Million Dollar PhD

Dealing with the decision

Typically up to six months later, organisations announce their funding decisions. The more competitive or bureaucratic the granting process, the longer it will take. It is customary to then email all collaborators on the project with an update on the decision.

Deciding whether to accept

After receiving an acceptance, carefully read the funding agreement and any “award holder’s guide” to double-check the details. Does the award stack on others? Are there any unexpected restrictions on how the money can be spent? Does this award enable you to apply for others? Are you required to notify anyone from your department as soon as you receive it? It is then your and your supervisor’s decision to accept or decline the award.

Declining awards gracefully

Being offered (“awarded”) the money is sufficient to serve as an accomplishment on your CV, and rich-get-richer effects will make it more likely that you will receive future awards. Perhaps the most common reason to decline an award is that it does not stack on a larger award you also received. Note that some seemingly non-stackable awards can be stacked as long as they fund different parts of a project, such as one to fund equipment costs and the other as stipend or research assistant salary. There is no issue with declining awards, but do so graciously and explain your reasoning. You can list these as “declined” on your CV. (Note that those new to academia may misinterpret this. One of our research assistants accused me of pumping up my CV by even listing awards that rejected me. He mistook “declined” for “rejected”, which is a reasonable mistake. Funders and reviewers will know the difference.)

Sometimes students want to decline an award to keep them eligible for a potential larger one. My colleague got the SSHRC Bombardier award which, if accepted, would have made him ineligible to apply for the Vanier award the following year. He was considering trading a certain $35,000 per year for a long shot at $50,000 per year. This is rarely a smart move. Further, funding scores are noisy: there is no guarantee that applying the following year will increase your score. He ended up keeping his $35,000 award happily, and he ended up applying for other external awards to supplement his funding. (Unhappily, he put his entire $105,000 award into a risky investment and lost a bunch of money.)

Accepting an award

If you accept the award, check if it requires manual renewal or progress reports. Some organisations require you to notify them about your intent to renew many months in advance before submitting the actual renewal form. Mark your calendar when you accept the award so you don’t have to worry about it later on.

This is also the time to make any necessary changes to the award. If you have started working with a new collaborator on the project, or if your timeline has shifted, before accepting the award or shortly after is the best time to request these changes.

Add the award to your CV right away to help keep track. People commonly list the award title, funding organisation (especially if external), years, and sometimes the total award amount (especially when the award is large). If appropriate, you may also want to ask the funder where you ranked relative to the other applicants, which can sometimes be listed on your CV if it’s particularly impressive. One of my colleagues always asks about this ranking; here’s the email he usually sends:

I am a [name] award recipient and was wondering if I could please get some more information about my rank in the competition. Namely, how many candidates applied, how many were awarded, and what was my relative rank among the awardees (e.g., 5th of 20)? I am applying for another scholarship that requests this information about my previous awards, so any information you can provide would be helpful.

You will also want to notify your department that you received the award. Universities are complex systems. Just because several administrators signed the award documentation and Finance is paying it out does not necessarily mean that anyone has taken a good look at it. (One wonders why all the signatures are needed.)

I learned this the hard way during the last year of my PhD. I had applied for an award that asked about other current funding sources as part of its application. I received the award but somehow missed the third paragraph of the thirteenth point in the award holder’s guide that said I also needed to notify the department about other funding after I received it. As it turns out, I was no longer eligible and was asked to decline the award.

After a rejection

Most award applications will be rejected. If no feedback is given at all, you can sometimes ask the organisation for any more information about the reasoning. Occasionally they will give a small amount of additional feedback when asked. Provincial and federal organisations typically will not provide any more information than what was given in the decision letter.

With no other information, there are two main reasons why your application was rejected:

  1. It was relatively weak compared to the other applications, in the broad sense (e.g., it did not fit the organisation’s mandate).

  2. It was just noise (e.g., one of the reviewers had a bad day or hated your topic).

Since you never know the answer, it may be worth applying a second time. Note that the expected value is even lower than before: your best evidence is that you will not be accepted. In my case, I usually only apply to awards more than once if they provide ratings or feedback.

If your feedback is quite bad, your project may not be a good fit for the organisation. One of my colleagues applied for a CIHR award which was rated absolute last among 40 applications in the pool. In these extreme cases, it is unlikely that noise is playing the main role in the decision. He re-applied with the same project the following year and this time made the wild improvement to second last, solidifying the evidence that his low ratings were not simply due to noise. He concluded that the organisation was not the best fit and got the project funded on a first attempt elsewhere.