Ask The Blogosphere – how can we help trainees with their studentship & fellowship applications?

I mentioned in a recent post that part of my job is going to involve specialising in something that I’d previously listed as a long-term career goal. As you’ve probably already guessed from this post’s title, I’m now ready (with permission from above!) to not only tell you what I’m up to, but also to ask for your crowdsourcing help with it!


In my last position, I always found helping trainees with their studentship and fellowship applications to be one of the most rewarding parts of the job. As I’ve mentioned, I always felt the most useful when helping the people who have the least experience in preparing grant applications, and less useful when helping the experienced senior PIs. And that’s what I get to specialise in – my new department has been looking for someone to act as a centralised point person to help trainees identify, apply for, and manage their own awards. I am soooooooo excited!

I really just started thinking seriously about this initiative on Monday, having spent almost all my time so far getting up to speed on the main project I’m managing and learning new processes, software, and science. Before I can really start talking to the trainees about what they need, I have some admin tasks to complete: I need to convert the current tracking system from a partially paper to a fully electronic format; help compile an updated list of trainees and their home institutions/departments*; populate the trainee section of the internal website with lists of upcoming awards, forms, processes, contact information, writing courses, timelines for getting PI CVs and internal signatures, and other important information; update the trainee-specific application cover sheet; contact the relevant people in three different offices of research services*; etc.

Once I’m done with all that I’m going to put together a focus group consisting of current trainees who’ve already submitted at least one application, to find out what information and support from PIs and other staff they found useful and – more importantly – what information and support they didn’t get that, with hindsight, could have helped them. The plan is to identify best practices from different labs that can be combined into improved centralised resources and processes, for which I will be responsible (the PIs will obviously still be responsible for mentoring their own trainees in proposal writing; the idea is to help both the trainees and the PIs with the other aspects of the process).

Before convening the focus group, I’d love to hear from my readers about their own experiences. I’ll use the examples you give (as well as my own experiences) as prompts if the trainees I talk to have a hard time defining specifics, and will also put them into the pool of examples from which to identify current best practices (although local needs and preferences will be given priority).


TRAINEES (current and former): what information and support are/were you given when applying for studentships, fellowships, and other awards? Which did you find the most useful, and which do you wish you’d had that weren’t offered?

PIs: what information and support do you offer your own trainees when they apply for studentships, fellowships, and other awards? What feedback have you had from your trainees, and how did your process evolve?

Any other nuggets of information you wish to provide would be most welcome!

Thanks in advance 🙂


*We’re a non-university research institution, but are affiliated to two local universities; the PIs are all alsoprofessors at one of those institutions, in various departments, and their students are enrolled in their supervisor’s university department.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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13 Responses to Ask The Blogosphere – how can we help trainees with their studentship & fellowship applications?

  1. bean-mom says:

    Cath, congrats on your new position! I think the idea of assembling a focus group to learn exactly what your trainees have found useful and not useful, and providing a centralized office to support them in their fellowship applications, is a great idea. I had nothing like that when I was a grad student, or at any of the places where I’ve post-doc’ed. Heck, I *was* the grants-support person for lab trainees in the position I held before my current one!

    I can say that everything I’ve picked up about fellowship/training applications has always been on an ad hoc basis. Actually, I’ve learned a lot just from surfing the science blogosphere. Until a few years ago, I was so clueless I didn’t even know about subscribing to the weekly NIH Funding Opportunities and Notices e-mail. I did apply for internal university fellowships when I was a grad student and during my first postdoc; that information was given to me by my mentors. For this second postdoc, I applied for an NIH re-entry career fellowship, which I learned about and researched on my own (I think I first learned about it in a ScienceCareers article, although I can’t quite remember).

    I think I’m like a lot of scientists, in that learning about fellowship opportunities and the application process is something I’ve had to do largely on my own, with some help (on the writing aspect) from my PIs. I know what would have been useful to me when younger would be a systematic presentation of the major fellowship opportunities and overall major grant funding mechanisms. ( in the USA, that would be an explanation of the various NIH training grants; an explanation of the major R01, R21, etc is also useful (even though those grants are for PIs) just to understand how the hell research funds work here in America). Don’t forget to also include the major private foundation grants e.g. American Cancer Society (if you’re in America).

    It would also be useful to keep on file (with permission) copies of successful grant applications so that trainees can get a look at what gets funded. I’ve also heard of grant-writing workshops where participants read and critique real grants that are in the process of being written. I dont’ know how useful such workshops actually are, and the kind of informal one-on-one critiques trainees usually have with their mentors (and possibly a few close colleagues) might actually be more realistic.

  2. Thanks Bean-Mom! I had thought of asking successful trainees if I could use their funded applications as examples. I’d also like to put together some reviews of both successful and unsuccessful applications to share, but anticipate a wee bit more resistance on that one… I might have to promise to redact certain parts of the negative reviews before sharing them, or maybe synthesise a set of negative reviews into a report that doesn’t identify anyone specific!

    I like the workshop idea, but it sounds a wee bit beyond the scope of the initial task. I’ll add it to my longer-term ideas list though!

  3. one of your affiliate universities currently emails a list of upcoming awards, but how do non-standard students get awards? ie I’ve been around too long to be eligible for the NSERC / CIHR awards as they combine a persons MSc & PhD years. I’ve switched fields. Superstar students find it easier to get awards, but what can non-superstar (avg) trainees do to stand out? how do we find the smaller awards that can help us out?

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Now that, my friend, is an excellent question.

    I have RSS feeds set up for all the funding agencies I’ve ever become aware of, and in my last job I forwarded all their new funding opportunity announcements to the whole department. There are probably plenty of other small specialised agencies I’m not yet aware of, but the PIs should know about the ones relevant to their own studies. The university’s Faculty of Graduate Studies offers its own scholarships, and has also been very helpful when I’ve contacted them to ask about other options (e.g. for non-Canadian students who don’t qualify for the usual awards due to their nationality).

    Have you ever contacted anyone at CIHR / NSERC to ask about your situation directly? It’s possible that there is some unadvertised wiggle-room. They do have that “Interruptions and Delays” section of the CIHR version of the Common CV – maybe you could use that to explain why you technically fall outside the eligibility window, but should be considered anyway because of the circumstances.

  5. I never thought of asking about CIHR / NSERC if you think about there is a good 2 year break between my MSc completion and PhD commencement because I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a PhD, so perhaps my MSc won’t matter. Any idea who I contact at those agencies? also do you mind forwarding me info when you get it :))

  6. Robyn Roscoe says:

    I worked with someone previously who was able to be eligible for NSERC (I think) award because he had changed fields (physics to computer science). Essentially, the clock was reset to when he changed disciplines, and so he was eligible. It would be worth a call to NSERC to ask.

    Great initiative, Cath!

  7. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Yes, I think they all do what they can to take these kind of things into account.

    Glad you like it 🙂

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  9. AK says:

    Hey, delurking (I think?) and popping in a bit late here! As someone who has recently gone through the NSERC graduate scholarship application at both the Master’s and doctoral levels (although never the CIHR applications), I have spent a fair amount of time over the last few years agonizing over these scholarship applications!

    When I was doing the Master’s application a couple of years ago, we actually had a representative from NSERC come give an info session at my institution. This was really helpful, particularly because along with emphasis on questions of eligibility and such, there was also some introduction to navigating the online system itself. More recently, the info session has been given by representatives of the faculty of grad studies here. While eligibility and previous funding levels are still covered, the actual specifics of applying are no longer covered in much detail, which is a shame.

    My biggest sources of help were, in general, the online guide to the PGSM/PGSD application from the NSERC website (although it is a bit difficult to track down – giving your NSERC-eligible applicants this URL directly would be a real help!), my department’s graduate coordinator, and my supervisor.

    The biggest thing I wish I’d had both times around would be a completed sample application. In particular, the description of proposed research was the big hurdle with the Master’s application, while the description of contributions was the real mystery with the doctoral application (here, I had taken a completely wrong approach to this section – fortunately, my supervisor looked over it and gave me a much better idea of how to write this section). While the NSERC guide to applying was in many respects really helpful, it does get a bit vague at times, and our information session didn’t go into any detail about these sections.

    Finally, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of holding info sessions sufficiently early! We seem to have all info sessions 2 weeks or less before department submission deadlines, which really doesn’t give a whole lot of time to complete the application, get feedback, and get reference letters. Holding these 3-4 weeks before internal deadlines would be much appreciated.

  10. Hi AK, thanks for your comment! You must have already commented at least once for your comment to show up without moderation, so this must be a re-de-lurking 🙂

    I’ve also attended presentations by funding agencies at our site, but not NSERC – we deal much more with CIHR than NSERC. The Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, which used to fund a lot of our trainees, also came in once – but lack of funding from the provincial government has left their trainee programmes dormant, unfortunately.

    I am definitely going to be asking for successful applicants for permission to share their successful applications, and preferably reviews too (although I know there will be some reluctance, especially on the latter).

    Great point on the timelines! The next round of applications is coming up fast, so I’ve contacted all the trainees already and will be meeting with some of them in the next few weeks.

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