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The Black Hole

Grades are everything! or are they… knowing about and winning scholarships (hint: yes, you should apply)

In 2002, I was one day away from selling knives for an entire summer in the heat of Southwestern Ontario, then I got a letter reading “someone has turned down their summer NSERC … you are on the waiting list – want it?” First things first… as an academic your entire career will probably depend on continually getting funding. It is no surprise that when a hiring squad looks at potential tenure track applicants, a key question is: “How fundable is this person?” ...


Quick Hits:

In a comment on my Quarterly Summary, Veronique drew my attention to a great set of data released by the The Conference Board of Canada under “Education and Skills” – I encourage a read through her comment and a glance at the actual report too – we score pretty poorly in many categories!
I was recently forwarded onto a site that purports to connect academics in an effort to quickly scan the world for “Who’s researching what?” – it is in an embryonic stage no doubt, but holds promise as a sort of academic Facebook.

Grades are everything! or are they… knowing about and winning scholarships (hint: yes, you should apply)
In 2002, I was one day away from selling knives for an entire summer in the heat of Southwestern Ontario, then I got a letter reading “someone has turned down their summer NSERC … you are on the waiting list – want it?”

I had thought I wasn’t good enough to win such awards, they were only for people who had spectacular grades. While mine weren’t terrible (low to mid 80s), they were certainly not the benchmark for excellence. So, in short, I had already written off the summer as “making money for later” and resigned myself for a long uphill battle of trying to eventually win a research scholarship at some distant point in the future.
The letter of course was very welcomed (and thank you, people of 2002, for turning down your NSERCs!) and I jumped at the opportunity and began working in a lab doing research. Looking back, I realize there were multiple career flashpoints surrounding this particular award:

How did I hear about this award?
My friend Mike had spent the previous summer doing one
Who were my references?
I had spoken to very few “Professors” halfway through 3rd year undergraduate… I picked the people whose classes I did the best in.
What came of the experience?

An additional 12 months part time in the lab and 16 total months of getting exposed to research (and researchers!)

Funnily enough, all of these relied on meeting the right people at the right time – and my own experiences were far from perfect… PS: the reference that a professor writes based on your grade in a class is terrible (unless they enjoy lying). I was lucky enough to have met Mike in second year (who made me aware of the scholarship) and was lucky enough to meet graduate students and professors in my final two years who passed on many additional tidbits regarding graduate school. All of this underscores a critical problem in undergraduate training – students (partly their own fault!) do not get enough high level interactions with people (professors, graduate students, senior undergrads, etc) – addressing this will be a future blog entry.

For now… I want to focus on how important recognition (e.g.: scholarships) are for a future in science and what resources undergraduates have to find out about them.

First things first… as an academic your entire career will probably depend on continually getting funding. It is no surprise that when a hiring squad looks at potential tenure track applicants, a key question is: “How fundable is this person?”

Fundability is comprised of many candidate attributes (thankfully grades become less and less important!) and in medical science this comes down to publication record, grant writing ability, location of research, history of collaborations, international conference talks, and training experience (i.e.: who trained you and who have you trained), amongst other things.

Sadly, but importantly, the lazy first screen of applications often queries “Has this candidate been funded before?” – a phenomenon often referred to as being on the gravy train. If another organization has already done the “real” work to discover the candidate’s fundability and given a thumbs up, then my job as reviewer is already done. This is amplified with each award/fellowship/scholarship that you get and while it certainly doesn’t guarantee your success in a new application, it definitely helps you avoid getting tossed out immediately.

So, our group asked the question of how we win scholarships and the biggest hurdles were identified as “knowing about them” and “preparing an application”

Knowing about Scholarships
We brainstormed about this for quite some time… in high school it tended to be parents, guidance counselors, and teachers who get a student in touch with programs like Shad Valley or entrance scholarships at universities in Canada (which are typically due in November through to January for any high school students on here looking for scholarships!). The vast majority of Canadian students (from our limited time window of experience in the 1990s) did not get this information, and those that did could quickly point to an exceptional person within the three groups listed above. Canada could probably do a better job, similar to what Australia has put together in their GET SMART guide to scholarships for attending post secondary institutes.

At the undergraduate level, the diversity of scholarships by region, study area, university, etc is enormous and Canada lacks a good resource to get this information out to undergraduate students. Students are often found browsing the Internet ( scholarshipscanada,, etc) but many of these are accused of being junk mail factories, colossal wastes of time, not specific enough to what they want to do, etc. I would say that there are probably useful items on these sites, but none offers a comprehensive overview of Canadian scholarships. One other quick read is Rob Taylor’s guide to scholarships, awards and applications.

In medical science as an undergraduate, you want to have your eyes on the following:

During your undergrad:
NSERC Undergraduate Summer Research Awards
Local University Scholarships (bursaries, awards, exchanges) – my undergraduate school was UWO in London, ON and I would have looked here (please feel free to post any good sites from your university in the comments below!)

Looking ahead to graduate school:
NSERC Masters and Doctoral Awards
CIHR Masters and Doctoral Awards
Charitable Foundations that support the research area you are keen on (there are many, and often, professors aren’t even aware of all the possible sources – do look out for these though!)

Other interesting links to check out for:
Women in Science
Aboriginal Students
Google Canada Anita Borg Scholarships (for Senior Undergrads in Computer Science)

Application Preparation
This is an area that probably has the most inequality… it reminds me of all the medical school applicants who go on practice MCAT courses and have mock interviews. Of course these are good things to do, but many other applicants who do not do them are prevented either by a lack of money or a lack of contacts. Similarly for scholarship applications, if you have access to tools (other people’s applications, graduate students and/or professors) your application will almost certainly improve. Knowing how to say something is often just as important as what you say. As awful as it sounds, there tends to be a scholarship application formula that gets improved as you get more experience, but is greatly facilitated by having an experienced eye look it over. I’ll eventually get around to a blog entry on scholarship writing strategies, but I fear attention is already waning after a long entry!

Moving forward, I think the solution partly rests with individual universities to make time for researchers to reach out to undergraduates and to increase the exposure of merit based awards to all of their students, but a huge onus must be placed on individual students to be proactive about increasing their level of interaction with professors and more experienced students or TAs. And when looking at a scholarship application… don’t use the “I’m too busy/lazy” or simply “not interested” excuses… these things formally recognize your skills, often make the financial burden of education a little easier, and are an absolute necessity (and good grant writing practice!) for succeeding in academic science. They’re much more important than squabbling for a few percent on that organic chemistry midterm.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Sonja / January 10, 2010 at 22:13

    Ooh, and one more thought: not all research experiences are created equal. Many undergrads are keen to hop on the research boat as soon as possible, but I think there are good reasons to delay this until you’ve at least finished third year. As a first or second year student, unless you are truly outstanding (probably in the top 2% of students who would get an NSERC) it’s unlikely you’ll be trusted with more than very easy/repetitive tasks, in which case I say why bother spending your summer cooped up in a lab? You could be making more money working fewer hours at almost any other job, and if you really are grad or med school headed then I say savor any time off you can get; in the long run, 4 months spent in the lab as an undergrad will mean nothing to your career.
    It also depends on whether the grad student or postdoc you’ll be working under is willing to spend time getting you up to speed on the background of the lab’s work. It can be hard to do this on your own if you haven’t taken the necessary coursework.
    Here’s my rule of thumb: If you don’t understand what’s going on in the lab, aren’t intellectually challenged by the work, and/or don’t have the background to understand what other people in the lab are doing, then doing a summer of “research” (or, more realistically, glassware washing) is probably a waste of your time.
    However, I will grudgingly admit that sometimes good labs won’t even consider you for a position unless you already have “lab experience”. So there might be merits to dedicating an early summer to research, even if all you get out of it is a couple lines on your résumé.

  2. Sonja / January 10, 2010 at 18:42

    For those living in BC, I would also suggest the BC Cancer Foundation Studentships and the Summer Student Research Program administered by UBC’s Faculty of Medicine as sources of funding for your summer stint in research. These could help you get around a) the problem of NSERC not funding biomedical research as technically it’s not “science” – no I do not get their logic, and b) how to get funding as an international student (since you’re NSERC-ineligible).
    Thank you Dave for writing this article!

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