For graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in Canada, applying for awards from a national funding agency like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council can seem like a shot in the dark. University Affairs reached out to Jean-François Fortin, director of SSHRC’s research training portfolio, and Roxanne Dompierre, acting manager of SSHRC’s research training portfolio, for information on the council’s graduate and postdoc funding opportunities, tips for crafting your application and behind-the-scenes insight on how the application review process works.
UA: What are the most popular funding opportunities that you administer under the Talent Program, which supports graduate and postdoc students? How many applications did they receive during the most recent round of competitions?
Dr. Fortin: The master’s Canada Graduate Scholarship [known formally as the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program – Master’s Scholarship] receives the bulk of our applications – more than 5,000 applications and we gave 1,300 awards. The doctoral Canada Graduate Scholarship [the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program – Doctoral Scholarship] is also a high volume competition; for that program and the SSHRC doctoral fellowship program we had over 2,500 applications, and we offered 1,005 awards. For the postdoctoral fellowships we received more than 800 applications and we gave out 175 awards.
Ms. Dompierre: It’s worth noting the CGS master’s is co-delivered with eligible Canadian universities, which have an allocation of awards they can offer. All the adjudication for those awards happens at the universities. Those 5,000 applications, that’s very high because one individual can submit up to five different applications to five different institutions [essentially, any institution they’ve applied to].
UA: Does SSHRC offer support to grad students and postdocs in any other way?
Dr. Fortin: SSHRC also provides funding for doctoral and postdoctoral researchers through tri-agency programs like the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship program and the Banting Fellowship program. We also indirectly support students through research grants like Insight grants. Professors who obtain a grant hire students to work with them as graduate researchers. A research assistanceship is a large part of a prof’s grant budget. Roughly 50 percent of grants [awarded to profs] are actually given to students [through GRAs and stipends].
UA: What are some of the most common mistakes you see in applications for the graduate and postdoc funding programs? What advice can you offer to counter these errors?
Dr. Fortin: Proposals written in a very technical language can be a mistake. Our [merit review] committees are multidisciplinary so we don’t have expertise on every topic. Seeking advice from people outside your discipline – a prof or a fellow student – to read a proposal prior to submitting can help. Writing a fellowship proposal is different than writing a paper for a journal or for a conference; you want to be understood by non-experts. Avoid jargon, make sure the terminology is clear.
Another common mistake is waiting to the last minute to gather the information you need for the proposals. It’s good for students to think of referees early in the process to avoid a time crunch at the end – professors are asked by several students to provide references so at least two weeks prior to submitting you should make sure you have them.
UA: How much time should an applicant put into their submission?
Dr. Fortin: You should think of it at least two months before the application is due. There’s a project proposal involved in the application so you want to make sure you have time to flesh it out. You should start thinking about the overall project, the methodology, the theory, the literature review much earlier.
UA: Any additional tips for applicants?
Dr. Fortin: Applicants should always bear in mind the evaluation criteria when applying to a funding opportunity. The criteria are included in the application material and it’s useful to make sure that when they craft their proposal they actually directly address the criteria.
Have a clear methodology. Methodology can make or break a proposal. It’s very important that it’s clearly related to the objectives of the research, that it inspires confidence in the project. The applicant should really concentrate on the methodology.
In terms of the CV you include with the application, it’s important the information and expertise described there link to the project. It’s possible to consult with a SSHRC program officer, a professor or supervisor, or the university’s career centre for help.
UA: What do grad students and postdocs commonly misunderstand about the application and review processes at SSHRC?
Dr. Fortin: Some think their chance of success is tied to their discipline or to an area where funding is targeted. This is not the case. It’s open to all areas of the social sciences and the humanities. The grants and fellowships are awarded through an independent merit review process designed to ensure the highest quality of excellence and impartiality. And even though an applicant has received top awards in their career so far, it doesn’t mean it’ll be a piece of cake to win an award. It’s a national competition. One should be realistic and prepared.
UA: Can you explain how SSHRC generally creates its merit review and selection committees?
Dr. Fortin: Committee members are enlisted based on individual experience and expertise. SSHRC aims for a diversity of perspectives so, though most reviewers are academics from Canada or abroad committee members may also come from the public, private or not-for-profit sectors. We want to make sure we have an appropriate balance of representation of expertise, of experience at universities of all sizes, of regions of the country, of gender, of the official languages. It takes significant work to make these committees and participation is voluntary.
UA: Generally how many people comprise a selection committee? How many applications might they see?
Dr. Fortin: The average size is five to eight members. For grants, Insight grants for example, the committees are larger – up to 10.
Each proposal gets two readers. Committee members will read between 50 and 70 proposals. They rank the proposals in a spreadsheet. The whole committee then sees the rankings and individual applications are discussed by Reader A and Reader B. The initial ranking can evolve during the committee meeting.
UA: How do you ensure there’s no conflict of interest between applicants and selection committee members?
Dr. Fortin: SSHRC screens for conflict of interest based on university and departmental affiliations. We also make sure that the committee members understand conflict of interest and provide them with clear guidelines. We ask committee members to declare if there are any conflicts of interest when they receive the applications.
Ms. Dompierre: If there is a conflict of interest between the committee member and the applicant than the application gets re-assigned to another reader.
Dr. Fortin: And if that application gets discussed in the larger committee meeting, the member with a conflict will leave the room or the teleconference for the duration of that conversation.
UA: Who oversees the selection committee?
Dr. Fortin: All committees are chaired by a professor who makes sure the process is going smoothly. A SSHRC program officer also sits with the committee to serve as secretary and to make sure the rules are followed, that the committee is informed. So SSHRC oversees the administration of the process, but has no say in the committee’s recommendations.
It’s also been common practice for a number of years to have observers attend the committee meetings to make sure things are running well and the process is transparent. Usually these observers are former committee members with other funding programs or funding agencies. At the end of the process they prepare a report that goes to SSHRC’s programs and quality committee. If during the adjudication they flag something, they bring it to the attention of the program officer and the committee chair.
And SSHRC has an appeals process. Less than 15 applicants every year seek an appeal, and about two to three of those are in the doctoral fellowship program.
UA: What kind of feedback do graduate and postdoc applicants receive after their submissions have been reviewed?
Dr. Fortin: For most of the funding opportunities, applicants receive the average of the score provided by the committee members. Due to high volume of applications we receive, committee members are not asked to submit written appraisals of individual applications nor are records kept on judgments about the strengths or weaknesses of individual applications. The average score they receive is relative to other applications in the pool.
UA: Who can applicants contact for information on their applications?
Dr. Fortin: SSHRC’s research training has a number of program officers to answer questions and share information. We do regional visits once a year and students can attend those sessions. We’ve also hosted webinars with applicants.
Ms. Dompierre: And we have a pretty substantial resource centre on SSHRC’s website so when a student or post-doctoral researcher is putting together an application they can go there and find lots of answers to their questions.