Grant Applications – Tips & Tricks 

In November 2022, I embarked on the journey of applying for my first research major research scholarship. While I had previously applied for scholarships during my undergraduate degree, this was my first time applying for something that was research-based. After attending the School of Urban and Regional Planning’s research grant information session in October, I felt ready to start working my way through writing applications for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s (SSHRC) Canada Graduate Scholarship and the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS). This was an intimidating process that involved asking a lot of questions, talking through ideas with my lab and classmates, and spending many nights crafting my proposal. Yet, the end result was very much worth it! I was successful in earning both the SSHRC and OGS grant, opting to accept the former this past June.  

Thinking back on this process, I wanted to share some of the things I found useful as I navigated my way through writing my application. I have asked some fellow Pop Place members who have also been successful with research grant applications to provide some input as well. No matter what grant you are considering applying for, I hope that this post provides some helpful tips to guide you on your way. 

Finding Your References: 

  • Ask professors who know you best. When you are beginning to think about who the best person might be to ask for a reference letter, ensure that you are choosing people who know you. Did you get a good mark in a particular class? Did you take multiple classes with a certain professor? Perhaps, you worked as a research assistant? Someone who has a good sense of how you work will have a much easier time providing a good reference letter. 
  • Provide ample time for writing. Standard practice is to provide at least two weeks’ notice when you are making a reference request. It is important and respectful to ensure that your reference has enough time to gather the necessary information and write your letter at their leisure. This will also ensure that as the deadline approaches, you are not stressing about getting everything submitted on time.  
  • Share helpful resources. When submitting a reference request, it might be a good idea to forward the recipient some helpful documents that can better inform their writing. This could include your CV, research proposal, relevant projects/papers that you have worked on and other necessary materials. It is good to ensure that you are providing your reference with sufficient background information so that they have an accurate understanding of your capabilities.  

Perfecting Your CV: 

  • Highlight relevant experience. CV templates can sometimes be quite constraining, especially if the grant you are applying for is requesting a specific format. While writing your CV, it is important to ensure that the experiences you choose to highlight, reflect your capabilities as a researcher. It’s a good idea to look through the grant website to see if they have specified what qualities and skills they are looking for in an applicant. From there, you can gauge what experiences you might want to discuss more in depth in your application. 
  • (Rachel Barber) Get involved! Many research-based scholarships consider your previous research contributions, such as publications or conference presentations. If you know you’ll be applying for a scholarship well in advance and already have some research completed, consider submitting an abstract to a conference, or collaborating on a manuscript. Research contributions are great, since they remain on your academic CV forever – this is especially useful if you’re expecting to apply to other scholarships in the future, or if you’re planning on pursuing an academic career. 

Crafting Your Research Proposal: 

  • Think big, be practical. Writing your first research proposal can seem like a daunting task. There are so many possible routes that you could take. A great way to approach this is to think big. Get all of your ideas out, no matter how far-fetched they may seem. Then, sit down, and figure out what would actually be practical given your time and resource constraints. Is your idea feasible to complete within the scholarship timeframe? Do you have access to the people, tools, and skills you would need to undertake this research? 
  • (Rachel Barber) Have your draft reviewed by as many people as possible. In the earlier stages of your draft, consider having it reviewed by your supervisor, previous winners of the scholarship you’re applying to, or other professors, as they can provide useful insight into the structure of your proposal. As you are finalizing your proposal, ask a few people outside of your field of study to review it, such as colleagues, friends or family members. Since selection committee members come from various backgrounds, it is important to ensure the proposal uses terminology that is understandable to those who don’t work or study in your field. 
  • (Ellory Vincent) Talk your ideas over. Writing your proposal is, by far, the hardest part of the process. Even though at this point you know what you want to research you now have to explain it to someone else, worse, you have to explain it to people who are reading dozens of other proposals for the same grant. You want to stand out but you also want to be able to communicate your research in a clear and concise manner.  It’s not easy. It is best to talk over your idea with someone you trust and whose opinion you respect. Make sure this is someone who will be able to give you honest and direct feedback. As you begin to revise your writing, make sure that your proposal stays true to what you want to study and conveys your genuine interest in the subject – a proposal that demonstrates charisma through writing is the strongest. 

General Advice: 

  • Leave yourself enough time. While it may seem like a small task, you do not want to leave this task for the last minute. You may run into challenges with articulating your ideas and scaling them down. It is also important to ensure that you have enough time to go through multiple rounds of editing with multiple people. In order to put your best foot forward and ensure your ideas are presented in the best way, leave yourself plenty of time to work with your writing.  
  • (Marley Gryfe) Seek out examples of successful or unsuccessful applications for the same grant. Consider reaching out to upper year students in your program or a professor/supervisor to get their input on what works well and what you might want to avoid. This is a great way to orient yourself before embarking on the writing process.  
  • (Marley Gryfe) Review all grants for which you might be eligible. The same application can often be used for multiple awards with a few minor tweaks, thus increasing your chances of obtaining funding! Even if you are unsuccessful with your first application, you now have a complete research proposal that you are ready to submit somewhere else.  
  • (Ellory Vincent) Stay cool and pursue your research, with or without the grant.  

As Ellory highlighted, the most important part of this process is your research. It is important to go into the scholarship-writing process with clear objectives and an open mind. If this scholarship doesn’t work out, you now have a polished proposal that, with some minor adjustments, could be submitted to a variety of other scholarship programs. While the process of applying for research scholarships and fellowships can be stressful, it is a great opportunity to start organizing your ideas and establishing your research goals. And, as Dr. Maxwell Hartt, Director of the Population and Place Research Lab likes to stress, make sure that you are having fun!