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Careers Café

Funding graduate students’ research

BY NICOLA KOPER | APR 15 2013

A few weeks ago, I blogged about funding graduate students using scholarships. This week, I’ll talk about students who are funded in other ways. I suppose this blog is focussed on students who do certain types of research; some, presumably, can complete their dissertations with nothing more than a laptop (our society’s substitute for a pencil and a library), while others require such sophisticated equipment that there could be no thought of bringing in students without ensuring that research funding was firmly in place first, and where costs of additional students are incremental relative to overall research costs. Nonetheless, there is a significant middle ground in which more students mean greater research costs. Further, many of us are approached by students with good research ideas but no funding to realize these ideas. There are a range of opportunities for supporting such students, and of course, an equally broad range of problems and associated headaches.

For many of us, a core of our annual research funding comes from NSERC, SSHRC, or CIHR grants. These are critical to many research programs, and importantly, can be used to leverage additional funding; for example, at my university, the Faculty of Graduate Studies provides somewhat more-than-matching funds for student stipends provided by Tri-Council grants. Such funding opportunities are not always widely advertised, and as such I urge professors to investigate their internal granting programs. However, Tri-Council funding criteria are changing, grant values are declining, and some good-quality research projects seem to remain unattractive to these funding agencies. As such, many students in Canada cannot be supported by these grants.

I have found that the greatest opportunities for attracting high-quality graduate students to our research program have come from me applying for grants from provincial, federal or industrial grant programs, and once I have that funding in hand, advertising internationally for funded graduate positions. There are numerous high-profile websites that will post such positions for free; for example, in my case, both the Society for Conservation Biology job board and Ornjobs (Ornithology jobs) listserv are go-to places for keen and motivated students with a modicum of knowledge about their research field. Such advertisements allow me to select the best among numerous applicants from all over the world, and in many cases these students, because they are generally outstanding, have been able to earn scholarships after joining my lab group, thus freeing up funding for additional field research, higher sample sizes, new projects, or additional students. Without question, many professors have the name and reputation for attracting such students without the bait of a small but guaranteed stipend, but alas, those of us who are perhaps younger in years and fewer in publications can benefits from such an approach.

Nonetheless, there have also been times when excellent students have sought me out and proposed projects that I’d like to collaborate on. A surprising number of excellent students do not apply for Tri-Council scholarships in the September or October of the year prior to starting their Masters, and thus the fact that these students don’t bring funding with them does not mean that they will not do an outstanding job. Further, international students cannot access many of the scholarship programs available to Canadians. One way I’ve funded such students is to work with them in the six-to-nine months prior to their proposed start date to develop their own research grant proposal, which we then submit for funding prior to starting their program. This seems to be an unusual approach, but has numerous significant pay-offs, although it is time-consuming on the professors’ part; I will regularly edit 6 or 7 drafts of such proposals before I approve them for submission. However, students who are successful through this process are invariably engaged, enthusiastic, committed, and have learned a great deal about their research topic and academic writing prior to even starting their program. Further, they then have the confidence of entering their program with funding that they are partially responsible for, and can then focus on other components required to make their Masters program a success. Certainly, some students who have started this process have not completed it, but in those cases I would rather both the student and myself learn as early as possible in the research process that graduate school is perhaps not for them.

Teaching and mentoring graduate students are some of the great pleasures and responsibilities of an academic position. Ensuring that students have the financial and academic support required to be successful in their programs is part of a professor’s responsibility, and ultimately, is in our interests as well.

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