Million Dollar PhD

Common pitfalls

Several common problems can render your application efforts worthless. Most of these I’ve learned the hard way.

Internal deadlines are before external ones

Major governmental funding agencies often have two deadlines: external and internal. External deadlines are those set by the funder and will be displayed prominently on the application website. Internal ones are chosen by the department and, as a rule, will be hidden in an obscure departmental mailing list email or in a footnote on an outdated internal website. If there is an internal deadline, this is the one you will need to submit for; the external one just means that the funder needs to receive applications from the university by that date. Mistaking internal and external deadlines is a rite of passage in graduate school. (I may hold the record for this particular ritual.)

Internal deadlines can be more flexible than external ones. Departments will often wait to receive late reference letters before making their decision about which applications to recommend to the university or funder. If you miss the deadline by a day or two and your department’s administrator is in a good mood, your late materials may still be accepted — but know that this is a favour and not an expectation.

Some departments cap or displace your funding

Many departments allow you to take home whatever scholarships you are awarded. Other departments will “cap” student funding to a particular amount, meaning that past a point you cannot receive additional money. In some departments this cap is set incomprehensibly low, such as at $15,000 — below the poverty line — from which the student is expected to pay tuition and living expenses. Some students have had success in petitioning their departments to increase these caps, for example by writing a public letter stating that their maximum stipend falls well below the poverty line.

Similarly, some departments reduce your stipend by the amount of your other scholarships. If you have a $20,000 stipend from the department and you receive an additional $5,000 external scholarship, your stipend would be reduced by that amount so you would still take home the same $20,000. Such “scholarship displacement” practices are common in Canada, though they have been banned in several US states.1

These caps and displacements can have a large effect on your daily life as a graduate student. They can be the difference between living in poverty and graduating in debt versus living comfortably and accumulating savings. Because students tend to stop applying for awards after receiving a major one, these limits are rarely discussed. Throughout graduate school, I heard them mentioned exactly once when my colleague stood up during a conference and asked whether caps could be considered abusive given that many grad students already make less than minimum wage.

Ask your department administrator or chair about the caps or displacements in advance, and don’t expect your colleagues or supervisor to necessarily know the answer. Here’s a sample wording:

I had a quick question about scholarships. I’ve heard that some departments have a “cap” on the amount of awards that students can receive. For example, if the student receives two major awards that can be held at the same time (according to the funders), the second one would be discarded above a particular limit and the remaining money would be returned to the department. Do you know if our department has any similar limits?

The benefit of having reasonable caps is that other students in your department automatically benefit from your own awards, with the (large) assumption that the department distributes all of the money directly as scholarships to other students. The downside is that, beyond suppressing stipend amounts, caps may reduce your motivation to apply for any additional awards. This would be an unideal situation for you, the department, and the university.

Do not await nomination

Some awards require “nomination” from your department, and students often misinterpret this to think that the department will contact you out of the blue and ask you to apply. Nomination, however, just means that your department has approved your submission. Don’t wait: reach out to the department directly (or through your supervisor) to ask if they will support you applying to a particular award. In other words, nominate yourself.

Wildcards: known unknowns

Wildcards are the “known unknowns”: the various factors that may unexpectedly complicate or delay your application. Everyone procrastinates grants — much of this book was written before postdoctoral award deadlines — but some parts are more risky to delay.

Account creation may take time

One of my colleagues had a stellar CIHR application. She finished it a week in advance and polished it until the day of the deadline. When she went to copy and paste the application sections into the website, she learned that she first needed a CIHR PIN: some ID number that you need to apply for a day in advance. She called CIHR, presumably along with many other frantic students that day, and was told that nothing could be done to speed up the process: the system generates and sends a PIN when it is ready, but the amount of time this takes was somehow not predictable. Fortunately the wheels of automated bureaucracy turned fast enough to churn out her PIN a few hours before the deadline. She ended up receiving the award.

Always sign up in advance and click around the application page to see what is required. Ask your colleagues who have recently submitted applications to the same organisation if they required anything unexpected. I’ll ask to see their full submitted application (systems often generate a full PDF upon submission) so I can check for wildcards.

Reference letters need advance warning

To get the best reference letters, do not spring last-minute requests on professors. Giving two months of notice should suffice, even if they only end up writing and submitting the letter on the final day. Some governmental award applications require all letters to be received before you can submit the application.

Also note that it is fairly common for professors to ask you to write your own letters. This is a peculiar kind of torture: grad students must tame their imposter syndrome while perfectly balancing modesty and gloat. (When writing one of my first letters, I repeated a professor’s assertion that I was a “statistical purist”; he later clarified to me that he did not intend this as a compliment.) If several of your professors ask you to write these letters, you’ll practice bragging about yourself in divergent fake writing styles.

Assume that your letter will be submitted with few or no edits. Do not expect your professor, who has already shown disinterest in writing your letter, to read the application guidelines and tailor your letter.

Some applications need several letters: usually up to three but sometimes even five. Needing many letters sometimes means you have to ask professors you do not know well; this is perhaps best done in person during office hours or when meeting to ask for grad school advice. If asking by email, here’s a template for requesting a letter:

Hi Prof. [name],

Hope you are doing well. I was recently accepted into the [program] at [university] and was wondering if you would be comfortable providing a reference letter for my [award name, such as SSHRC PhD] scholarship application. The letter would be due on [date that is certainly not last-minute].

[Some justification possibly reminding where you know each other from, such as:]

  • I really enjoyed taking your [course] last semester and earned an A …
  • I have worked with your graduate student for the past year on the [topic] project …
  • We last spoke when you gave me feedback on my poster presentation at …

If you are willing to write a letter, I would be happy to provide you with my CV and transcript along with the award details.

Thank you,
Jay

One student emailed me out of the blue a day before an application deadline requesting a reference letter. He was a student in a course I was a teaching assistant for nine years prior. So much time had passed that we both had forgotten which course it was. He could not reach his usual reference letter writers in time, and one suspects they were not given two months’ notice — another grad school rite of passage.

Hard copies may be required

Some funders require transcripts to be printed and sealed by the university. Universities sometimes take considerable time to print and send these. Some universities charge more for rush orders; presumably an automated finger clicks the “print” button twice as fast. Many funders also require transcripts from every post-secondary institution you studied at. If you transferred from a college to university, took a single course at another institution, or had a semester abroad, you’ll be tracking down all of these various transcripts. Transcript fees are sometimes included in tuition, so it is useful to request a batch of them (say five) before you finish at the institution.

Or, funders may require scans of your previous degree certificates to prove graduation. If you’re not in the same city as your hard-copy degrees, this is a painful requirement to sort out last minute.

When applying for grants, some agencies require all co-applicants and collaborators to physically sign the application. In ink. With distant collaborators, this means you’ll have to mail the application between them and then to the funder before the deadline. Perhaps in another decade they’ll upgrade to a relatively modern method, such as fax machines.

Canadian Common CV

Agencies such as CIHR require you to fill out a Canadian Common CV, which is a web form version of your CV. The initial goal of the form was to provide a consistent format allowing reviewers to fairly evaluate the diverse experiences of the applicants. In practice, as one professor at Western University wrote, “I feel like filling in the CCV is like moving a pile of dirt with a teaspoon when you know that shovels exist.” Researchers have petitioned to end the CCV in an open letter of 2,700 signatures. These issues have persisted for a decade, but an improved version is apparently in progress. Until that euphoric time arrives, know that filling out the CCV is a lengthy and frustrating process. On one version of the Common CV, an award that would usually take under a minute to write out required the following to be entered:

Now repeat a similar process for every publication, poster presentation, supervisory role, and so on. Oh, and if you click the “Back” button, the website will reset any unsubmitted information. For your own mental health, do not procrastinate the CCV too far.

Give yourself (at least) a one-day buffer

When you come across an award to apply for, mark the deadline on your calendar as the day before the actual one and then hope you later forget this subterfuge. On the day of the submission, many things can go wrong. Government agencies with many people submitting often have technical issues (which will sometimes prompt an extension of a day or two). You may misplace your own or your supervisor’s CIHR PIN and have to call a busy support line. There may be a technical issue on your end: perhaps the scan you took of your transcript has too large a file size, so now you need to figure out how to compress a PDF. One of my applications kept being rejected until I realised my browser’s ad blocker was somehow interfering with the submission website. After all of the work finding and applying for the award, do not let situational oddities like a power outage, internet troubles, or a computer update invalidate your submission.

Beyond technical issues, unexpected requirements can arise. For my first major award, I clicked “Submit” on the application three hours before the deadline. To my surprise, the seemingly ultimate “Submit” button revealed its penultimate nature: I had submitted page one of two. The second page required more detail: a full budget (including conference details and flight prices) with a justification for each item, a project timeline with activities allocated to each of the co-applicants, and several other time-consuming details. At that point, I had never written a project budget before let alone a multi-year timeline. I scrambled to fill in reasonable answers and submitted with only a few minutes left before the deadline. The project was eventually funded and the organisation ended up being one of my most consistent funders throughout my PhD and postdoc. As you can imagine, I now leave a larger buffer.

Do not assume that the instructions will make sense

Read the application instructions carefully; do not assume that all websites will lay out the instructions in a sensible way. The larger the organisation, in general, the more convoluted the instructions. Expect instructions to be split on several pages which occasionally contradict each other. I think of this as a “first filter”: convoluted and contradictory application instructions filter out applicants, making the award less competitive.

I was once applying for an award that I thought I had a decent shot at. I had written a full draft of a 7500-word research project proposal when I realised that there were two instruction pages that did not link to each other. The second one was more detailed than the first and included the critical information: no research projects allowed.

Promise nothing in advance

Even after the funding is awarded, several issues can arise. Expect several months between your award acceptance and when the money finally lands in your account. In the bureaucratic mess of academia, payment from awarded funds can even be delayed by over a year. Here are some additional hiccups I’ve experienced:

As a result, do not consider the funding real until it hits your bank account, and avoid making early promises about the funding to your colleagues. In one of our early projects, we recruited two colleagues as research assistants who would be funded by a project grant. By the time the money came in, it was a year later, my colleagues were nearing the end of their degrees, and the university had changed the salary rules for research assistants, meaning we could not pay them as much as we had negotiated. This resulted in broken promises and some hurt feelings. Wait until everything is approved and ready before settling on specific details. We now only recruit volunteer research assistants and then surprise them with payment once everything has settled.


  1. Scott Jaschik, “In ‘Scholarship Displacement’ Debate, Who Speaks for Low-Income Students?” Inside Higher Ed, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2017/07/10/new-law-prompts-debate-over-scholarship-displacement-raising-questions.↩︎