Million Dollar PhD

Governmental awards

Most students apply for governmental awards, making them competitive. The value of these is usually reasonably high and they tend to fund people rather than projects, so apply for them whenever eligible. Often they have deadlines in the fall and take six months to get back to you. Confusingly, when you go straight from a Bachelor’s degree to a PhD, you would often apply for a governmental Master’s scholarship to fund the first year of your PhD.


As a rule, provincial or regional awards are less competitive than federal awards. You can usually apply to provincial and federal awards in the same year, but you may not be able to combine their amounts. Provincial fellowships are usually around $18,000 in stipend per year for Master’s students and $20,000 for PhD students.


The big three federal agencies are the tri-council:

Some projects fall under the domain of multiple agencies. If you are testing the effects of smartphone use on cognition, this could be NSERC (focusing on the attentional impact), SSHRC (focusing on the social effects of the attentional impairment), or CIHR (focusing on the health consequences of smartphone addiction). Your supervisor will know which framing is most appropriate, as you can only submit to one tri-council agency at a time.

Federal awards typically pay the same as provincial ones. They usually fund Master’s students for 1 year and PhD students for 3 to 4 years. For the PhD, they sometimes give a boost up to $35,000 for the stronger applications. The largest traditional tri-council PhD scholarship is the Vanier, which pays $50,000 per year. PhDs in Canada usually last around 6 years, which means that you may need to rely on other funding from the department or from other external awards.

You can apply to governmental awards a year before starting graduate school (i.e., during the application year) or once you get in. Simply applying for funding can help you get admitted into grad school: it shows you know the funding process and have a strong enough background to consider applying. Receiving an award also helps you get admitted, as some departments make acceptance conditional on funding decisions. Other departments will even reverse their rejections. My colleague applied to seven graduate programs and was rejected by all of them. A few months later, she learned that she was awarded a government graduate scholarship. She contacted two of the schools and both promptly reversed their decisions once they saw that now she had funding. In academia, money talks.

If you are applying for awards before being accepted into grad school, keep in mind that sometimes governmental awards are tied to a university. You may apply for an award and receive it only at a university you do not end up attending with no option to transfer it. (In such cases, you would list the award on your CV as “declined”.) Read the eligibility criteria carefully.

Student loans and bursaries

Applying for student loans can give you bursaries, which are like loans but don’t need to be repaid. The less money and funding you have, the greater your loan and bursary amounts. In the USA, students left an estimated $2.6 billion USD on the table in 2018–2019 by being eligible for but not applying to a particular government bursary.1 Talk to the student aid office at your university and apply for whatever you can. Loans and many needs-based bursaries, however, are not considered competitive, so they carry less weight than typical awards and do not trigger the “rich-get-richer” process.

Some students apply for loans even if they do not need them. Since interest only starts accumulating after graduation, they see the money as an interest-free temporary loan from the government in case of emergencies. This can be useful if you have the discipline to not see this as free money. Further, parking this money at a bank with a higher interest rate (see a comparison) could earn an extra grand or two throughout your PhD.

  1. Anna Helhoski, NerdWallet, 2018,↩︎