Million Dollar PhD


This may all seem like a lot of work. To stay realistic, you only need one or two big scholarships. I applied for more during my degree because I wanted to fund an array of projects on different topics — to “diversify” my academic portfolio, if you will. My supervisor taught me to juggle projects and let the results speak for themselves, keeping the viable projects and axing the failing ones. This meant that if my main thesis study failed, I could pivot to something else rather than be forced to write up a dead project.

The additional effort you put into finding funding can stop whenever you feel it should, say once you have another major award or once all of your projects have been funded. If you want to stay in academia and become a professor, this funding process will become a major part of your life. Principal investigators report spending nearly half of their time dealing with grants1 and, as mentioned, most of this time is spent on non-reusable work. If you don’t feel you have time to apply for funding now, you will have even less as a professor.

Applying for awards is never exciting. Some of my masochistic colleagues procrastinate large parts of applications until hours before the deadline to trade boredom for stress. Many applications require manually copying information into an ill-designed online form and reading long internally inconsistent application instructions. One international postdoc award, for example, has an application instruction booklet that is 161 pages long. I wrote this entire book while avoiding reading that booklet.

But it does get better. Subsequent awards become easier to apply for each time because you can copy from previous applications and avoid common pitfalls. You’ll grow a bigger network of people to ask if they have any previous applications to look at. My colleagues and I sometimes work on awards in groups, tricking ourselves into thinking that writing joint applications is any more pleasant than going solo. We’ll lock ourselves in the lab and order food to get us through proofreading marathons. Since the rewards of application writing are so tenuous and distant, it can be hard to find the motivation. But looking back, we are all glad that we spent the time applying. Those late-night sessions were eventually responsible for lifting some of my colleagues and research assistants out of poverty.

This book has two main take-home messages. First, the strongest predictor of funding success is how often you apply. The only way to deal with the inherent randomness of funding evaluations is to leverage the noise in your favour, love fate, and apply often. Sometimes the noise works with you and sometimes it works against you, but people only see the awarded applications. If you won 10 awards, nobody cares that you were rejected from 20 others.

Second, don’t get weird about money. Getting weird promotes the opaque funding culture of academia, meaning that you — and your colleagues — make less money. Don’t be ashamed to ask for funding. Being paid above minimum wage to improve your quality of life and mental health is not “unacademic”: it should be the standard.

Follow the suggestions in this book for a chance at effective graduate funding. Contact me at if you have any questions or to share your exuberant successes and funny failures. Best of luck and ride the noise.

Jay Olson

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