Million Dollar PhD

Choosing awards

Once you have a list of potential internal, governmental, alternative, or partnership awards, you have to choose which ones to prioritise. Early on, you can be less discriminate: non-monetary awards, student essay contests, and public speaking competitions can all trigger the rich-get-richer cycle. Once you can afford to be selective, here are some considerations when ranking potential awards.

Estimating expected value

The most important consideration is expected value, which is the monetary value of the award multiplied by the rough probability you will receive it. Lotteries, for example, have a high monetary value but a low probability you will win, resulting in a low expected value. It is best to apply for awards that have a high expected value, meaning high-value awards that you are likely to get. To assess this probability, many organisations (especially government ones) report their funding percentage during the previous year which can serve as a rough baseline. For organisations that do not, you can reach out and ask for the funding percentage for the previous year. One of my colleagues asks about this for every award he considers, and the funders usually provide the numbers. Here’s an email snippet he sends:

I am a PhD student at [university] and I had a quick question about your scholarship. Can you please let me know what percent of applications you ended up funding during your last round?

The rough probability is all you need: is it 1%, 10%, 50%, or 90%?

Suppose you find an award for $50,000 from an organisation that reported funding 20% of the applications last year. You compute the expected value as $10,000 ($50,000 × 0.20) and decide that the amount of time needed for the application would be worth the effort, so you apply.

Or, suppose you find a $1,000 student essay contest. They ask you to write an essay about a childhood experience that changed how you see the future of Canadian communities. This is the first year of the award and you cannot infer how many people will apply. It is open to all high school and university students in Canada, so you ballpark that at least 100 people will crank out an essay. The expected value ($1,000 × 0.01) would be only $10. For ten dollars you decide it is not worth writing and editing an essay. Most student essay contests are therefore a waste of time; this time is better spent finding awards with a higher expected value.

Fit with the funder

Many organisations list previous projects that they have funded, which makes it easy to see if your project is a good fit. If the organisation website doesn’t have such a list, use Google Scholar to search for the organisation name (in quotes) and filter by recent years. Read the abstracts to see if your project fits. If it doesn’t, see if your project can be framed in such a way to make it fit. For example, depending on the funder, our project on shift work was framed as studying work safety, nurses’ mental health, circadian rhythms, or knowledge translation. We emphasised different aspects of the same project to tick the boxes. Think of it like a job application: the employer describes the ideal candidate on the job posting, but you sometimes apply anyway if you meet only some of the requirements and use the interview to reframe your previous experience.

Stacking multiple awards at the same time

Awards stack on top of each other when you can hold multiple (usually from different organisations) at once. There are several types:

  1. Stackable awards can be held without their values being reduced. These awards are completely independent. Sometimes awards can stack even within the organisation, such as if they fund different projects. Stackable awards include Mitacs and many non-governmental external organisations. Hold a strong preference for stackable awards.

  2. Semi-stackable awards can be held at the same time, but at least one of them will reduce in value. For example, funder A gives you an award of $20,000 per year, but if you get an award from funder B (also at $20,000), the initial award will reduce to $5,000 per year. I find these more often in governmental awards. For example, some provincial and federal awards can be partly combined to increase their amount or extend their duration. These rules vary regularly, so carefully check your award letters.

  3. Non-stackable awards cannot be held together. Most traditional government awards fall into this category; you cannot usually combine a 3-year federal scholarship with a 3-year provincial one. Since students primarily apply to these traditional awards, they never experience the wonderful benefits of stacking. Non- and semi-stackable awards can sometimes be optimised by pushing one a little later. For example, you can sometimes ask one of the organisations to delay your award for one year since you have received other funding. This used to be a fairly common move: apply for both provincial and federal awards, then take the provincial one for a year while delaying the federal. Some agencies have stopped permitting this practice. For example, some provincial funders require you to accept the federal award if you are awarded both.

    Still, it is worth explicitly confirming whether awards stack once you are awarded them. I’ve occasionally been pleasantly surprised by seemingly non-stackable awards becoming stackable when both funders agree, for example when two awards fund different parts of the same project or the same person doing different projects.

  4. Stacking-mandatory awards require co-funding to be awarded. Here, after obtaining one award, some organisations will chip in to fund part of the project. These are relatively rare but can be useful if you have an optional appendage of a project that could use additional funding.

This “stacking” terminology is not too common within academia. In contexts such as professional emails, use “can be held at the same time” rather than “stack”.

Award multiple times

Some agencies will award each person only once, meaning that everything you learn about the application process becomes irrelevant the moment they fund you. (Still, this knowledge can help your colleagues apply in the future.) Prioritise awards that offer repeated funding opportunities. Once you know what the agency likes to fund and any wildcards in their application process, subsequent proposals become much faster. This reduces the amount of non-reusable work as information can be copied from previous applications.

Listing yourself as an applicant

When you receive a scholarship, you can list it on your CV to trigger the rich-get-richer cycle. Not all award types will allow students to be considered “applicants”, however. Here are the main roles in order of importance:

  1. The principal investigator (PI) is the main person on grants and usually has to be a professor. Typically this would be your supervisor or whichever professor you are applying under. If the award does not explicitly state that the PI must be a professor, you may be able to take this role yourself; your professor would then become a “supervisor”, “mentor”, or some other role. When you apply for jobs as a postdoc or professor, being the PI on a grant means that you would already have a track record of research funding under your name. I received three awards as the PI, which likely boosted my later postdoc applications.

    PI means different things to funders and universities. From the funder’s point of view, the PI receives the award and runs the project, and this is the point of view that matters. From the university’s point of view, the PI is responsible for the award; this often has to be a professor as students may not administratively be able to hold “grants”. These two views may diverge: you can be the PI in the funder’s eyes while your supervisor is the PI in the university’s eyes.

  2. The primary applicant is the person acknowledged as leading the project. For typical scholarships, the student is always the primary applicant.

  3. Co-applicants have other large roles on the project. Depending on the award, these may be students or professors.

  4. Collaborator is the catch-all term for everyone else. Some larger or government grants have specific definitions for collaborators. In other awards the term can be used loosely; naming yourself in the “research team” portion of the application will usually suffice to formally call yourself a collaborator.

Prioritise awards in which you can have an important formal role. Otherwise, get used to being a ghost-writer: sometimes you write the entire application without your name appearing anywhere. (Of course, you still get the money and the experience.)

Useful feedback

Another aspect I look for when choosing agencies is whether they provide feedback. Many do not, making the organisation somewhat of a black box. If they reject your application, did they not like the idea? Did it not fit their mandate? Was your application not competitive enough? Do they only fund people they know? Was it just noise? Usually these organisations are not worth re-applying for after a rejection, unless they are a well-known agency with transparent success rates (like most major government agencies).

If an agency gives feedback, this can be used to improve your project or your subsequent application. Do not expect consistency, though: they may reject your application multiple times for different reasons.

Awards that enable other awards

Receiving some awards enables you to apply for others. The higher-level PhD Canada Graduate Scholarships (at $35,000 or above) enable you to apply for the $6,000 Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement which funds a research stint abroad. These “enabling” awards are more common for federal and provincial awards. Check the award holder’s guide before you apply to see if anything else is enabled.

Reusable work

More competitive awards tend to require more work, but you should focus on the amount of non-reusable work they require. An application requiring a project proposal and a brief bio is fine: this work can be easily reused in other contexts, such as for a manuscript and a conference presentation bio.

Non-reusable work is the amount of useless work required: the effort that is specific to the application, especially if the agency only funds people once. This includes filling out detailed forms on the application website or writing a response that you’ll never use again, such as a scholarship essay or a description of how your project fits the funding mandate. Minimising non-reusable work gives you more time to write a publishable paper rather than an unpublishable essay that will be hastily skimmed by two application reviewers. Professors estimate that at least half of the time spent on grant preparation constitutes such non-reusable work.1

Apply anyway

Sometimes you’ll be on the fence about whether or not to apply. For awards with larger expected values (e.g., $1,000), it is often worthwhile to apply anyway. A hastily written but complete application is usually better than not submitting one at all. When in a rut, aim for pretty good rather than perfect. One of my colleagues was hesitant about applying for an internal scholarship due the next day that required a thousand-word essay on why she is a good candidate. Because the award was internal, she knew few people would apply and she suspected even fewer would bother to write such an essay. She estimated that she could churn out a passable version in three hours, so I told her to go for it. That three hours turned into six, but she was awarded $3,000 a week later.

I had a similar experience. Students can present SSHRC-funded research at the yearly Storytellers competition in which you submit a short video or essay on your research. The 25 winners across the country get $3,000 and present at a national conference. I figured that the large majority of students working on SSHRC-funded research would not write an essay or make a video. I also figured that if the entire application could be done in a day, then making a video in any case could serve as some useful and quick scientific communication. I decided I would spend exactly one day making a video. I wrote a script, balanced my phone on tenuously stacked boxes, and filmed myself in my supervisor’s office. I did it all in one cut to avoid editing. My suspicions were right: few people applied and I got $3,000 and a trip across the country. After seeing my success, my colleague followed the same strategy. He made his own video in a day (but smartly avoided the tenuous boxes) and got the same award a couple years later. These small initial awards can act as kindling before the rich-get-richer cycle starts fanning the funding flames.

Red flags to avoid

Sometimes the easiest awards to find should be avoided. Some charge application fees to cover the “administrative costs” of receiving submissions, which is particularly puzzling when the applications are received electronically. These awards are analogous to a student-funded lottery: many people pay to enter the draw, one person wins part of the prize money, and the organisation pockets the rest. These are often borderline scams. Other organisations charge for membership which allows students to apply for small scholarships. Consider these only if the organisation is worthwhile on its own, such as if they host conferences in your field.

Some awards pay not in cash, travel, or equipment, but in services from the company that gives the award. These can be useful if the services are valuable, but sometimes companies try to hide this fact by mentioning it only once on a long page of award details. If you have other options, skip these ones: they only benefit as “CV fillers” and your time is better spent elsewhere. Some companies offering scholarships have both an application fee and they only pay in services. This equates to students (or their loans) essentially crowd-funding the company’s services. Skip these and tell your colleagues to skip them too.


  1. Sandra Schneider, “Results of the 2018 FDP Faculty Workload Survey: Input for Optimizing Time on Active Research,” Federal Demonstration Partnership, 2019, https://thefdp.org/default/assets/File/Presentations/FDP FWS3 Results Plenary Jan19 fnl.pdf.↩︎