You should apply for that: 10 tips for scholarship applications

Kristina here –

Applying for funding, scholarships, fellowships, and awards can be a daunting task, but it is an important part of most research careers. Not only can funding help you complete new research projects and have more opportunities that will lead to your growth and success, but funding and awards also look good on your CV/resume, which can also contribute to your continued success. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that it truly never hurts to apply (within reason). Even if you are unsuccessful, there are still many potential benefits. Here are just a few reasons you should consider applying for that opportunity:

Why Apply?

  • The more you practice, the better your applications will become. Each time I apply for an opportunity, I learn something and find a way to make my application stronger. You also give yourself a framework that you can use for other future opportunities.
  • When I was in my last year of high-school, my dad said something that has always really stuck with me. He said, “It [the application] is the best hourly wage you’ll ever make”. If you think about the hours you put into each application, the potential financial benefit is huge.
  • For better or worse, sometimes funding begets funding. If you can show that you’ve had success in the past and used those opportunities to create tangible research products, such as posters, workshops, talks, publications, etc., you might be more likely to get further “buy-in” from potential funders. One notable exception would be funding opportunities where you are required to demonstrate financial need (being open and honest for those kinds of applications is very important, but don’t discount yourself automatically).
  • If you are successful, you might create opportunities for others. This might sound strange, and certainly is not always the case, but if you are able to fund yourself, you might allow your supervisor or lab to put more funds towards another person.
  • Don’t say no to yourself. Over the years, I’ve come to the realization that it’s hard to predict how an application will be received. There are applications that I felt good about that were rejected, and others where I didn’t think I stood a chance, yet was successful. It is unfair not to give yourself a chance.

Often, I’m asked for help or to review student applications, so I thought I would try to share some of the patterns I’ve noticed on successful applications. Most of this advice is geared toward funding opportunities for students, but I think the general patterns could be applied to many opportunities. Here are my top 10 suggestions:

Tips for applying

  1. Read the instructions and do your homework

While it sounds pretty basic, following the application instructions carefully is one of the most important things to make sure your application is well evaluated. There are going to be lots of good applications so failing to follow the instructions or not sticking to the guidelines is an easy way for the evaluators to toss or bump down your application.

Is there a rubric? Follow it! A lot of scholarships will have their rubrics or marking criteria laid out, so the best thing to do is follow that as carefully as possible. Make sure you are addressing each of the criteria given, and include the same terminology that they use. Essentially, you want to “tick” as many boxes as you can and use the same language they do.

Are there additional resources or guidelines available? Take advantages of them! For example, some funders may have a FAQ page, or might even have video resources with tips and tricks from those that are evaluating applications (see here for a YouTube series by NSERC). It might seem like overkill, but taking the time to search for those resources are often very informative and can help you avoid common mistakes, or find ways to make your application stand out. Attending info sessions is also a great idea.

Can you find examples of successful applications? Pay close attention to those! Asking someone you know for an example of their successful proposal, or looking for any that might be available online, is a great way to help you identify what makes an application successful. It can be scary to ask, but most people are happy to pay it forward. It’s also helpful to look at more than one application so you can start to identify common frameworks of successful applications.

  1. Ask for references early!

Asking people for references can be very stressful, especially when everyone is so busy and may have limited capacity. It is therefore crucial to ask early and make it as easy as possible for someone to give you a stellar reference. Choosing your referees can also be somewhat strategic, so make sure you give a lot of thought as to who would be able and willing to write or give you the best reference, which of your strengths or skills they can speak to, and how those references will be perceived (e.g., how well-rounded are your references in your application package and how well do your referees know you?).

Make it easy for your referees. There are several things they might ask of you, but it is just as important to be clear about what you need from your referees. Here are my top suggestions for helping ensure you get the best reference possible: 1) Supply each referee with detailed referee instructions and any rubrics they should follow, 2) Give your referees your proposal, an updated CV, and a list of things you’d like them to highlight, such as past successes, research, or other attributes that make you stand out for this specific application, 3) Make sure they know the deadline (I like to give myself at least one day of buffer room), and 4) Follow up about a week before the deadline to check in and see if they need anything (which also serves as a reminder).

  1. Know your audience

Again, this might seem obvious, but most of the time, the people reviewing your application are not experts in your field. It’s important to assume that most people do not have the background knowledge or passion that you have for the topic. Don’t assume people know what you do and use plain, accessible language. Even if a reviewer might be familiar with your topic, it’s always better to err on the side of caution, and will demonstrate your strong communication skills. If you use jargon or acronyms, be sure to explain them carefully. The example often used in communicating your research is to explain it to a family member. Communicating at that level can be tricky, but often helps you draw out the importance and novelty of your research. In fact, many research journals now ask authors to submit a plain-language summary, or a significance statement, that is used to identify potentially news or note-worthy research.

  1. Identify the research gap you are trying to fill

What do we know, and what do we need to know that we currently don’t understand? Not only is it important to place your research in the context of the field, but it is equally important to make sure reviewers understand the limitations of our current knowledge so they can see where you are going with your proposed project. Give some background on the basics of the problem and established research, and clearly state the gap in our current knowledge. Even if it is not a total gap in research, point out the limitations. For example, maybe your topic or question is understudied, poorly understood, or has received little funding or attention.

  1. Make your audience care

Why should the average person care? This is probably one of the most important aspects of your research in general, but it is often more challenging than you’d think to articulate clearly. Finding that balance of making your research appeal to a wide audience, while still being specific enough to your question, is not always an easy task. There are many ways to approach this, but the bottom line is that you must make people care. If you have clearly identified the research gap (see above), sometimes drawing out the importance is easier. Dedicate time to practice iterating these two points (i.e., write them out multiple times until you get the best wording down), and place them early in your proposal (usually the first paragraph). You want to “hook” the audience as soon as you can. Practicing this out loud with another person is another way to help hone your “elevator pitch” both for proposals, and for any applications that might require an interview.

  1. Value and support your worth

It can be challenging to talk about yourself and your work, especially if you suffer from impostor syndrome. In particular, I find that young/early career women often downplay their past success and the novelty of their work (here’s another post by Dr. Victoria Arbour on the subject: “You Project is Good Enough for a Talk”). I still make this mistake regularly and must remind myself that I have worked hard to earn my success (while also recognizing my privilege as a white, middle-class, cis, hetero woman). It can be overwhelming and hard to “own” your success. But making yourself and your research stand out is critical for any application.

Why are you the best person for the job? How are you uniquely positioned to do this research? Make it clear that you have the perfect skill set and background for the job. You might also want to highlight your support team and how they can help you succeed. For example, perhaps your advisor is a leading expert in the field, or has essential equipment or research skills to help you complete your project. Maybe there are also established research relationships, past work, or unique networking opportunities that will add value to your research, and help you become a leader in your field. Make sure you point out not only why the fit of yourself and/or your team is unique, but also try to indicate the potential future benefits. Often funders are looking to build and retain talent that reflects well on them, so you want to get across how this will make you successful, and how this could benefit the funders.

  1. Use clear, strong language

Again, this might seem straightforward, but it can be hard for researchers who are highly cognizant of the nuances and limitations of their fields. There is this tendency to add caveats that will protect us from potentially being wrong, or avoid overstating something, but adding too many clarifiers can weaken your argument. Instead, try to state things as simply as possible, even if you are not getting at all the minutia. Also avoid what my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Lindsey Leighton, calls “weasel words”, such as “appears to be” or “most likely”, where it looks like you’re trying to soften a statement, even if it is unintentional. From an outside perspective, it either matters, or it doesn’t. You don’t have room for all the details, so provide only what the reader needs to know.

Where possible, create a sense of urgency. Using words like “novel” or “critical” can seem buzz-wordy, but if you back it up with enough evidence (i.e., if you have set up the research gap and its importance, as described above), they can be powerful. This is why setting up your framework is really important. You don’t want to be disingenuous, but your urgency can also convey your passion for the research topic and will hopefully convince the reviewer as well.

  1. What are your hypotheses and expected outcomes?

Make it simple and spell it out. Some of the most effective application proposals I’ve seen are those that are very upfront and clearly lay out their questions and hypotheses. Usually, you can begin by saying “the goals are…”, and then follow it with “my hypotheses are…”. If you have more than one goal and hypothesis, you can number them. One thing I’ve picked up is to use bold font for things like the research question/goals, and/or hypotheses. You want to make it obvious that you understand your objectives and have thought about the expected outcomes. Don’t try to make it too eloquent – simple and straightforward is best.

  1. What will you do to answer your questions?

How will you get there? After you’ve set out your goals and hypotheses, try to take it one step further by explaining how you plan to complete your research. You don’t necessarily need to get into excruciating detail. The goal here is to convince the reviewers that you have clearly thought about what you need to do to complete the research in a timely fashion. You also want to get across that your project is feasible. Getting rejected because a reviewer didn’t think the project was feasible or realistic is unfortunate, but I have heard of it happening.

Lay out the basic steps required to complete your research and provide some overall methodology. You can even break it out for each of your research objectives or hypotheses. For example, something along the lines of: “Goal 1 is to answer x. I expect outcome y. To answer this question, I will do a, b, and then c.” These sentences can be rearranged as you see fit, but this basic framework can be quite effective. You can even follow that with a sentence that gets across the desirable outcome or potential benefits (i.e., link it back to the “why should we care”). Be brief, though, as the methods are not as important as the question and outcomes.

  1. Room for a figure?

Use a figure to highlight your expected outcomes. Like most of what I’ve mentioned, this is just a suggestion, and you may not have the space for one. But, a figure can help a reviewer visualize the potential outcomes of your research and convey that you’ve thought a lot about your questions and even the metrics you might use. Have you ever read a paper with a graphical abstract? It’s the same idea.

Consider presenting your hypotheses graphically. What would an idealized result look like? If there is more than one alternative hypothesis, what do those scenarios look like? What would each result indicate? A figure can help the reviewer anticipate your results, and understand the project’s feasibility. It also helps communicate that you understand the different variables that you will need to test. It may sound cliché, but a picture really can say a thousand words. I recommend trying it out for your own learning purposes, if nothing else.

These are just rough guidelines and suggestions, and may not apply in every instance. You will need to make sure you tailor your application to the opportunity. One final piece of advice is to ask someone to review your application for you. Getting feedback is always really helpful, and might be an expectation of your supervisor/advisor. Even having a peer or more advanced student look over your application can be useful. Don’t feel like you have to do everything entirely on your own.

Above all, remember that it never hurts to try, and don’t say no to yourself because you never know…

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