Tips and Best Practices

Be sure to turn to the many resources available to support you in crafting applications in your programs, at UBC, from funders, and beyond.

Peer-Review and External Funding in Graduate Formation

As you progress from a consumer to a producer of knowledge through your graduate training, you will be incorporated into scientific institutions more and more. Some of the most fundamental precepts of scientific endeavours are the notion that we are building on the work of others in a cumulative fashion and that peer review is the most realistic but also consistent way to evaluate scholarship. The degree to which these precepts are applied vary significantly from discipline to discipline, but the structures that have been built around these principles are broadly in place with funders and funding applications reflect these structures.

Applications for funding are an important mechanism by which you receive feedback on (proposed) research. This feedback and similar selection processes will accompany you throughout your research career, it is thus important to begin to understand funding mechanisms early on to give yourself to benefit from them, but also to learn more about the scientific enterprise.

All fellowship applications can be thought of as an opportunity to apply and refine skills that you have learned elsewhere in your graduate formation. The specifics of a given fellowship are simply an attempt by a funding agency to turn its expectations of research and people that are to be funded into a format that can be handled by academic adjudication processes.

Defining Excellence: Your Past Achievements and your Future Promise

Almost all fellowship applications are built around two main aspects of excellence: your record of past achievement and the promise of your future research. Sometimes, additional criteria are specified.

Note that competition formats are fundamentally built around the desire to be able to select excellent applications. Materials submitted or forms to be filled out are thus designed to elicit information that adjudicators can use in determining the fundability of one application over another. Funders invest in descriptions of the criteria of excellence that are to be applied in order to provide guidance to applicants as well as adjudicators. You can assume that there are no secret instructions to prefer one kind of applicant or proposal over another.

Note that almost all competitions are looking for excellence, not mere eligibility. Fundamentally, it is your task to communicate the enthusiasm you feel about your research in such a way that adjudicators and committees are convinced that your proposed research will make important contributions to the collective academic project and that you are the best/best-prepared person to conduct this research.

Planning Ahead

Given the centrality of peer review processes to academic activities, you should be thinking about some elements of applications at all times. For example, there will be many occasions when you will want to be able to persuade an audience of the importance of the contribution that your research will be making, whether that is a supervisor with whom you’re discussing next steps, a conference audience, or a job interview panel.

  • Always scan for funding opportunities. Some of these will be sent to your by your program or by professional associations or funders directly, many of them are listed on the Graduate + Postdoctoral Studies website but you should also constantly and actively look for them.
  • When you identify opportunities, work backwards from deadlines. Allow generous time for referees to respond to requests, to circulate drafts of materials to peers and colleagues, to turn away from applications for some time, and to be able to submit to competitions early rather than at the last minute.
  • Read instructions very carefully to understand the intent behind competitions and how it might be relevant to you. Recall that instructions may change from one application cycle to the next, so always base your planning on the most recent version. Re-read the instructions regularly.
  • Plan for applications in close conversation with your supervisor, but also with program advisors and staff.
  • Build relationships with potential writers of reference letters. Ongoing conversations with a professor in your program, including but not limited to your supervisor, are a much stronger basis for a request for a letter of support than a sudden request. If you feel comfortable doing so, have conversations with letter writers about their contribution to your application. Remind them of evidence that they might cite in a letter to substantiate their assessment. Especially for letter writers from outside of North America, explain the importance of these letters to them and the expectation that they speak to the specifics of a competition and offer evidence of excellence in somewhat enthusiastic fashion. Review Tips for Soliciting Great Reference Letters
  • Planning ahead can be an important element in preserving your (mental) health and enthusiasm for research.

Put Yourself in an Adjudicator’s Position

Adjudicators are typically volunteering their time on committees and are dedicated to the fairness and consistency of adjudication processes. They are also often under time pressure.

  • You have to be enthusiastic about your research to have a chance at eliciting a reviewer’s enthusiasm. Keep crafting descriptions of your proposed research until your enthusiasm shines through.
  • Many competitions will exclude reviewers from your discipline/department from discussions (to avoid conflict of interest), so adjudicators will often not be experts on the specifics of your research and will only be familiar with your topic at a broad level. Write to a general audience in your broad area of research, not to subject experts.
  • Adjudicators rotate on and off committees, so don’t try to second guess committees. Be true to your research rather than targeting some imputed preferences among adjudicators.
  • Offer adjudicators formatting and terminology that allows them to remember your application in a pile of dozens of files.
  • Be clear and concise in your prose.
  • What questions does your application raise? Answer them in a meaningful way. If you are switching disciplines for the next step in your research career, that’s great and will be obvious to reviewers, so explain why you’ve made that decision and what it means for your research. Often, it might be your background in areas of expertise or experience outside of your immediate field of study that will make you the best person to pursue a certain kind of research, let adjudicators see that!
  • Think about questions that adjudicators might ask specifically of CVs and other formal elements in an application. If you are listing a paper as “submitted” to a journal, why not add a date to give an adjudicator a chance to guestimate whether you might have a reply to a submission already? If you are listing co-authored work, offer a percentage of contributions, etc.
  • Adjudicators will increasingly search for elements of applications online. Don’t count on someone finding you, but consider what an adjudicator might find when they do search for you. Is your institutional webpage up-to-date? Does an online CV offer additional information that you cannot include in an application?

Write, Edit, Submit, Repeat

  • Don’t be discouraged if you are not selected in a competition. Most competitions are highly competitive so you cannot expect to win them all. Adjudicators often have to make very fine-grained distinctions between applications, especially those that are just above or below a cut off. Such distinctions are only a judgement of relative merit in a pool, not of the absolute merit of your plans.
  • Funding applications are a learned skill for almost all of us and practice helps.
  • Research is a social activity. Engage colleagues, coursemates, campus resources in crafting your applications, we can all benefit from support from those around us.

Good luck!

Written by Julian Dierkes, PhD, Associate Dean, Funding, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. 
Updated April 2020