Contributor: Vegas Hodgins (WiCSC member)
Whether you’re already a graduate student or post-doctoral researcher or hopeful to become one, applications for programs, grants, and fellowships are an intrinsic part of the career cycle. Read this blog post to gain important knowledge about maximizing the potential of your applications from academics intimately familiar with the process: Dr. Penny Pexman of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship committee, Dr. Karl Spuznar of the NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship committee, and Dr. Ryan Yeung, postdoctoral fellow at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute. These tips and tricks were originally shared by our expert speakers at the WICSC+ panel at the 2023 meeting of the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour and Cognitive Science. Read ahead to find out how to make your application pop!
Preparation for a solid application begins in the years leading up to the deadline, not the weeks. As you progress through academia, “start writing things down. […] Make a note of everything you do,” advises Dr. Pexman, “Develop a tracking system so when you are ready to apply, it is accessible to locate and not in your memory.” Your CV is a living document: Keep it updated, whether in a Word document, an Excel sheet, or by other methods so that you never forget to list an accomplishment when application season comes around. You can also prepare yourself by developing an online presence, such as a Google Scholar profile, an Open Science Framework profile, or a professional website. Anything more, such as a social media feed or podcast, is just icing on the cake. As Dr. Spuznar shares; “If having Twitter, et cetera, is not your thing – I have never seen an application come down to an online presence. […] There are creative ways to reach out such like reaching out to a Canadian society. Do what feels natural.”
It’s not enough to just keep track of accomplishments. You have to accomplish things too! Luckily, there are a variety of ways that a (prospective) graduate student or post-doctoral researcher can distinguish themself. Extra-curricular activities including volunteering, membership on committees, or involvement with societies and groups can help show your passion and values. “One thing I notice is that students that do this really stand out. […] A person that has a lot of technical skills and uses them to put on workshops to teach others how to do it, for example. It is a simple example of how a person is giving back,” Dr. Spuznar shares. Workshops can be organized through your lab, department, or even your faculty.
Publications are a well-known way to prove your research chops to review boards. First-author publications are especially important when applying for post-doctoral fellowships. “We are looking for people that have been drivers in research. If you are a co-first author, make sure to make it clear that it is shared if your name is second. We are looking to distinguish you so showing your leadership can do that. Take the time to work on those details,” Dr. Pexman emphasizes to prospective post-doctoral researchers.
Even a part time job can demonstrate qualities that application boards look for. “It all depends on how it is framed; it can show that you are well-rounded. It can be incorporated into the application and used to show a side of who you are,” advises Dr. Yeung.
Regardless of what you do to distinguish yourself as a candidate, it is important to have a sense of why. From his perspective as part of the NSERC CGS committee, Dr. Spuznar states “Sometimes when we get applications it becomes immediately apparent that the candidate is just listing things that they have done, versus a candidate that explains why their work is meaningful. It is not just what you are doing, but why you are doing it.” Make sure that reviewers understand the positive impact of what you do both on and off campus. Furthermore, make sure to highlight the positive impact your experiences have had on your skills and values. “Unless you convey what you got out of it, anything you list will be less impactful,” offers Dr. Pexman.
Be Focused & Relevant
While including experiences outside academia can be beneficial when they tie back to your interests and talents, it is also important to keep your application focused and relevant. “Something that is more circumscribed was more successful in my case. When something was not successful it was because I had more ideas, but really the most concise ones are the ones that are most successful,” explains Dr. Yeung. He shares that the most important parts of writing a PhD project proposal are “(1) Narrowing down the core message – having a single idea that covered everything surrounding it to build towards that idea and (2) having the specificity in the plan so it seems feasible to someone outside of [one’s] research idea.” Dr. Spuznar advises the same, emphasizing that you should ask yourself why anyone would care – There’s certainly an answer there, and make sure the reviewers know it! “Going the extra mile to contextualize it can be very helpful,” shares Dr. Spuznar.
Furthermore, he advises not to overstate the importance of your research, instead focusing in on the realistic contribution that you can provide in the limited timeframe. “Everything anyone ever does is a small piece of the puzzle – everything is. If you oversell it, that is not the best. You need a balance. Just because it is a small piece does not mean it is not important and it doesn’t mean that we don’t want to learn more about it. It is all important but having the perspective that it a small piece is good,” advises Dr. Spuznar. Keep this advice in mind while writing your application: On one hand, show the reviewers that your idea is concise, feasible, and relevant to the literature. On the other, don’t make it out to be something bigger than it is: Science is iterative, and accomplished in small steps. Reviewers appreciate this as researchers themselves.
Avoid Common Mistakes
There are a number of simple common mistakes that can get your application marked down. For one, if you have an unsuccessful application that you’re thinking of re-submitting: “Don’t do it,” says Dr. Spuznar, explaining that it may be the same people reviewing your proposal this year. “They want to see effort.”
Second, pay attention to the small details. For example, Dr. Pexman advises “If you are a co-first author, make sure to make it clear that it is shared if your name is second. We are looking to distinguish you so showing your leadership can do that. Take the time to work on those details.”. Likewise, Dr. Spuznar advises not to neglect listing your technical skills such as coding abilities. These details can help balance out places where your application is otherwise lacking. Furthermore, spell check your application thoroughly. If the application is written in a language in which you have lower proficiency, consider asking a colleague or your school’s writing centre for a grammar check.
Third, know the award to which you’re applying. For example, Dr. Pexman shares, “Speaking for Banting, one of the unique things about that program is that 1/3 of the application is the institutional synergy. It requires some understanding of what research your institution is prioritizing and what facilities it has. That is the place you see the most variance in scores. Some people are applying from institutions that have never heard of Banting before, so they don’t know what to put in that section. When it lacks this, it does not seem like a rich training opportunity.” As such, it is important that you know what specific considerations are important to the reviewers for the awards to which you’re applying. Dr. Spuznar states “NSERC makes an effort to view a candidate holistically and not see the person as only a researcher. Life experiences matter, so just focus on how to frame it.” However, other awards may not place as much emphasis on experiences outside academia. When you begin preparing an application, it is important to know which of your experiences and accomplishments are most in line with what those reviewers are looking for.
While your application may be developed and written by yourself, one common misconception is that one cannot receive feedback on an application from colleagues or supervisors. In fact, feedback is an important stage of the grant writing process. Dr. Pexman advises, “Most of these panels are multidisciplinary so even if it’s a psychology panel, multiple types of psychology are represented. So, I think my advice is to get as many people to read it as possible because people interpret things differently, read things a little bit differently There is nothing like getting multiple eyes on it to ensure that it comes across as you intend.” People that can provide feedback on your application include professors in your department, your supervisor(s), colleagues from your lab, or even friends and family. While not every suggestion needs to be incorporated, having a broad perspective on your work should allow you to identify emergent themes in the suggestions made by others. These can help you improve your writing to a wide audience.
Dr. Spuznar adds to this point: “To build off Penny, don’t be afraid to ask for not only feedback but for examples of successful applications. When we review applications, sometimes it becomes very clear that if that person just saw what a successful application looked like, that person would have probably received a much higher score. […] If you don’t have access to [previous applications], talk to your graduate program directors and see, if possible, to get access to this or any resources to help level the playing field.”
Your supervisor is an integral part in the machinery of providing feedback. Dr. Spuznar notes that this is a relationship that requires honing to function optimally. “Having a good open dialogue about getting feedback is ideal. […] You should be able to go back for feedback and discussion with your supervisor, but it is a skill that you should develop. The more you practice, the better. Most of the work should come from the student, but the supervisor should help guide.” Remember that your supervisor is trying to help you: Don’t take the feedback personally, but as a way to improve your writing and ultimately your skills as a researcher!
Accept Your Successes & Failures
While it is easy to come to terms with a successful application, it is also important to give yourself grace for the occasions when your applications are unsuccessful. While failure is an eventuality all of us which we could avoid, it is a natural part of the grant application process. “One thing that I would tell my earlier self is failure is an option. I know that sounds scary and bad, but by the numbers I am not a successful candidate: I have been rejected, but I have come out okay and I am happy where I am. Things can be rough, but failure does not mean you cannot have a long successful career in academia,” thoughtfully advises Dr. Yeung. In these uncertain times for many students and postdoctoral fellows, it is important that we practice self-compassion when things don’t go the way we had hoped. Uncertainty can be a major stressor, especially in regard to something as vital to our wellbeing as funding. In the face of such stress, we must do our best to be compassionate towards ourselves and give ourselves grace in the face of failure. If necessary, reach out to your department, faculty, or school to inquire about mental health support services for graduate students and postdocs. Remember: Your funding status does not dictate your worth as a researcher, or as a person.
It’s our hope at WICSC+ that this blog post will help guide your grant applications this season to fruition. If you found this post helpful, please share it or its accompanying social media post on your social media of choice. We also encourage you to share this post by email with any students in your lab who may be applying for grants this season. You can find us on X @wicscanada or Instagram @wicsc_trainee. We offer a special thanks to our panelists, Dr. Penny Pexman, Dr. Karl Spuznar, and Dr. Ryan Yeung, as well as CSBBCS 2023 for hosting the panel that provided us with their insights.