Saturday 19 March 2016

So long blogspot and thanks for all the fish...

After many years of blogging here at blogspot, I decided it was time to make my way over to Wordpress. I'm still perfecting it, but I hope that you enjoy the new look and the new site for my blog. If you're a regular follower, make sure you sign up for updates as I will no longer be posting over at blogspot. All of my former posts are visible there, so you can still see my past posts! I will leave this site open for another few weeks, and then delete the old posts. 

Please check out the new home for Musings of a Clumsy Palaeontologist!

Monday 29 February 2016

How old is that dinosaur?

One important aspect of palaeontology is identifying the age of the specimen we are describing. Exact age is generally not possible to know, but relative age (e.g. hatchling, juvenile, sub-adult or adult) can often be worked out using a number of different techniques. It can be important in taxonomy (we try not to name new species off of juveniles unless they are clearly different), understanding growth (how did that big dinosaur make it to that size?) and also aspects of ecology and evolution of the group.

However, telling what age it is can be difficult, and in fact, different methods can give different signals. This question was addressed in a new study by Hone et al. (2016), using dinosaurs as an example. So how do you tell what ontogenetic (age-class) stage the fossil in question is from? There are a number of different methods we can use, some of which are described in this paper. At first glance, relative age can often be determined if there are any structures present that are typical of sexual display structures (i.e. crests, horns, and frills). The more developed these are, the older the animal is. Relative size is also often a good indicator - chances are the larger individuals of a species are going to be older than the smaller one, without other features indicating sexual dimorphism, sexual immaturity, etc. Fusion of elements can also be used, such as relative fusion of skull bones or the neural arch of vertebrae since fusion of bone typically occurs later on in an animal's life, when the animal is no longer growing rapidly. Rapid growth can also be looked at in detail through histological sampling of bone tissue, and general bone texture can also give an idea of the relative age of the fossil.
From Hone et al. 2016

But what happens if you have a species that appears to be osteologically or skeletally immature - it has unfused bones or is still rapidly growing - but has a well developed crest and is of large size? This brings in another issue all together - the difference between skeletal maturity and reproductive maturity. Hone et al. (2016) suggest that in palaeontology, we tend to under-age our material. Non-avian dinosaurs were typically described as juvenile or sub-adult when they may have in fact been sexually mature. In the modern world, we consider animals to be adults when they reach sexual maturity (aside from our own species, which we make up our own rules for). A dinosaur can be a sexually mature adult before attaining all of the features that define its species.

Hone et al. (2016) suggest that when trying to age a fossil, overlapping criteria is needed. In order to be sure of your identification, use as many of the ageing techniques as possible. This is not a surprise, nor is it particularly new as science works best when you get the same answer using different methods. However, this is particularly difficult in palaeontology. The specimen may be particularly incomplete or poorly preserved, making things like size, sexual features, or bone fusion difficult to determine. Or, this may be the only specimen you have of that species, which makes determining relative size compared to others impossible.

Even with these problems, it's true that we do probably need to do better at our definitions. There are a number of definitions of growth stages out there, and they are a bit 'wish-washy' sometimes. They also suggest re-defining the words "adult", "subadult", "juvenile" and "embryo" when it comes to dinosaurs, creating a new standard going forward. Unfortunately though, we are as good as our samples, and there isn't a whole lot we can do about the state of the fossils we find!

Hone, DWE, Farke, AA, and Wedel, MJ. 2016. Ontogeny and the fossil record: what, if anything, is an adult dinosaur? Biology Letters 12: 20150947.

Monday 15 February 2016

Why should we fund palaeontology?

There has been a disturbing trend in the last few years by government funding organisations to both decrease the amount of funding for science, and to put more of a focus on funding science with obvious applications or money-making outcomes. Last year, the Government of Canada announced a new federal budget that emphasised science funding on projects that are joint with industry and applied research. This pulls money away from pure science and research which was already losing money over the years. There is a possibility that that may change now that Canada has a new, science-friendly government, but nothing is going to happen immediately. Moving to the US, just this week it was announced that NSF (National Science Foundation) grants would require "national interest", and they would only back things that they deemed to fit this category, mainly things like improving health or defence, or anything else that specifically and clearly benefits the people. Now I'm hearing rumblings that NERC, the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK is moving into the "applied science" category, and decreasing funding for pure science (although I haven't seen an official article saying this, just general agreement amongst scientists).

In particular, as a palaeontologist, this is problematic. Palaeontologists constantly struggle to emphasise to the public why our science is important. There are 2 aspects of palaeontology that can easily be considered 'applicable' or 'important' that first come to mind - fossil fuel exploration and climate studies, both of which use a lot of fossils, and have clear applications today. But most people don't understand why things like finding new dinosaurs or modelling pterosaur flight or understanding how feathers evolved is something they should be paying for. To the majority of these government funding agencies, palaeontology is not worth funding because they can't come up with an application for how many dinosaurs existed during the Jurassic.

However, there are several reasons why I would argue palaeontology is important. Just a few of them are discussed below:

  1. First of all, palaeontology and the study of fossils is what has led to a significant amount of modern knowledge, like understanding extinction and evolution. If scientists in the 1800's had not started to wonder about these large bones that were nothing like any modern animals that kept being found, our understanding of these may be completely different. 
  2. In terms of extinction, it's especially important in our understanding of extinction events - what animals can survive massive environmental changes like bolide impacts or significant temperature changes? How does this affect us in the future? To a non-scientist, looking at the species present in the Late Cretaceous before the bolide impact may seem useless, but to us, we see an opportunity to understand how the world change in these big events.
  3. Understanding the past helps us understand the present and maybe get an idea of the future. This may sound like complete crap to some people, but it is true. We constantly use animals and plants today to get inspiration for useful things today (e.g. gecko foot adhesion, velcro from barbs on plants, or research on spider silk properties). But modern organisms are just a small fraction of the number that have existed since the first multi-cellular organisms, and fossils provide us with a large number of features or morphologies that we can't see today. It is possible to use fossils for these kinds of applications as well, from looking at modern hydrodynamics questions by using fish and plesiosaurs, to flight questions using pterosaur wing structure
  4. Kids (and adults) love palaeontology. Some might consider this is a bit of a soft reason, but I think it's still important. Palaeontology (in particular, dinosaurs) get kids (and adults!) into science. They get people's imagination going, and they get people, especially kids thinking. It's hard to get your child to read a particle physics book, but get them to sit down with a book on dinosaurs, and they have no idea that the whole time you're teaching them science. It encourages them to understand evolution, extinction, biology, biomechanics, and a number of interesting aspects of science, while also encouraging their creative side with drawings, story-telling, etc.
There are several more we could discuss of course. A big one being that palaeontology (and all aspects of science really) are just interesting, and therefore shouldn't be any less funded than other sciences. Understanding our history and the Earth isn't any less important than detecting a Higgs boson or building a quantum computer. Primarily, I think one of the main reasons for the importance of continuing palaeontology-based research is that we can't predict what will be important. Who knows what next dinosaur find is going to be important in 20, 50, or 100 years? Some things we learned 200 years ago are still significant today. And some fossils we discovered 100 years ago are now being studied in a different light for different purposes. When you go out on a fossil dig, there is no guarantee you are going to find something at all, let alone something amazing, but if we stopped going out all together, we would certainly never find anything. If we stopped studying fossils, who knows what we would miss? As we get more sophisticated technologies, palaeontology is constantly evolving. We can now study things like the colour of fossils by looking at small cells previously undetectable, the internal structure of fossils using CT scans, and details of animal locomotion using sophisticated computer modelling techniques. Who knows what we will develop next and what we will learn from it? 

People tend to think there are no relevant applications to (especially vertebrate) palaeontology, but I completely disagree. There are several applications, and who knows what we will find later. I don't think anyone predicted 200 years ago when the first pterosaur was found that they would be look at to make flight suits one day. What's next? 

Sarah Werning did a great post on this same topic a few years ago if you want to read some more. And keep the ideas coming if you think there is something else I forgot to mention.

Thursday 11 February 2016

Misidentified fossils - Turtle edition

My initial title for this blog was "Things that people thought were interesting fossils but turned out to be turtles". Of course, I don't mean that, I just have had a particularly frustrating few months reading the same undergraduate projects on turtle evolution, so they are not my favourite at the moment.... However... in the last few years, their bones seem to be popping up as being identified as other animals, which is something I found a bit amusing.

Mistaken identity 1 - the Flying turtle

The first time I became aware of this was something that I was actually involved in, and a case known to pterosaur workers as the "flying turtle". Last year, a new pterosaur was named from the Maastrichtian Transylvanian Basin of Romania, where I've had the opportunity to work. This pterosaur was heralded as being an "out of place, out of time" pterosaur [1]. Described as 'Thalassodromeus sebesensis', from the Oarda de Jos locality, near the town of Sebes, this was the first Thalassodromeus specimen found outside Gondwana, the southern supercontinent present during the Mesozoic after Pangaea broke up. This was described in the paper as an extremely important find - not only did it massively increase the geographic distribution of this genus (the only other specimens are known from South America), but it also more than doubled the temporal range of the group, giving it an additional 42 million years, where no thalassodromine fossils had been found. The discovery of this genus in Romania was thought to suggest it was a forest-dwelling animal, and gave evidence for the endemic island fauna of the Hateg Island during the Late Cretaceous. The authors also made some extraordinary claims about muscle attachments and soft tissue crests that could have been used as a rudder in flight, an idea that has always been contentious (and generally not accepted) by pterosaur workers and aerodynamicists alike. Therefore, this creature was exceptionally interesting.

The problems began when looking at the fossil itself. Known from just one small, thin, sheet-like bone, 'Thalassodromeus sebesensis' is not the most convincing pterosaur fossil. It was described as being part of the crest, yet no pictures are provided showing how it would have sat in the animal. Looking at the pictures, I still can't see how this is supposed to be any type of crest, and I can't quite put it on a pterosaur skull. When the paper came out, it was immediately scrutinised by pterosaur workers from around the world, me included. No one was convinced (even non-pterosaur workers were suspicious) by the pterosaurian identity of the specimen, let alone the extraordinary claims of the Laurasian Thalassodromeus that used it's head as a rudder. What did we think it was? A turtle. To be exact - part of the plastron of Kallokibotion, a Maastrichtian turtle commonly found in Romania. And this was agreed on by a number of turtle workers as well, not just pterosaurologists (as Mark Witton would say). We published this response not long after the initial paper came out [2], which was swiftly responded to in turn. The initial authors still disagree with us, but I don't know anyone else who thinks it's a pterosaur, so that's ok. If you want to read more about this story, you can check out Mark Witton's blog post, which he wrote when our paper came out, as well as his follow-up on the response to our paper, which was quite controversial... 
Above: plastron of Kallokibotion, with outline showing where the 'Thalassodromeus sebesensis' (Below) specimen would fit from Dyke et al. 2015. 

Mistaken identity 2 - Giant raptors!

Ok to be fair, this one isn't the entire specimen, just a little bit of it, and it doesn't change the story really. At the end of last year, a new species of giant dromeosaur was described from the Hell Creek Formation of Montana - Dakotaraptor steini [3]. This find was significant as it was the first giant raptor from the Hell Creek Formation during the Late Cretaceous, and it had clear evidence of feather quill knobs on the ulna, the first direct evidence of feathers on the forelimbs of large dromaeosaurids. The existence of feathers on the forelimbs of a giant obviously not-flying dinosaur further supports the thought that feathers did not evolve specifically for flight, which some people have argued in the past. The new species was described from a partial associated skeleton and some additional material, including much of the forelimb, some hindlimb elements, some vertebrae, and the furculae, AKA the wishbones.

Now the difference with this find is that it was named from a significant amount of material, and most of it is just fine. However, it's now been shown (just a few days ago by Victoria Arbour and colleagues) that the so-called "wishbones" of Dakotaraptor steini are actually part of the entoplastron of a trionychid turtle [4]. To be fair, looking at both papers, I can see how these could have been confused, especially since I don't work with turtles. Fortunately, in this case the initial authors appear to accept their mistake in an article written by Ed Yong. This is science at it's best! Science works better when we can admit our mistakes and move on.

Figure 1 from Arbour et al. 2015 showing where the entoplastron is found in trionychid turtles (A-D), and the "furculae" in question of Dakotaraptor (E-G).

Of course there are lots of examples of fossils being misidentified. It's bound to happen when you're dealing with often fragmentary or distorted material, but these two examples of turtles mistaken for some extinct reptiles within the same year stuck with me. I've been asking for other examples, and apparently some other things like T. rex and ankylosaur bones have been misidentified as turtles in the past (thanks Dean Lomax for sharing that), and even lungfish tooth plates were thought to be turtle shell (thanks to Graeme Lloyd for that), but I wasn't able to find any information about any of those. The interesting thing is that those are examples of people thinking they were turtles because they had never seen anatomy like that (these are from before dinosaurs and lungfish were properly understood), while the recent examples are actually turtles that are described as something else. The important thing to remember is that this is not uncommon. It happens to lots of people. The best way to avoid this is to avoid describing particularly fragmentary or poorly preserved material, and to avoid naming things if you aren't sure, as that is much less likely to be a big deal. But we are palaeontologists who like name things...

Anyone have any other examples of things that are actually turtles? Or other amusing fossil mixups you want to share?

Since the original post, I've had a few other examples pointed out to me. David Evans showed me an example of some turtle phalanges originally described as troodontid pedal phalanges from Mexico, which were the only troodontid fossils known from the Cerro del Pueblo Formation, leaving no known troodontid material from this formation (see Evans et al. 2014). I was also reminded of one of the big examples of dinosaurs being mistakenly identified as turtles - Therizinosaurus cheloniformis (thanks to Logan Orlowski for pointing it out in the comments below). This bizarre dinosaur is known for it's large claws (almost 1m long), which were originally thought to belong to a turtle-like reptile. With only the arms known, it was thought that the claws would have been just for something like harvesting seaweed in the oceans. However, we now know this is a dinosaur, and the species name cheloniformis comes from this misinterpretation, meaning 'turtle-formed'.

1. Grellet-Tinner, G. and Codrea, V.A. 2015. Thalassodromeus sebesensis, an out of place and out of time Gondwana tapejarid pterosaur. Gondwana Research 27: 1673-1679.
2. Dyke, G. et al. 2015. Thalassodromeus sebesensis – a new name for an old turtle. Comment on "Thalassodromeus sebesensis, an out of place and out of time Gondwana tapejarid pterosaur", Grellet-Tinner and Codrea (online July 2014 DOI 10.1016/ Gondwana Research 27: 1680-1682.
3. DePalma, R.A., et al. 2015. The first giant raptor (Theropoda: Dromaeosauridae) from the Hell Creek Formation. Paleontological Contributions 14: 1-16.
4. Arbour, V.M., et al. 2015. The furculae of the dromeosaurid dinosaur Dakotaraptor steini are trionychid turtle entoplastra. PeerJ 4:e1691.

Saturday 30 January 2016

PhD of travelling! Holy moly

I've been living in the UK now for 4.5 years. The first year and a bit was on a student visa (very restrictive, not fun), but for 3 years now I've been on an Ancestry Visa which is much better. This means that at the end of my 5 year visa, I can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain to settle here in the UK if I choose to. I've been looking up the requirements and eligibility, and stumbled across some fun things.

One of the requirements is that I cannot have been out of the country for 180 days or more in any year. Looking back at my passport, I got a bit worried about that requirement. It seems like so much, but when I'm constantly going to museums, and conferences for work, plus the occasional vacation, it's not that much. This is how I discovered just how much travelling I've done since moving.

Growing up in Canada I didn't fly all that much. I did a few trips, but considering how far away everything was, it was typically for few long trips rather than any short ones. Since starting my PhD, I have been on no fewer than 14 international trips. The majority of those were work related in some way with conferences, field work and museum visits often being tacked onto or followed by a bit of vacation. My PhD has taken me to Germany (several museum visits and SVP conference), Italy (EAVP conference), Romania (field work), Switzerland (PalAss conference), Norway (museum), Canada (museum and field work), and the US (museum), and wanted to reflect on some of this.


I have spent by far most of my work-related travel going to and from Germany. German museums are full of pterosaur specimens from all over the world, partly because of a lot of German fossil sites like the Solnhofen, but also because of some significant German fossil collectors, and one of the first main resurrectors of pterosaur palaeontology - Peter Wellnhofer. I had a great time in Munich at the Bavarian collection where I got to work with some of the material Wellnhofer originally described, which is some of the best material for understanding pterosaur articulation and bone morphology. Also in this collection are some very famous specimens, and you can read more about it here, along with some material I saw in Stuttgart. I also spent some time in Tübingen, which is a lovely town, and Karlsruhe, where they graciously loaned me a large amount of material that I spent a year CT scanning. Returning the material was fun as we took the train down the day after the Paris attacks with an IKEA bag and a duffle bag full of fossils - 7 trains, 2 nights, and much stress later we managed to hand deliver the fossils to the museum on the 'Incredible Fossil Journey'. And of course we can't forget SVP 2014 in Berlin - my first SVP! 
The dejected bags of fossils after arriving in their final destination in Karlsruhe. Photo by Josh Silverstone.


I've managed to spend some time at 2 different American museums. First, I went to LA to visit one of my supervisors, Mike Habib, and spent a week talking about pterosaurs and looking at some Pteranodon and Nyctosaurus material they have in the museum. They have a few neat specimens that were fun to look at. At the beginning of 2015, however, I got to spend 2 weeks in the collections at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which was great. They don't have a lot of pterosaur material, but there's an amazing Anhanguera, and some pretty nice Pteranodon bits. While I was there was just at the tail end of the pterosaur exhibition as well, which was pretty cool. 


Last time I was home I managed to make it down to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta to check out the material there. In particular, I wanted to see a partial, 3D preserved azhdarchid specimen that is famous for being partially scavenged. Some of this material has been CT scanned, and I wanted to take a look. I had some time to check out the other pterosaur material, which is plentiful, but not particularly well preserved. However, there's some great azhdarchid material which I haven't found much of elsewhere, so that's great. Plus I like to keep my ties to Canada open, so any data I can get from Canadian museums is a plus, especially when it's so close to home!

I've also got to check out a specimen at a museum in Oslo, Norway which was a lot of fun, have made it to Romania on field work twice, done some field work in Canada (even if that was a bit like a vacation!), and gone to conferences in Switzerland and Italy. 

I'm now in the "buckling down" stage of my PhD where I am heavy into analysis and paper writing, which means most of my travel is done. No more museum visits for me (except in London)! However, I still have some conferences I'd like to make it to, and maybe do some more field work. I've just submitted an abstract to go to the International Congress on Vertebrate Morphology in Washington, DC this June/July, which I'm really excited about. Then in October is SVP in Salt Lake City, which I'd really like to make it to again after missing last year. I'm hoping to submit sometime during the summer of 2017 (or earlier?), and then will definitely be heading to SVP in Calgary in August. I can't not do it when it's so close to home! 

I guess this reflecting has made me realise two things:
  1. I am pretty lucky to be able to do this during my PhD. I have been very fortunate that I've manage to get enough funding to do most of what I wanted to do and the visits I needed to. For this, I am eternally grateful to my grad school, NSERC, the Geological Society, and PalAss for helping out with this. Funding is not always easy to come by (believe me, I know), and I'm so thankful I've been able to scrounge up enough to get it don. 
  2. Palaeontology is pretty awesome. There aren't a lot of sciences that allow you to do this much travel. My husband is a physicist, and sure he travels for conferences, but he doesn't get to spend a week in Germany in a museum collecting data. He sits in his lab in Bristol collecting data for most of the year, then gets to go somewhere else to present it. We are so lucky in palaeontology, and other natural/environmental type sciences (if we can get the funding of course) to be able to do field work and travel as part of our work. Of course it isn't for everyone, and it can get tiring after a while, but it's something I wouldn't trade for the world. I love doing this, and hope I can keep it going!

Friday 15 January 2016

Look at the little baby dinosaur!

Finally, the baby Chasmosaurus paper is out! This specimen is by no means new to the media or public, being highly publicised since it was first discussed at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in 2013, and has been on display in Edmonton, Canada for a period (at least a cast has). However, the highly anticipated description of this specimen is finally out, which is very exciting for several reasons. Not only is this a truly beautiful dinosaur fossil (nearly complete, skin impressions, may the list go on), but it's also very significant (it's a little baby!).

I remember when this specimen was found, as I was still at the University of Alberta then. If I remember correctly, the story goes something like this: In 2010, Phil Currie was wandering through Dinosaur Provincial Park (as he normally does in the summer), when he saw something sticking out of the sediment. He thought it was a turtle shell (which are fairly common in the area), but he thought he'd investigate. Once he started uncovering it, he realised he had found something truly special, but just how special wasn't clear until the animal was uncovered - a nearly complete baby Chasmosaurus, the smallest baby ceratopsid, missing just it's front limbs and part of the pectoral girdles, and a few tail vertebrae. This specimen was so special that it was hidden in the lead preparator's office (Clive Coy), and I remember them taking off the blanket that constantly covered it so I could see. The specimen was recently published by Currie and colleagues in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. And here it is:
Baby Chasmosaurus from Currie et al. (2016)
Isn't it cute! While adult Chasmosaurus are typically 4-5m in length, this little one was just 1.5m long, making it the smallest ceratopsid ever found. It can be hard to determine what species juvenile fossils belong to due to the change in morphology throughout an animal's life (ontogeny), but several features of the skull tell us this was a Chasmosaurus. Juvenile dinosaurs are important because they show us how animal's grew, and can give us ideas into what features were important for adults. For example, there is virtually no evidence of the nasal horncore in this specimen, and only very small orbital horns, showing that these features grew later on in the animal's life, possibly relating to sexual maturity. Another cool feature of this specimen is that it had skin impressions preserved, which is not very common, and the reason for blocks of matrix still present on the specimen that have not been removed.
Baby's skull - look at the tiny orbital horns! From Currie et al. (2016).
Skin impressions from Currie et al. (2016)

Aside from the obvious awesomeness of the preservation and completeness of this specimen, it's also significant for what it shows about determining species in juvenile animals, and using juveniles in phylogenetic analyses. Using 2 different phylogenetic analyses made the animal move around quite a bit in the ceratopsid tree. When doing the analysis using all features, including characters that are very clearly juvenile or immature features/states, this little dinosaur comes out at the base of the ceratopsid tree, close to a juvenile Triceratops and along with centrosaurine ceratopsids. This isn't really surprising as centrosaurines are known for having shorter, wider frills, and this is obviously a feature of this juvenile, but this is also known to change throughout ontogeny. Centrosaurines also have smaller orbital horns, a feature seen in this specimen, but which is not common in chasmosaurines. When these immature features are coded as unknown (?), the specimen ends up in the right place, nestled with Chasmosaurus belli and Chasmosaurus russelli. This shows the importance of how careful you need to be when using immature specimens in a phylogenetic analysis of any kind.

If you want to hear a bit more about this find and other dinosaurs from Alberta, check out my Palaeocast interview with Phil Currie.

This specimen has been CT scanned (yay!) and we can expect more studies on this awesome little dude in the future. Until then, imagine this little guy running around, about the size of a golden retriever (credit to Andy Farke for that comparison!) and just try not to go "awwwwww!".

Currie P.J., Holmes R.B., Ryan M.J., and Coy C. 2016. A juvenile chasmosaurine ceratopsid (Dinosauria, Ornithischia) from the Dinosaur Park Formation, Alberta, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1048348. 

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?