A Grad Student’s Guide to Applying for Scholarships

August 30, 2017

By Erin Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Attending grad school is expensive and can mean heading into the working world with student debt that follows you around for years afterward. One way to minimize this problem is to apply for as much scholarship support as you can leading up to and while you’re doing your degree. While the most well-known funding opportunities tend to be the larger and more competitive ones, there are also many smaller scholarships and bursaries, some of which struggle to find suitable applicants from year to year because almost no one applies. So it pays to remember that smaller awards will add up and to look for less well-known sources of funding as well as trying for the big ones. I’ll discuss a few different online scholarship resources to check out below, but first, let’s go over some tips for putting forth your best application at every opportunity.

Tips for your best application

  • Read the instructions carefully! It’s easy to switch into "skim" mode while reading a set of lengthy instructions, but this can lead to missing important points, making mistakes, and looking inattentive on your application. So be sure to read everything carefully before you begin. 

  • Watch those dates! Scholarship deadlines tend to be spread over different times of the year, so always keep an eye out for approaching due dates. And think ahead… if you’re applying for a big doctoral scholarship next year, for example, you may want to push extra hard this year to get that manuscript from your M.Sc. finished so you can include it. Don’t forget, if a manuscript is in the process of being published, you can still include it, noting that it’s "submitted", "in review", or "in press", as well as giving the publisher-assigned manuscript number.

  • Make sure your application looks clean and attractive. This isn’t the time to show off your creative formatting skills in Microsoft Word. Very often, the instructions will specify the typeface, font size, and line spacing required. But if not, it’s hard to go wrong with a 12-point, double-spaced type of a standard font like Times New Roman or Helvetica. And don’t be tempted to adjust the page margins to allow for more spacestick to the standard 1" margins.

  • Remember that the judges aren’t necessarily in your field. Aim to write in a way that’s clear and concise without any specialized jargon that a lay person might not understand.

  • Ask your friends and lab colleagues if they have a successful application that you can look over. It helps to see what a winning application looks like; what to mention, what to highlight, what to leave out. You may even get inspired to do some work before your next application, building experience and accolades in areas of your life that could help you with scholarships down the road.

  • If you’re asked to describe your research plan, be sure to provide a clear hypothesis that you are testing, whether experimentally or observationally. Also, don’t overreach in terms of the scope of your proposed research. Proposing more than you can reasonably accomplish in order to put forward a flashier application will backfire on you if the judges feel that you’re not going to be able to complete your project as it’s laid out.

  • Consider carefully who you’ll ask for letters of support. Reference letters should come from someone with enough familiarity with your work that they can talk comfortably about your background and your strengths. To help your referees with completion of the reference letter and to jog their memories of what you’ve accomplished, send them your CV to have on hand while they’re writing their letter. Be sure to do them the courtesy of allowing them lots of time—a couple of weeks ideally—to get the letter written and not be rushed doing so.

  • Think carefully about what you’ve done in the past that might be worth mentioning. It’s easy to miss things that don’t seem related to your current work or the application, but part-time jobs, clubs, volunteer work, and many other activities can be helpful in showing how hardworking, organized, or civic-minded you are—all qualities that will look good to a scholarship committee. If there was ever a time to meticulously reflect on everything you’ve accomplished in life, this is it. You can make this task simpler for yourself by regularly updating your CV, so there’s always a current version at hand, and you don’t have to try to remember what you’ve done.

  • Ask your supervisor to look over your application. He/she has a stake in whether you get this funding and will want to see you succeed. They might even pick out strengths or accomplishments that you didn’t think of and could highlight to your advantage. Getting a friend outside of your field to read it over is a good idea as well, because they can identify any specialized jargon you may not even realize you used.

Resources to check out

  • If you’re doing a STEM graduate degree in Canada, your first stop should be the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) programs page. This page details their masters and doctoral level scholarships as well as awards for Indigenous students, foreign study, and industrial partnerships. Don’t forget to check out NSERC’s YouTube channel, which hosts videos on how to put together a great application and make it stand out.

  • If your research has industrial applications, consider an internship through Mitacs, a nonprofit organization that links up university research with private sector companies. Their Accelerate program funds internships for students to spend half their time working in the private sector gaining valuable experience, while their Elevate program provides research management training. Deanna Lanoway, Vice-President of Programs, gives several tips for Mitacs success:
  1. Know your audience. In the context of Accelerate and Elevate proposals, these are reviewed typically by 2-3 subject matter experts, usually professors in your field.
  2. This is a research proposal—before beginning this application make sure you clearly know your research question.
  3. Think about this proposal the way you would think about writing a scientific/academic article.
  • For Canadians wishing to do their graduate work outside Canada, this page lists government scholarships for specific destinations, such as India, China, and New Zealand.

  • Are you an international student wanting to go to grad school in Canada? The government page for international student scholarship opportunities is here.

  • There are a number of websites out there devoted to matching up students with possible scholarship opportunities. Three that allow you to search by school, field of study, and/or application deadline are: Scholarships Canada, Find My Scholarships, and yconic.


  • There are a couple of fun-to-peruse pages of weird or unusual scholarships on offer, including funds for tall people, people studying papermaking, and speakers of Klingon, to name a few. It’s worth a look to see if you have any skills, interests, or characteristics that might allow you to apply for these unique funding sources.

  • Check out the awards and scholarships offered by professional scientific societies or scientific research stations you are affiliated with. These are often based around abstract competitions to give talks at the society’s annual conference, which are then judged for monetary awards.

  • Dr. Josh Neufeld, co-chair of the Education and Careers Committee for the Canadian Society of Microbiologists emphasizes the need for compelling visuals when applying to give a talk:

    "We’ve asked specifically for visual displays of data. If the figures look like crap, the writing can be really good, but it’s unlikely you’ll be selected for or successful in the competition."

    Dr. Timothy Clark, who has assessed fellowships for the Lizard Island Research Station in Australia emphasizes the need for sound methods when applying for research funds:

    "Aside from the level of widespread importance of the proposed research, one of the most critical aspects of an application is that it contains robust methodology; either the applicant shows evidence that they know what they’re doing, or there is a solid plan to collaborate with experts on the topic." 
  • Non-professional societies, hobby clubs, and even private companies sometimes give grants related to their interests.

  • Keep an eye out for announcements or informative conversations about scholarships on Twitter. There is a list of popular Twitter hashtags being used along with the word "scholarship".

  • Finally, don’t forget entrance scholarships. These are usually small amounts offered by universities to new students. They are most often given at the undergraduate level, but some universities offer them to graduate students as well, so it’s worth checking out. Also, take a close look at the rules, because while some universities will automatically consider you, others require an application once you’ve accepted their offer of admission.

Finding the right scholarships and putting forward your best application can come down to patience and persistence. There are a lot out there, so stick with it and try not to get overwhelmed. All your time and hard work will be worth it when you get that congratulatory letter. 

What are your best tips for writing winning scholarship applications? Tweet us or let us know in the comments.



Erin Zimmerman (@DoctorZedd) is a plant biologist turned science writer and illustrator. She holds a B.Sc. in plant biology and physics from the University of Guelph and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in fungal genetics and molecular systematics, respectively, from the Université de Montréal. She blogs about evolution at Questionable Evolution. Find more of her writing at her website.

  • "Aside from the level of widespread importance of the proposed research, one of the most critical aspects of an application is that it contains robust methodology; either the applicant shows evidence that they know what they’re doing, or there is a solid plan to collaborate with experts on the topic.”  

Filed Under: Science Careers Erin Zimmerman

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