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NSERC: The Canadian Grad Student’s Holy Grail

How to apply for an NSERC award in the natural, physical, or applied sciences.

September 22, 2014

This is Grant-Writing Week at GradHacker. Check back every day for a new post on applying to some of the major research and professional development grants open to graduate students.

Hanna Peacock is a PhD student in cardiovascular sciences at the KU Leuven, in Belgium. She currently holds an NSERC PGS-D3 award. Michelle Lavery is a graduate student in biology at the University of New Brunswick and has previously applied to NSERC, only to receive other awards instead.

This post is intended to discuss our experiences applying for graduate funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) in Canada. For the official instructions, please consult the NSERC website (for CGS/PGS-D and CGS-M awards), and the scholarships officer at your university.

Deadlines and Logistics

If you are a Canadian PhD student in the natural, physical, or applied sciences, you will likely be eligible for either a CGS-D or a PGS-D award. It is recommended that you apply for a CGS-D, which is worth more. If you are not considered for that grant, your application will automatically enter the competition for a PGS-D. If you are a Canadian MSc student, you will be eligible for a CGS-M award. (In previous years there were both PGS-M and CGS-M awards; however, beginning this year, the PGS-M will no longer be offered.) These awards are not available to international students studying in Canada, although Canadians studying outside the country may be eligible to hold these awards at international institutions, under certain conditions.

For these awards, you will submit your application through the Research Portal (Masters) or through a Form 201 (Doctoral) and NSERC will distribute the applications to the appropriate universities (as indicated by you) for review. However, as Lesley said yesterdayknow your departmental policy. Internal application deadlines may vary from institution to institution, so be sure to double check when your university requires you to upload your application.

Canadian Common CV

Applicants for the CGS-M award are now required to use the Canadian Common CV, which is a web-based application developed by the Canadian government to provide researchers with a single approach to sharing CV information with funding agencies, government agencies, and each other. It’s fairly straightforward to get started—they even have a series of how-to demos on the website. For your application, you’ll need to fill out a funding agency-specific CV (in this case, it will be the “NSERC CCV”). Once you’ve selected the type of CV you want to complete, you can begin filling in the various sections. It’s important to pay attention to any instructions on the CV—sometimes there will be a limited number of entries allowed, so be sure to keep in mind what you want to get across. If you’re new to the Canadian Common CV, you should set aside a solid chunk of time to complete it—it can take a couple hours and a lot of reminiscing.  

You’ll receive a confirmation number when you’ve completed and submitted the online CV. This number has to be entered in the “Canadian Common CV Uploaded” section of your application on the Research Portal. Make sure this number is correct by previewing your CV—if there is an error message, something is wrong. Take the time to do this so you don’t get stuck applying without a CV!

Contributions and Research Statement

For a CGS/PGS-D application, you are permitted up to two pages of contributions and statements, divided into three sections. (This information is incorporated into the Canadian Common CV for the CGS-M application.)

In the first section, you have to list your publications, conference presentations, patents, posters, etc. Don’t feel bad if you don’t have much to put in this section. It’s quite possible to be awarded a doctoral scholarship without having published a journal article (we know this from personal experience!).

In the next section, you have to explain which of the contributions you just listed is the most significant. Briefly explain why that item is important to research and development in your field. Was your project the first to show something, or does it contribute to solving a particular issue in your field?

The third section is the applicant’s statement. This is your chance to explain to NSERC why they should invest money in you. In essence, you need to confidently demonstrate that you have the capability and drive to succeed in the research you proposed. In this section, having an honest friend read your application can be very helpful. They will be able to help you toe the line between being too modest or too grandiose.

Outline of Proposed Research

For both CGS/PGS-D and CGS-M applications, you must submit an outline of your proposed research. In recent years, the requirements for this section have changed a few times. This year, the proposal is limited to one page. There are very specific instructions regarding this document (which you will attach to your online application), so make sure your proposal is formatted correctly.

In this document, you should be describing the research you plan to accomplish with the award. You are not bound to this plan if you receive the award, and it is possible to request to change your project later, though it still has to fall under the mandate of NSERC. Since you have such limited space in which to describe your research, clarity is essential. Make sure that your hypotheses are clearly stated, and that your project is realistic and not overly complicated. Additionally, make sure that the relevance of your research is clearly explained. NSERC awards are made up of publicly-funded, taxpayer money, so the adjudication process will take into account what your research will contribute to Canadian society as well as the potential impacts it could have for science in general. The NSERC website describes the proposal in more detail, which may be helpful.

Justification of Eligibility

You need to complete this section if your research might also be considered to be health- or social sciences-related, and thus fall under the mandate of CIHR or SSHRC. Here, you should explain why your research is, in fact, a natural sciences or engineering project. If your project could be interpreted as medical, for example, you could stress that you are focusing on understanding a naturally-evolved biological phenomenon. Be as explicit as possible, since you don’t want your application rejected because of a misunderstanding of the goals of your research.

Writing Advice

In the NSERC application, you have a very limited amount of space, so it’s important to make every word count. If a word, phrase, or sentence doesn’t strengthen your application, then remove it. Clarity is also paramount, as many (if not all) of the adjudicators probably won’t be familiar with your field of study. This is the time to get your colleague in astrophysics, your friend in biomechanical engineering, and your buddy in botany to read over your application and give you honest feedback. As Lesley mentioned yesterday in her post, starting early is always a good idea—and it will facilitate this editing process.

Whatever happens this application season, remember that NSERC awards are very competitive. Don’t doubt your research if you don’t receive one—sometimes your institution will have to make very difficult decisions about which applications deserve to be forwarded to the national competition. Stay confident and try again next year!

Best of luck this application season—we’ll see you on the flip side.

If you’ve applied for or been awarded an NSERC award, share your tips for this year’s applicants in the comments below!

[Image by Michelle Lavery and used under the Creative Commons license]

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