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Speculative Diction

The luck of the draw? Graduate students and competitive funding


For academically ambitious Canadian university students, including those finishing their undergraduate degrees this year and those already in graduate school, September is grant application season.

Grant-writing is like the unpleasant medicine of graduate school. While the outcomes are beneficial in terms of professional development (and sometimes, funding), the process of application is painfully difficult and nerve-wracking for many students.

Though we’re fortunate that the funding is available at all, the competition for federal Tri-Council scholarships — those from SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR — is intense, and with increasing numbers of graduate students applying that situation is only likely to worsen. Particularly after a recession and a significant increase to enrolments, funding is tight. Financial pressures on grad students intensify the competitive nature of funding, as well as the need for students to distinguish themselves from their peers in the ever more difficult academic market.

If financial pressure and academic competition alone aren’t enough, the process of application can also feel like a course of bureaucratic hoop-jumping. I suffer from “bureaucratophobia”, and I always felt anxious having to order transcripts (from four different universities), getting the “ranking” forms and letters from referees, and making sure to correctly fill out every esoteric section of the actual applications, as well as sticking to the technical directions for producing the proposal. I remember being told at one point that I’d used the wrong colour pen.

Graduate students get stressed about grants in part because they tend to feel as if they have no control over the outcome of their application; most of the selection process is hidden from view. Our lack of insight into the process can make the outcome look like “luck”. But is that an accurate assessment?

For SSHRC grants, with which I have direct experience, the application is often worked on by students with their supervisors for more than a month before it’s due. But building a successful application is a process that actually starts much earlier, since the first “screening” mechanism is your GPA. Undergraduate grades, built up over years, are an important factor especially when applying for a Master’s grant.

You also need time to build relationships with the professors who’ll end up supporting your application by writing letters of reference. Some students now find it difficult to find referees from their undergraduate years, having had little or no contact with permanent faculty members.

The last thing to develop is your project proposal, in which you’re required to imagine and articulate a feasible piece of research that can be completed in the allowed period. Often there are no examples provided of successful grant proposals. Even when examples are available, you can’t see what the rest of that person’s application looked like, so you don’t have a clear sense of why they may have won.

After the application leaves your hands it’s passed to an internal audit committee at the program level, then to a faculty committee (often a faculty of graduate studies). The desired result is that it’s sent on from the university to the Tri-Council in Ottawa, where there’s a chance that funding will follow.

At the student’s end of things, much of this process is about waiting, in a great tense silence filled by the effort to “just forget about it” between submission in October and announcement of results sometime late in the second semester.

Graduate students fear that the grant assessment process is not meritocratic. When all applicants have A-averages, when every proposal is of high quality, how are decisions made? Of course politics — of individuals, departments, and universities — can make its way into decision-making that is supposed to be about “merit”. Perhaps your topic isn’t currently a major issue in the field, or you lose out because of the internal dynamics of a department or academic discipline. As an applicant, you have no way of knowing because no feedback is returned, only a result.

There may well be an element of sheer luck; certainly there’s a hefty helping of serendipity, which isn’t the same thing. More often there’s just a long-term plan, a lot of good mentoring, hard work, and the right topic or project at the right time.

I’m lucky in that my own tribulations with grant applications have come to an end. And I’m even more fortunate in that I won grants for my Master’s degree and for my PhD. I got to see the most positive result, though certainly the process was extremely stressful even with strong support I had from faculty mentors. Perhaps the experiences of many graduate students — anxiety and frustration with the process — point to the need for more specific explanations from the Tri-Council and more advice and support during grant applications.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. JoVE / September 8, 2011 at 13:40

    There are some other issues in this process for students.

    First of all, because that first cut happens at the department level some faculty feel they are in a conflict of interest position if they give too much help with the proposal. However, for the same reason, they should be able to give a clear sense of how the process works.

    Second, because of the funding pressures on universities many of them REQUIRE students to apply for SSHRC every year they are eligible as a condition of receiving fee waivers, guaranteed TAships and other forms of internal support. This means that even if your marks are probably not in the right range to get through even the departmental process, you are required to do all that bureaucratic bs anyway.

    This seems like a waste of time since everyone involved knows that the bar for internal funding and the bar for nationally competitive funding is not set at the same place. While there is a group of people who are in a “maybe” position, there is certainly a group who could be informed that they are unlikely to succeed and are thus not required to apply (though will be supported in making an application if they so choose).

    I think it’s probably hard for students to get good advice about their chances and thus difficult to make real decisions about whether to pursue graduate study or not. Because that decision ought to be based on a realistic assessment of the financial support available (and the financial costs).

  2. JoVE / September 8, 2011 at 13:43

    Oh, and a pedantic terminology point. These are technically fellowships not grants.

    In Canada, at least, “fellowship” refers to funding that pays your salary (or equivalent, usually called a stipend) while you do research. The fellowship may also include some research funds or you may be paying your research costs (e.g. travel to archives, interview costs, etc) yourself.

    A grant normally pays for research cost but not salary though it will pay salaries for research assistants (either in the form of hourly wages or as a stipend).

  3. Melonie Fullick / September 8, 2011 at 13:56

    Thanks Jo. I’ve always wondered about the terminology actually, so I appreciate the detail. Colloquially we always talk about them as “grant” (at least among the grad students I know) so the habit stuck.

    I’ve definitely seen the applications where you have to specify that you’ve applied for funding–U of T had that requirement I recall.

  4. Stuart / September 15, 2011 at 12:37

    Great article, but I did find the terminology confusing. Among all the grad students that I know (mostly CIHR-stream) personal funding is referred to as a scholarship or fellowship – not a grant. I was starting to panic that as a grad student I was not applying for “grants”.

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