Thursday, 12 January 2017

Scholarships, Awards, and Bursaries: Playing the Game Pays Off

Just like the Game of Life, there are two roads to and through RRU: the academic road and the professional road. On the academic road travelers fill their cars/CVs with awards, research experience, publications, and conference presentations. Travelers on the professional road drive along with their cars/resumes loaded with practical life experience.  

It pays to know which road you're on so that you can strategically target your time and energy on the most appropriate sources of funding to hedge your chances of success.

Before we begin, it's important to define the terms scholarship, award, bursary, and grant.

A scholarship is typically a higher valued award used to reward past exceptional experience or to encourage a specific type of learning. It is also used as a term in academia to describe a systematic inquiry and reflection into the teaching and learning process, see the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Awards are offered for academic or social merit and may or may not have a financial need component. Just for fun, the term award can be used as a verb to describe the giving of funding, for example, bursaries and scholarships are awarded.

The primary purpose of bursaries is to address reasonable financial need in order to reduce a financial barrier to education. Reasonable financial need means that unmet need, which is the difference between a student's expenses and resources, can be addressed by the bursary in order to sufficiently remove the financial barrier to continuing education.

Grants are primarily for faculty researchers and there is an expectation of research deliverables. Students are considered research trainees and funding, therefore, is given in support of research learning. This means that you shouldn’t spend time looking for grants.


The Academic Road

The driver on this road is progressing through post-secondary on a more traditional trajectory: undergraduate > masters > doctoral degree, and then on to post-doctoral study in preparation to becoming an industry researcher or a faculty researcher at a University. 

Generally, students on this road are stronger candidates for the higher valued scholarships like the SSHRC/NSERC/CIHR Vanier and Canada Graduate Scholarships, and the Trudeau Scholarship, to name the biggies.

To be competitive, fill your car with academic excellence, awards, research experience, publications, conference presentations, community involvement. The further along the academic road you are, the higher the expectation there will be to see these pegs in your car and, ideally, all of these activities provide experience that supports your future career goal. 

Academic Excellence: generally the benchmark for academic excellence is a minimum "A-" average. The longer the history of academic success the better. There is some forgiveness for students who show steady improvement to reaching and maintaining academic excellence if their early post-secondary years were a little shaky, particularly if the subject matter isn’t relevant to current studies.

Awards: winning smaller awards is an asset in competing for research awards like the Canada Graduate Scholarship programs. It shows a candidate who is notable; someone who has been evaluated against peers and found merit-worthy. Undergrad students should be busy building up their awards list!

Note that while bursaries are often awarded competitively, they shouldn't be listed on a CV because their purpose is to address financial need rather than merit.

Research Experience: ideally this starts at the undergraduate level and carries on through to graduate and post-graduate study through Research Assistantships. This practical research experience is as valuable as the references you may receive from the faculty researcher. Reference letters are weighed heavily in competition for large scholarships. Your skill in sharing your research and educating others should be featured in funding applications. Check out the tips on how to build up your researcher profile here.

Publications: a few very fortunate students will have an opportunity to co-publish at the master’s level. For major scholarship candidates at the Doctoral level, there is an expectation of growing number of publications as a primary author. Savvy students will recognize the potential to re-jig assignments for publishing in North American journals. Ask your research supervisor for tips on which journals are pertinent to your field of study and how to submit an article. Also, check out the tips to academic publishing provided on RRU Library website. Beware of fake or low-quality journals.

Conferences: start by going to them and watching TED Talks to see how things typically work. Then start presenting your own work. Sometimes registration fees are reduced for students and it's worth asking if funding is available to assist presenters with travel.
Attending conferences is a valuable networking opportunity. Bask in the opportunity to learn from other conference goers. These people are your future peers and many of them value the opportunity to share their wisdom whether it’s regarding conference subject matter or advice on your career path.


The Professional Road

Drivers on this road are the typical RRU student: mid-career professional who is seeking a promotion, lateral mobility, or a career change, who has been out of post-secondary for a while and doesn’t have a strong research background.  

Generally these students are well positioned to succeed with a Mitacs Accelerate Internship because they have professional skills and connections. Resourceful students in the past have fully funded a doctoral program with this funding.

So now that you know which road you’re on, here are some tips on how to navigate your way

Be Realistic 
Accept that the average student will need to focus their effort on the smaller awards, $8,000 or less. Anything larger than that is generally reserved for exceptional cases.  
Consider applying for awards like a part-time job. With the right approach, it could pay off with a really decent $/hr of effort, particularly for the smaller awards where you can get away with a base template essay and tailor it for each competition.

Be Strong
Accept that you’ll get some “no”s but don’t let it discourage you. Keep applying and seeking advice on how to strengthen your application technique. 

As Wayne Gretzky says, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take”.

Be Prepared
Start by familiarizing yourself with the Financial Aid & Awards pages on the RRU website. You’ll find information about internal and external awards, and blogs that will answer questions you don’t even know you have yet. You’ll find blog posts on FundingYour RRU Education that provides tips on how to search for external awards, Howto Write an Award Winning Essay, How to Prepare a Canada Graduate ScholarshipMasters Application, and Strategies for Getting a Good Reference Letter (coming soon!).

Preparing a good application takes time. Think several months for the biggies or several weeks for the smaller valued awards. 

Be Strategic
Look for award opportunities that are plentiful. That is, lots of awards available and few potential applicants, like awards from your bank or professional association. 

Awards at RRU are the low hanging fruit on the tree, easy to find and therefore pretty competitive, particularly the awards with less specific criteria, so don’t stop looking there.

Look for awards for which you’d be uniquely qualified. The more obscure the criteria the better because the funder will have a hard time finding a qualified candidate. If you’re somewhat eligible, give them an argument for why you’re the most qualified candidate based on the spirit of the award.
There are a limited number of times you can get a good reference from your busy faculty so use this resource wisely. 

You’ll see community involvement quite frequently in external award competitions, so for smaller awards it’s not a bad idea to get a good reference for community involvement that you can use again and again. Note that RRU doesn’t require references for our internal awards. Also note that this strategy of re-using reference letters isn’t a good one for the larger awards where specific criteria must be addressed in references or where specific forms must be used. 

Be Thorough
There’s no point in putting half effort into an application or putting a rush application together. Frankly, it’s stressful to you and likely a waste of your time and the reviewer’s time since you’ll likely not be able to outshine your competition.

For the major scholarships, consider that your research proposal will be evaluated for viability (e.g. reasonable scope for the time constraints of a degree program, well thought-out research plan, and logistically achievable). It will also be evaluated for rigour. Rigour means that you have a plan to collect sufficient data to be confident in the answer your research question, but, again, mind that the scope remains manageable for the time allotted in your program. Faculty advice on the right approach and balance is so valuable.  

At the Doctoral level, propose the research as if receiving the scholarship will enhance the learning opportunity. That is, don’t put it across like it’s going to fund the base expectations of the degree. What can you do with the scholarship that you couldn’t otherwise do? 

Have someone review your application. The larger the award, the more people you should ask to review it. If you’re applying for a research scholarship, ask your Program Head to review your research proposal. 

Reviewers should look for logical flow of thought (spot the leaping logic!), grammar, spelling, consistency in style (e.g. APA), tangents/unnecessary content, and formatting if there are formatting requirements. These are the things judges watch for and it’s easy to dismiss an application that falls short in one of these areas.


Parting words

Step into the driver’s seat with confidence, respect, and with a plan. Rev your engine and own the road you’re traveling on. Make them believe in you too and it’ll be hard to say no!

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