Winning scholarship proposals: Advice from those who know best

Last week, NPSIA’s PhDs were given the opportunity to sit down with a few faculty members (Steve Saideman, Jean Daudelin, and Dane Rowlands, thank you for making time in your busy schedules for this!!) and have their questions about applying for scholarships answered. Below are some of the best bits of advice that were given:

Literature reviews were flagged as a potential stumbling blog in writing up applications. They are too often treated as a formality and are too rarely put to their intended purpose: highlighting the importance of the proposed research and research question(s). Pointing out the hole on the bookshelf that you intend to fill is the goal of the literature review. Tailor what you discuss in the proposal to meet this goal. And, as much as possible, try to make it engaging. This is not the same as making it entertaining. Instead, it’s a strong suggestion to limit your reliance on the “…and then he/she argued that…” sort of narrative.

Related to the literature reviews and the need to tailor them to highlight research interests was a discussion of the types of citations that are possible. Steve Saideman identified three types:

  1. Drive-by citations. This type of citation involves a quick mention of author and their argument but does not go into great detail. This is a good way to satisfy reviewers by demonstrating that you’ve read important works.
  2. Grouping authors. This citation type is similar to the drive-by but it involves a quick mention of one argument made by multiple authors and the citation of all those authors.
  3. Substantive citations. This type of citation engages the authors argument in detail.

And, as a final point regarding citations: footnotes (if they are allowed) are your friend.

There was a consensus among the faculty in the seminar that “why” questions are preferable to “how”, “when”, and “what” questions. In other words, it was universally endorsed that winning research questions adopt the format of: why does my dependent variable vary? For more information on the value of “why” questions, see PhD Candidate Eric Jardine’s post, “Why why questions?”

Regarding the content of the proposal, be sure to provide the funding body with all the specific information it’s requesting. Always read the instructions carefully. If the funding body asks for an introduction, literature review, research redesign, and a statement about feasibility, make sure it’s all included in your proposal. If the funding body asks for all that plus hypotheses, estimated cost of research, and they also want to know which is your favorite holiday, make sure all that information is included too.

And perhaps, most importantly, the proposal must be readable. As much as possible, stay away from jargon. It is likely that, when applying for scholarships, your research proposal will not be read by a specialist in your sub-field. On this point, PhD Candidate Simon Palamar offers some great (and concise) advice:

  1. Use the active voice.
  2. Use small, simple words.
  3. Use short, intelligible sentences.
  4. No one cares about fancy theory. Drop it.

Profs Saideman, Daudelin, and Rowlands also offered advice regarding letters of reference:

  1. Try to get a full Professor (as opposed to Associate or Assistant Profs) to write your letters of reference. The more established the referee the better.
  2. That said, NEVER ask an instructor to write a letter of reference for you.
  3. And, this may seem intuitive but it is worth stressing, always be sure to ask for letters from Profs that have a high opinion of you as a scholar. Prof Rowlands pointed out that a bad letter of reference can sink an otherwise good application.
  4. Give your referee at least 2-4 weeks of notice that you’ll be needing a reference from them. Keep in mind that some funding agencies prefer that your referee see your completed proposal before writing up the letter of reference (eg. SSHRC). In such a case, your proposal will have to be completed 2-4 weeks prior to the application due date as well.

Stephanie Soiffer, PhD Candidate, NPSIA

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