It’s really quite cruel. You begin your graduate program in September and, by October, you are expected to produce a first-rate application for a prestigious Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) doctoral fellowship.
Writing the proposal requires a great deal of careful thought. Even if you don’t win a fellowship this time, your effort will not be wasted because you will gain a better sense of your project. A commitment from an appropriate supervisor will strengthen your application, but is not essential. Your goal is to come across as a thoughtful, motivated, and well-organized junior scholar.
Here is a breakdown of each major section on the application, along with some tips to help get your proposal to the top of the pile. (The SSHRC site also provides tips and gives answers to frequently asked questions.)
1. Academic credentials
Along with your official academic transcripts, which should be ordered as quickly as possible, in this section you may list up to six scholarships or awards that you have held.
Keep in mind that you can still win without listing any awards, so don’t give up if you only have one or two (or none). If you are lucky enough to have won some, give priority to national awards (including the best paper at a conference or the best article in a journal) over provincial ones and university awards over departmental recognition. Recent awards also trump older ones unless the recent prize is relatively minor.
2. Program of study
This section will generally make or break your application, so consult with your supervisor or mentor regularly as you prepare your proposal. And if your supervisor has not held a SSHRC fellowship recently, show a draft to a professor with a strong record as a grant-holder. Finally, attend any workshops that your university or SSHRC may provide to help you in preparing applications.
In my experience applying for and judging SSHRC competitions, reviewers typically respond favourably to:
- An interesting, worthwhile, and feasible research question that will make an impact in your field;
- A realistic schedule for completion (ideally before the fellowship expires);
- A project that is well-suited to your place of study (don’t propose to study B.C. history from Halifax); and
- A proposal that is jargon-free (don’t forget that the final selection committee is interdisciplinary). As a test, ask a friend or family member from outside of the academy to read your proposal. If that person can’t understand it, rewrite.
3. Academic/professional experience
Focus on what is relevant. Academic publications come first, then refereed conference presentations. Research and teaching assistantships can come next. Book reviews, public lectures, and other non-refereed publications might follow.
There is no harm in noting that you’ve organized a conference, chaired a panel, or refereed a manuscript for a peer-reviewed journal.
4. Letters of appraisal
Generally speaking, your supervisor(s) must write this for you. If they don’t, the committee is likely to interpret their absence as a vote of non-confidence.
If you do have a choice (for example, if you didn’t write an MA thesis), keep in mind that your referees must rank you against your peers, so solicit professors who will place you at the top of their list. (For more guidance on selecting referees, see How to ask for a reference letter)
5. Departmental appraisal
This is largely outside of your control, but the more professional your conduct around the departmental office, the easier it will be for the committee to judge you objectively.
Two final pieces of advice:
- Read the application package carefully and do exactly what you are told. Make sure that your margins and font sizes are correct, and stay within your allocated word and space limits. Don’t include three letters of appraisal if you are asked for two. And if there are special circumstances that affect your application, follow the rules for “allowable inclusions” in explaining them to the committee. Proofread your application and ask someone else to do the same. A careless error can be the difference between you and another candidate who is ranked equally otherwise.
- Finish your proposal early. Allow time for it to be read by your supervisor and to ensure that you have not missed anything. An incomplete application will be rejected at the departmental level.
In summary, there is no way around it – the application process for SSHRC doctoral fellowships is stressful and demanding. Nevertheless, if you follow this basic advice, you should finish the experience confident that you did everything you could to make your application as attractive as possible.
Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. He thanks Patricia Roy, professor emerita in the department of history at the University of Victoria, for her advice in developing this article.