Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Scholarship applications, the bane of my existence

I've talked a lot about my situation as a PhD student that is not fully funded, and this is something I have had to deal a lot with over the years. My funding situation has meant that I have applied for a lot of scholarships or awards over my time as a graduate student. I'm not going to tell you how many have been successful, but I've written over a dozen applications/cover letters/budgets for anything from £200 to go to a conference, up to a full research scholarship worth $21000 CAD/year. Sometimes it's just a simple letter to prove your case and show why you need funding, and other times it's a full application with your background, CV, research proposal, references, etc.

Regardless what the application requires or what it's for, I always have the same thought: How do you decide if it's worth the time?

I have always gone with the belief that if you qualify for it, and there's a chance you could get it (even if that's a small chance), to go for it, if you can spare the time to apply for it. This is part of why I've applied for so many. Many of them I didn't think I'd get, but I figured why not? And one of those includes the biggest and the one that saved my PhD - a 3 year research award from the Canadian government that I never expected I'd get. Basic statistics - 10% of people need to get it, and eventually you will be in that 10%, right?

But lately I've been thinking maybe this is not the best tactic. Maybe it's because I'm getting later into my PhD and so my time is more precious, but I just can't help but think "Is it really worth it?". My husband has a strategy of working out whether or not things like this are worth it. It's related to the likelihood you'll get the scholarship (which is a bit of a guess of course), and the amount of money it's worth. Then he decides if it is worth it for that amount. Typically this means he doesn't bother applying for anything small, as the metric isn't high enough. That being said, he generally doesn't apply for anything because he doesn't think the effort is worth it, but I suppose he has less reason to apply for things like travel grants (he doesn't have to go to museums all over the world to do his research).

I have a deadline coming up for a Canadian scholarship that I have applied for before and been unsuccessful. They don't tell you why you are unsuccessful, but I suspect it's related to my number of publications. I've been debating whether or not to apply again and if it's worth it, but it's a significant chunk of money, and not a large amount of work, so I likely will. I'm sure I still won't get it, but my CV has improved, and I am on par with previous winners in most categories, so I'll give it a go.

So how do I decide whether or not to apply? I ask myself a series of questions:

  1. Do I really need the money? Will I be able to do the research/survive without it?
    • If the research won't happen without the money, then I always give it a try. If I can survive without the money, then it depends. For example, could I survive without this next one? Yes, but it would be a lot easier with it. My husband and I pay rent in 2 cities, plus transportation between them, and I don't get a stipend... so it would be nice to stop using my savings to pay for my PhD.
  2. How competitive is the scholarship? 
    • This is tough and not really quantifiable. If I can get my hands on them, I look at past winner profiles. Can I match any of them? If I'm not anywhere near the previous winners, then there is probably no point. If, however, I'm not far off, then I'll normally try it. 
  3. Finally - how much work is the application?
    • Again, hard to quantify. If the application is easy, always go for it. I normally have a fairly updated version of my CV ready to go, and sometimes all you need is a CV, cover letter, and a budget. If I'm busy, then it's probably not happening. There's a very complicated Canadian one that I applied for last year and didn't bother with this year because it involved something like 7 copies of each document, and all this crazy stuff. Not worth my time... But this is possibly the most important question. If you're too busy and stressed, then it's probably best to leave it. You likely won't write the best application if you rush it, and chances are, it's not worth stressing yourself out more. Again, if it's a really big one then maybe it is worth it.
Those are my thoughts about applying for awards and scholarships, but I'm curious about other people. How do you decide? Do PhD students generally apply for a lot of awards? Or very few? What about as post docs or early researchers? Any advice for other students thinking about scholarships?