Million Dollar PhD

Finding funding

When searching for scholarships, most students apply to the usual provincial and federal awards and then stop there. If they get the awards, they keep whichever is worth more; if not, they (ideally) receive a year of internal funding from their department or supervisor and then try again the following year.

Sometimes students search online for scholarships and filter through massive lists. Most of the awards they find are competitive, small, or irrelevant. Perhaps one or two essay contests are submitted and perhaps a few hundred dollars are won.

In any case, these usual paths tend to lead to a graduate degree making around minimum wage. In contrast, alternative funding sources tend to stack: you can hold several of them at the same time. Typical governmental scholarships do not stack, so you are limited by the largest one (such as the Vanier award at $50,000 per year). The most effective graduate funding thus comes from stackable alternative sources. This chapter describes several simple but overlooked strategies for finding the lower competition and higher value awards. Many of these are similar to how professors search for funding.1

Scholarships, grants, and other types of funding

But first, let’s consider some riveting terminology. Scholarships are awards usually based on academic achievement. These can be person-based (e.g., scholarships for you as a person) or occasionally project-based (e.g., grants to complete a particular project). If you’re in a program with many courses (e.g., many Master’s degrees) focus on person awards; if you have a flexible supervisor, you can additionally apply to project-based ones. Some organisations fund both; Forces AVENIR in Quebec, for example, gives awards for either people or their projects.

Studentships or fellowships are like scholarships but usually cover a particular time period, such as a three-year fellowship. Bursaries are awards usually based on financial need when you apply for student loans.

All of these awards are considered stipends: money paid to support your research training while completing a degree. They are tax-free in Canada,2 meaning you take home more money than if you received an equivalent salary at a typical job. In this way, stipends at higher rates are particularly efficient: earning a $50,000 stipend in Quebec is similar to earning an income of $72,000. Here’s a comparison of stipend and salary using 2021 tax rates (ignoring any deductions):

Province Stipend Equivalent salary
Ontario $20,000 $23,000
  35,000 44,000
  50,000 66,000
  75,000 104,000
Quebec 20,000 24,000
  35,000 47,000
  50,000 72,000
  75,000 115,000

Grants are awards to complete a research project and are often submitted under a professor. The project could be part of your thesis or could be an unrelated project. You write a specific budget for expenses such as equipment, research assistants, publication costs, and travel. Grants can also provide stipends or salary, an hourly wage to work on the project.

Teaching assistantships pay you to help teach a course, such as leading tutorials or marking assignments. Rates vary but you can assume roughly $5,000 per course per semester. Some universities also allow instructorships in which graduate students can lead a course themselves. Research assistantships pay you to work on a project that may be unrelated to your thesis. Internships give you relevant work experience and pay either nothing or a small amount. The availability of all of these funding sources will vary by department, but all are considered salaries, and so they are taxable in Canada. Unlike stipends, salaries often involve tracking your hours and completing lengthy time sheets. One of my colleagues even tracks (and thus charges for) the process of filling out these time sheets. Both stipends and salaries are your own money: you can use them for whatever you wish, such as living expenses, travel, or savings. Here’s a summary of different award types — we’ll be focusing on scholarships and grants:

Award Taxable Bottom line
Grant Varies Often submit under a professor
Scholarship No Achievement award
Fellowship No Award over a set period
Bursary No Free money by financial need
Student loans No Best to not think of as free money
Teaching assistantship Yes Help teach a course
Instructorship Yes Teach a course
Research assistantship Yes Work on a project, related or not
Internship Yes Get work experience, maybe get paid

Methods of finding funding

Here are some methods to find alternative project-based or person-based funding sources, ranked from least to most effortful.

Check funding acknowledgements

When you find papers or posters in a similar research area, check out the funding acknowledgements or logos on the poster. At conferences, ask presenters if you can take a photo of their poster. As they proudly pose next to it, I zoom in on the funding logos. (Or you could just ask where they got their funding.)

Read colleagues’ CVs

CVs of related people in your field are one of the best ways of finding more obscure funding opportunities. Find the CVs of your lab mates, other students in your department, and professors doing similar research. Every time you come across people researching topics you’re interested in, and especially those in the same country or province, check out their CVs. You’ll find a list of awards and scholarships that may be worth applying for: if they funded your colleagues doing similar research, they might fund you too.

Ask around your network

Tell your colleagues about your potential project ideas and that you are looking for funding. During your search, send potentially relevant awards to your colleagues and they may return the favour. This can build a self-reinforcing network of people finding opportunities for each other, which is a pretty ideal professional environment. If you have a small or isolated lab, these colleagues can be other students in the same department or faculty, or even people you meet at conferences. I’ve applied for a few awards with colleagues met at international conferences, which is an easy way to be a visiting student at another university (see the Michael Smith scholarship for example). Also, always ask where people found any obscure funding opportunities; occasionally this will reveal mailing lists announcing low-competition awards.

Sometimes these lists will be from “research networks” relevant to your field. They occasionally offer occasional low-competition funding or training opportunities. This is also a good way to find colleagues and to build your network. Usually becoming a member, which may be free or cost a nominal fee, will give you access to a mailing list where they send out relevant opportunities.

Search award lists, but only occasionally

Scholarships Canada, the Grants Register,3 and various other websites and books list thousands of scholarships. Some universities like UBC maintain a public list of awards and deadlines.

These general resources are worth at least a skim. Search for specific terms that might narrow it down, such as those based on your research topic, field, family members’ employment, gender, ethnicity, home country, or disabilities. But know that many of these awards on public scholarship sites are highly advertised and thus more competitive. As a rule, the easier the funding is to find, the more people apply for it, and the more competitive it becomes. I recommend preferring the more tailored methods of finding funding, but these generic ones can be a decent starting point or a passable backup, especially for research topics with less practical value.

There are also databases of international funding opportunities such as ProposalCentral,, or Pivot by ProQuest (accessible through your library’s subscription). Rather than student scholarships, these typically list grants that you would apply for with your professor.

Micro-grants fund tiny projects

There are also “micro-grants” for niche ideas or tiny projects. Other organisations give “seed grants” to test early-stage ideas before applying for traditional funding. There is no definitive list of these awards, but search the terms “micro-grants” or “seed grants” online to find potentially relevant awards. One list covers assorted topics including psychedelic drugs, climate change, business ideas, and data science.

Ask yourself: who benefits?

Perhaps the most robust way to find awards is by asking yourself: who would benefit from this research? Consider the topic, study population, methodology, location, and results. The funding could come from sources such as the government, philanthropic foundations, other organisations, or companies.

Example: nurse fatigue

One project we were planning aimed at reducing fatigue in nurses.4 The study would use light exposure from a portable light box (the lamps used for seasonal affective disorder) to align the circadian rhythms of night shift workers. We then wanted to develop a more scalable technological solution for this. My colleagues and I brainstormed various potential sources of funding:

We searched Google for each of these terms (such as: workplace safety board research funding Canada) and then checked each site on the first few pages of results for “Funding” or “Research” pages. Over the span of a few years, we ended up applying for funding from two workplace safety boards, a national organisation funding knowledge translation research, a sleep health company, a nurse organisation, and a policy organisation. We got funding from the first four of the six. The project ended up being one of our lab’s main funding sources: we were able to run two multi-site hospital studies, compensate almost a hundred nurses a healthy amount for their participation, buy a bunch of equipment, and help fund two Master’s students. The first award application we wrote took a lot of time, but the rest were easier as they all re-used the same basic information. Writing the final manuscript was easy: we now had several highly polished proposals and had already received feedback from several scientific reviewers as part of the application process.

Many funding organisations also have email lists in which they send out occasional “CFPs” or “RFPs” (calls or requests for proposals). Sign up for these, and a few times per year a funding opportunity will float into your inbox.

Example: depression

Another one of our projects, somewhat less fundable, looked at whether false feedback could influence depression symptoms. This was more of a exploratory study combining research across domains. We considered different funding sources:

The study seemed a bit too exploratory for traditional governmental agencies, so we ended up applying to two smaller organisations that fund wisdom and consciousness studies. One of them was accepted, which was enough to run the project.

Example: placebo psychedelics

Let’s consider an even less fundable project: Can people have a psychedelic experience from consuming a placebo alone?5 This was a pilot study to see whether larger-scale research on the topic would be worthwhile. Small pilot projects like this are often more difficult to fund. Some possibilities could be:

With the exception of the micro-grant, most of these funders did not seem too feasible given the small scale of the project. The study would be inexpensive to run — we estimated $1,000 in total — so I decided that it would be easier to pay it out of pocket from my stipend money rather than to apply for funding. It is atypical to spend your own money to run a study, but effective graduate funding gives you the flexibility to do projects that you find interesting, even if they would otherwise be hard to fund.

Apply for grants meant for professors

There is also the possibility of applying for grants meant for professors. About a quarter of the awarded money throughout my PhD was through applications I submitted under another professor. Here, you would find a relevant grant, brainstorm projects, then discuss them with your supervisor or another professor to submit the grant. Because you are the one seeking the grant and writing the application, there is a lot of flexibility. If the award is funded, it’s a win–win: your professors get an extra grant on their CV with little effort, and you get your project funded. Either way, you gain useful experience writing grants.

Note, though, that this is a somewhat atypical process for grad students. It may trigger some heavy impostor syndrome. Usually only professors and occasionally postdocs write grants. You can bring up the subject, probably in person, with something like:

I’ve heard that some grad students help write grants for professors to get more experience with research funding. I came across a few grants this week that might be relevant. Would this be something you might be interested in?

If your professor is comfortable with this setup, it opens up a large set of awards. Expect professors to vary considerably in the amount of involvement they want in the process. Some will use your rough idea and rewrite everything you write; others will be happy to have you submit it under their name with little feedback.

Everything else

There is no standard way to find alternative funding sources. During my PhD I was funded by two work safety organisations, a Portuguese foundation, and a national sports institute. Probably the only place in the world these are listed together is on my CV. These days I mostly apply to federal awards and external non-profit organisations. No database or website will ever be comprehensive in its list of awards, but this makes finding the hidden gems even more valuable.

  1. Elie Dolgin, “The Hunt for the Lesser-Known Funding Source,” Nature 570, no. 7759 (June 2019): 127–29,↩︎

  2. Government of Canada, “Line 13010 – Scholarships, Fellowships, Bursaries, and Artists’ Project Grants,” 2020,↩︎

  3. Palgrave Macmillan, ed., The Grants Register 2020 (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2019),↩︎

  4. Jay A. Olson et al., “Developing a Light-Based Intervention to Reduce Fatigue and Improve Sleep in Rapidly Rotating Shift Workers,” Chronobiology International 37, no. 4 (December 2019): 573–91,↩︎

  5. Jay A. Olson et al., “Tripping on Nothing: Placebo Psychedelics and Contextual Factors,” Psychopharmacology 237, no. 5 (March 2020): 1371–82,↩︎