Grant funding success rates in Canada are an embarrassment at present. Just nine percent of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council postdoctoral applicants were successful in 2011, and success rates at the other two major granting councils – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – were not much better.
While there are certainly more of them this year, people who deserve funding and do not receive it are always going to be out there. That said, through my many experiences of being denied scholarships and fellowships and my successes in several other competitions, I have come to a few conclusions that I hope will help readers in preparing their CIHR applications.
Like it or lump it, CIHR is very explicit about what it is looking for in applications and has been extraordinarily transparent about the process. All one needs to do is log onto the CIHR website and check out the Guide for Reviewers for fellowships and doctoral awards. Here you will see that the weighting differs for doctoral versus fellowship applications, but both are clearly defined.
For a doctoral award application, the three broad areas are almost equally weighed: 35 percent for the candidate’s achievements (in publications, other research and grades); 40 percent for their abilities and characteristics; and 25 percent for the research environment.
When applying for a postdoctoral fellowship award, the candidate’s track record and abilities take on much greater importance. Candidate data – measured through publications, awards and grades, training plans and research proposal – consume 60 percent of the criteria. The publication record shoots up in importance (from 10 percent to 35 percent) and grades lose relevance (from 15 percent to a fraction of five percent, a sub-category that includes honours, awards and academic distinctions). To learn which attributes are important for your application to be taken seriously, this is a must-read. Afterwards, I hope you’ll find the following tips useful:
If you are considering applying for a CIHR postdoctoral fellowship and do not have any publications, don’t apply. You cannot expect to win a fellowship that has a 10- to 20-percent success rate after discarding 35 percent of the application. It hurts to do such self-assessments, but the time saved by not applying for a fellowship or scholarship can be poured into things like writing a review, reading a backlog of papers and doing a few extra experiments.
Good reference letters are critical
This is especially pertinent for the doctoral award, where a full 40 percent of your score will pertain to your referees’ opinions of your characteristics and abilities. The referees provide both scores and small paragraphs describing your attributes; reviewers are asked to assess how well the paragraphs agree with the scores and then deliver their score based on “overall impression.” This section is reduced to a 20-percent pie wedge for fellowship applicants (twice as important as the research proposal), emphasizing the importance of making a good impression on people who know how to write a good reference letter.
Take this to heart
Ten percent of the fellowship scoring comes straight from that waffling piece of prose entitled “candidate’s plans.” This means that you must say more than: “My ideal position in five years will be a tenure-track faculty position at a leading Canadian biomedical campus.” CIHR’s scoring system is so regimented that this section will have as much bearing on your success or failure as your research project proposal. Imbalanced perhaps, but the clarity of its importance cannot be disputed – don’t say you weren’t warned.
Overall, articles like this one can only implore potential applicants to go to the CIHR website and read the rules. I don’t mean rules about correct pagination and margin sizes – though there are people who will deduct marks for not obeying those – but rather to read about the type of candidate they want to fund. Think about whether you really are that candidate.
If you believe you have the attributes, then try to be that candidate on paper. It is a painful process, and even more painful when success rates are low, but if my own story is anything to go by, you can be turned down for Tri-council funding many times and eventually succeed at winning CIHR doctoral and postdoctoral funding. Personally, I thank the grant gods daily for removing the emphasis on grades.
David Kent is a CIHR post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge, U.K. He has been awarded scholarships or fellowships from numerous agencies including two of Canada’s major granting councils, the National Cancer Institute of Canada, the Canadian Stem Cell Network, and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.