on the global recession.

In fact, adjudication committees are given explicit instructions not to take into account the perceived social relevance of a research question, says Brent Herbert-Copley, SSHRC’s vice-president, research capacity. Rather, he says, the award programs for students are unique in that applicants are rated “solely in terms of academic merit.” Then why are there clear trends in successful and unsuccessful subject areas? It seems that sympathies for certain topics, if not outright preferences, are coming into play in the assessment process, whether intentionally or not.

When students write their application, they self-select one of 43 research categories to describe their work. It seems clear assessors reward categories differently despite SSHRC’s safeguards. Since 2003, the subject areas with the highest success rates each year have corresponded to areas of high social relevance, though this is explicitly against SSHRC’s aims for the program. From 2003 to 2008 it was topics broadly related to the environment and climate change. Then, in 2009-10, the most rewarding subject became productivity, just as the global recession began to make its mark. The big up-and-coming topic seems to be the elderly, with success rates increasing 35 percent over the past five years, compared to the previous half-decade. Perhaps a shift towards understanding the elderly is not surprising in an aging nation such as Canada; but it’s a trend that’s seemingly counter to the goals of the SSHRC awards scheme.

Dr. Herbert-Copley says he believes the results are a “unique window into what a group of very accomplished young students see as interesting topics.” Perhaps we can see the variance in success rates as an indicator of where our best and brightest are focusing their energy. I’m sure that in many cases this is true. But surely some of the weaker students were also drawn to similar topics.

When we dig deeper, it becomes clear that some of the disparity in success rates by subject category is due to the fact that not all subject categories receive the same number of entries, or even very many entries at all. Undersubscribed subjects such as climate change are a great example. Between 2004 and 2005, when that category topped the success rates, only nine people applied, compared to 1,670 people in the arts and culture category. In this case it’s certainly plausible to suggest that a few really good students decided to put in strong applications related to climate change, and with so few entries we cannot suggest that the assessment committees were showing preference.

However, there are many categories that consistently see larger numbers of applicants, and here too the trends persist. In particular, the four categories mentioned in the opening sentences of this article are ripe for comparison: children and indigenous peoples, on the one hand, and women and ethics on the other. These categories consistently receive comparable numbers of applications and comparable rates of growth each year. Yet, they consistently provide different rates of success for applicants.

The difference in success rates may not look like much, but an applicant who studies children is almost 30 percent more likely than the average applicant to receive an award, and if the applicant studies women, nearly 30 percent less likely than the average to get an award.

Any assessment process that handles 5,000 applications annually will never be perfect. But, we can choose to see these trends as an indicator of what the top students are studying, or we can entertain the possibility that sympathy for certain topics is impacting decisions during the assessment process. It’s entirely possible that these sympathies are subconscious. We hear constantly about climate change, economic flux, or social injustice; that bombardment surely impacts how humans assess proposals.

SSHRC Doctoral Awards are amongst the most prestigious scholarships Canadian humanities students can receive. They’re a sign of both achievement and potential, opening doors to careers in research for many of those who receive them. The value of a SSHRC award far exceeds their immediate financial worth. I hope that a little awareness of topic-sympathy may help SSHRC ensure its assessors have their eye on the top applicants and that socially relevant topics don’t become a way for borderline students to propel themselves into the next round.

As any financial analyst will tell you, past performance is not an indicator of future success. Nevertheless I’m predicting a good year for students studying children or indigenous peoples. Perhaps I’ll be surprised.

Adam Crymble is a PhD candidate in history and digital humanities at King’s College London.

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  1. Randi Warne / July 25, 2012 at 20:16

    I’m not sure why this is news. Now different topics may be given preference, but I would be astonished if preferential treatment were not a constant.

  2. Adam Crymble / July 27, 2012 at 02:33

    Hi Randi, I’m sure many people would agree with you that this is no surprise. But as far as I can tell it’s always been based on a hunch. Now we can see evidence of bias in action using SSHRC’s own published statistics. It’s an important program for young scholars, so just because preference may have happened in the past doesn’t mean we should quietly watch it continue to do so.

  3. Kelly / July 27, 2012 at 14:08

    I’ve served on SSHRC Committees. There is no bias.

    The mistake you’re making is correlation not causality.

    Couldn’t it be that these topics seem to get funded more simply because far more students are INTERESTED in these topics when they are socially relevant and therefore decide to write their dissertation about those topis? More applications in an area inevitably needs to more funding in an area.

    Not quite the analysis I’d expect from a PhD student.

  4. Dr.Doinglittle / July 27, 2012 at 16:37

    Of course there is preferential treatment. If you want a SSHRC, you have to play the game and propose the kind of topic noted in the table. Be sure to make sure that there is an underlying liberal political message in there (e.g. my thesis explodes the colonial discourse of blah blah…). And drop the names of at least two French pomo theorists in there. Almost as important, make sure that you have an advisor with clout in the academic community, ideally one with a recently-published award-winning book on the same topic that you are proposing. You can’t lose!

    Just remember, you can always change your topic after you get the award.

  5. Adam Crymble / July 31, 2012 at 03:24


    I think you may have mis-interpreted the graph, which shows the success rate as a percentage. More applicants do not necessarily increase this rate of success (the children and ethics categories are a good example of the opposite).

    As for confusing correlation with causation, I’m afraid I have to disagree. I’ve found a correlation (higher success rates for certain categories), and offered an interpretation of those results. It’s possible that my interpretation is incorrect. But so far it’s the only one on the table. My analysis used independent data provided by SSHRC, which I’d be more than willing to share with you if you’d like to post your contact details.

    I’d be happy for you to do your own analysis, and let me know if you think I’ve gone wrong.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

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