The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship is undoubtedly one of the prestigious scholarships for PhD students in Canada, and unlike several others it is open to not only citizens but also international students. In this article, I provide my thoughts on how you can make a compelling application.
I decided to write this article because since 2019 when I received the Vanier CGS, I have gotten several requests to provide tips and advice, help review, applications, etc. I have had long phone calls, replied emails, LinkedIn chats, etc but it is fast becoming untenable, and I quickly find that I’m repeating and exhausting myself. So with this article I hope to put down in one place some of the things I find most important to think of, some not obvious to the average applicant.
Disclaimer: My views here do not represent that of the Vanier Selection Committee. These are simply my ideas on how you can make a better application based on my own experience as an applicant.
Let’s get to it.
Read the website thoroughly
There is an inclination to just go to the Vanier website download the list of required documents and start preparing them. The application is more than that. There are many nuances to be aware of. Read the full instructions, eligibility, what is expected. Read everything. Read even the instructions to the selection committee - yes it’s on the website.
Three (3) equally-weighted criteria
The 3 criteria (academic excellence, research potential, leadership) upon which applicants are ranked are weighted equally so treat them as such. Don’t say I have 20 publications and a 5.0 CGPA, so I won’t spend time thinking of leadership. Or conversely, don’t say I founded 6 NGOs, so I’m good. Exhaust all possible ways to demonstrate your strength in all 3. Everyone applying is at the top of their game, so be at yours.
Each document has multiple purposes
This was probably the most important advice I received when I applied. It is tempting to think monotonically. E.g. that the research proposal tests your research potential, leadership statement tests your leadership abilities, etc. This is not true. Each document tests multiple criteria. And if you do read the website thoroughly, you will find tables (like the one below) for each criterion. As you can see, the selection committee will be considering your Personal Leadership Statement while assessing you for Academic Excellence. Therefore you should weave in comments relating to this into your statement. If you’re like me, this might not have been obvious from the get-go.
Similarly, the reviewers are asked to find signs of leadership even in your research proposal, and so on. So instead of simply itemising your research accomplishments, make sure to tell a story of you with them. Why did you chose those questions? What critical choices did you have to make in your research career? How are you thinking about broader societal impact of your work? Etc. Note again that this applies to almost every document you will have to provide. When you are done preparing each document, take the tables and ask yourself, does it adequately demonstrate the things the reviewers are looking for?
Writing is re-writing. As with many things, the earlier you start the more time you have to make it better. You could plan your essay writing in phases. At one point your focus is to mention the key things that should be in there. At another, you want to assess what you’ve written against the criteria tables above. At the latter phase, you want to make the prose flow. You want to make it enjoyable to read, because after all it is humans reading it - make it easy for them to follow your story.
Get all the review you can
Get as much help as you can with reviews - both from domain-specific and non-domain-specific sources. The selection committee will not be experts in your specific field so communicate clearly and use jargon carefully. Most universities offer writing services. Make use of it. Discard the hubris that you’ve been writing English all your life. Get feedback from these people who review hundreds of applications annually. Get feedback from your friends too. There are issues you will never see, that another person will point out to you in a jiffy.
Get essays of previous awardees
Show me and I will remember. You could read tons of articles and listen to advice night and day, but as soon as you read a winning application you realise many things at once. Hopefully you realise how simple it should be, free of clutter, straight to the point, structured, etc. Your university can also help here by giving you access to essays of previous awardees who have consented to share their work. Contact your scholarships unit for this.
If you must, apply again
I applied twice before I got the Vanier, first in 2017, then in 2018. Of course give it your best shot the first time. Many people get it on their first try too. But don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it. If anything you are in a better position the second time ‘cos you have your documents set, you just need to improve them, include the new feathers you have added to your cap and of course chase your professors for reference letters all over again (fun stuff).
That’s it. If there is something you would still like to ask, feel free to email me. I will try to respond to you and also add my response to the FAQs below to help others in the future.
Charles C Onu (PhD Student, McGill University/Mila)
- Do I need to have publications?
I’d say not neccessarily. Follow the norms in your field. In some disciplines (eg. machine learning these days) it is normal to have 1 or 2 publications during a masters degree. For others, it could be that publishing only comes towards the end of a PhD. In either case, remember that published papers are not the only form of research contributions. Highlight your masters and undergrad theses or other interesting research you did/are doing that is not (yet) published.