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Strategies for successful funding applications

By Pablo Bose, FES Alumni, PhD 2006

The following comments are drawn from my observations as both an applicant and as a reviewer in a variety of contexts including internal FES and York committees and external organizations including SSHRC, OGS, CIDA, IDRC, and NSF.

General points

  • Control what you can – much of the scholarship process is outside of your power (dependent on reviewers, other applications, funding trends, etc.); give yourself the best chance with extensive preparation
  • Treat each application (or sets of applications) as requiring a lengthy commitment, perhaps as much as an extra course
  • Conduct research on the funding body – if it’s a government agency, perhaps read recent policy papers, if it’s a private donor or corporation, look at their annual reports to see what research priorities they have highlighted and outlined
  • Consider the entire application package, not just the proposal – what are the other required elements? Do not work on one part to the detriment of others
  • Try, try, try again – most applicants are not successful on their first, second or even third attempt; conversely, many previously successful applicants have not won awards through later attempts. The trick is not to get discouraged or take too personally any one rejection but rather to continue to apply

Preparation

Grades and transcripts

  • Order early (check deadlines for transcript applications)
  • Order a large number from your previous institution(s) so you won’t have to keep ordering from them in the future
  • Explain any differences in grading systems (i.e. British grading standards) or get the registrar at the institution to do so
  • If you are in a system that does not include grading (i.e. FES), ask those who are writing letters of reference for you to indicate the type of grade they would have given you in such a system
  • Check to see whether the award administrators want you to send transcripts directly to them or enclose them with your application package

Publications, presentations and awards

  • Not expected at earlier stages of study, but look good on applications
  • Look at the York or FES faculty curriculum vitae formats for guidance on how to format your publications, presentations and awards
  • Make sure to follow any unique formatting requirements (i.e. if the application parameters indicate a specific font-size or margins)
  • Mention all previous awards no matter how small (bursaries, travel grants, etc. – though note that TA’ships are generally not considered awards)
  • The fact that you have previous scholarships does often help, giving the impression that other adjudicators have deemed you worthy

Letters of reference

  • A crucial and often underestimated component of the application; people often approach referees at the last minute – remember that they will often be fielding many requests at around the same time
  • Give your referees plenty of time to write letters for you (approach them at least one month in advance if possible)
  • Provide as much information as possible to them (perhaps prepare a package of materials about award criteria as well as your proposal and CV)
  • Ask them to be specific about your attributes as a scholar and researcher
  • Be strategic about who you ask – how many other students do they have? Do you know through the grapevine whether they are a good referee? Can you get a sense from your previous interactions with them whether they would write you a strong letter?

The proposal

Importance of the issue

  • Convey a sense of the urgency and relevance of your topic in both intellectual and pragmatic terms
  • How does the issue fit into academic discussions on the topic?
  • How is the issue related to practical/applied concerns?
  • Why is the issue relevant to the terms of the award?
  • Do not belabor your points – this is not an essay but meant to be a concise and pithy proposal of a specific research project or agenda

Your qualifications

  • Why are you the person to undertake this research?
  • How have you prepared for it through previous research? What coursework have you done? What previous degrees have you completed?
  • What will you do to further prepare yourself? What courses might you take?
  • What comprehensive areas will you study?

Your research context

  • Where do you plan to carry out this research?
  • Why and how will that place support your research?
  • Who will you work with? List specific faculty you plan to work with.
  • What research networks will you be connected to?

Feasibility of the project

  • How long will the project take?
  • Is this a project that can be completed in the time and manner you are proposing?
  • Give realistic timeframes and achievable objectives

Writing to be read

  • Use sophisticated rather than specialist language so that you can demonstrate that you know what you are talking about without alienating readers
  • Since you cannot anticipate the audience, strike a balance between generalist and expert terms
  • You should be able to gauge what words and terms might be strategic and what might not on the basis of the funding body you are applying to

Workshop it

  • If at all possible, work in small groups with peers and provide feedback for one another so that you can get outside advice on your proposal
  • Also see if previously successful applicants are willing to share their own proposals with you

Deadlines

  • Submit it on time
  • Prepare it to send off perhaps 2-3 days before the deadline just in case of any problems