How to write a successful CGS-D or PGS-D application

Joseph Sebastian: My name is Joseph Sebastian and I’m a biomedical engineering PhD candidate at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering in Craig Simmons’s lab, and I was awarded the NSERC doctoral candidate graduate scholarship, ranked first out of 149 candidates in committee 194, which are applicants in chemical, biological and material science engineering.

The doctoral PGS or CGS stands for the Postgraduate Scholarship or the Canadian Graduate Scholarship, respectively. What are they? And what is the difference between the PGS and the CGS doctoral scholarship?

Joseph Sebastian: So graduate doctoral awards are generally administered for one to three years by the three federal tri-councils. And those tri-councils are the major federal source of funds for research and scholarship for academic institutions. So those three tri-councils are the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which are CIHR, and NSERC and SSHRC, respectively. Each federal tri-council has a different way of administering these doctoral postgraduate scholarships or Canada graduate scholarships.

NSERC pgs-d
$21,000/year for 36 months
nserc cgs-d
$35,000/year for 36 months
cihr cgs-d
$30,000/year for 36 months
$5,000/year for 36 months go to equipment, conference, etc.
vanier cgs
$50,000/year for 36 months

So I’ll start with NSERC and CIHR, I don’t need to focus on SSHRC for this podcast. So in NSERC, there’s one competition, but there are two types of awards that are given to winners. And it can be confusing to know what’s the difference between both. So it’s called the PGS competition, or the postgraduate scholarship competition. But there are two awards available. The CGS-D are Canada graduate scholarship doctoral, and the PGS-D which is the postgraduate scholarship. There’s a single application for both programs. But the highest ranked applicants in this NSERC PGS competition will be offered a CGS-D and then the next highest rank applicants will be offered a PGS-D.

Now, the difference between both is that the CGS-D is a value of $35,000 per year for three years or 36 months. And the PGS-D has a value of $21,000 per year for 36 months.

And for CIHR, they don’t have this separate competition. It’s a single $35,000 competition. However, what’s different between CIHR and NSERC is that the stipend for CIHR is $30,000 per year, not $35,000 per year for 36 months, and the extra $5,000 goes towards a research allowance towards equipment or going to conferences and things like that. So that’s the difference between PGS and CGS and how it’s administered in NSERC and CIHR.

And I assumed the amount that’s being awarded either $21,000 or $35,000. That’s non-taxable?

Joseph Sebastian: Yes, that’s correct.

Okay. So what’s the eligibility requirements? Is everybody eligible? And what are the components required to finish the application?

Joseph Sebastian: So the eligibility criteria is listed online, on either the NSERC or CIHR website. Essentially, you need to be a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, or intending to pursue full time graduate studies and research at the doctoral level in either the natural sciences or engineering or in health research.

So a key eligibility requirement that used to be there but is not anymore is that, you do not need a first class average or a grade of an A- in each of the last two years of study. So grades play a little bit less of a role in your eligibility or your ability to win a CGS-D or PGS-D.

Joint programs with a professional degree. So MD/PhDs are eligible, but they have to have a significant research component and you’d only be able to have the funds during the PhD portion of the program.

There are a bunch of eligibility requirements that are based on the number of months you have been in the program, and I would just recommend looking at the website for how to count those months.

And you can’t have held a tri-agency doctoral level scholarship before.

And the last eligibility that I wanted to mention is that you can hold an NSERC PGS-D abroad. So you can take the PGS-D from NSERC to another institution, outside of Canada, even in the UK, if you hold an undergrad or bachelor’s degree from a Canadian university.

To answer your second question, so what are its components? The criteria for the award is 50% on research ability and potential, and 50% on relevant experience and achievements obtained within and beyond academia. So those are the criteria. And the corresponding components are in an online application form, whether it’s on research net, or through NSERC, where you list your experiences, awards, and location of your tenure. For the NSERC application, you have to describe your most recent thesis. And you also have to talk about diversity considerations.

Another component is your outline of proposed research, which includes your summary of your future research endeavors, make sure you follow the NSERC standards. And that proposed research will include a background, objectives, hypothesis, the approach, specific aims and impact. And you want to be focusing on what you will be working on during the tenure of the award.

And there’s a whole section on impact and significance to the natural sciences and engineering for NSERC. And I believe there is also a section for this significance for CIHR. And you want to make sure it’s a maximum of two pages, and you’re allowed figures.

The other components of an application are a bibliography for NSERC applications justifying the eligibility of your research. So that focuses on essentially, if your research has any potential overlap with the health sciences or the social sciences, you can explain why you’re applying to NSERC. And that component is not seen by the selection committee. But most applicants will write a justification for eligibility of your proposed research.

And then you have to write something called a contributions and applicants statement, where you list articles you published, accepted, submitted, significant contributions to research and development, your experiences outside of academia, and relevant activities, any leadership roles you’ve taken.

And then there’s some other documents such as like a special circumstances document, where you can describe any special circumstances that have had an effect on your performance or productivity. So that includes health problems, family responsibilities, parental leave disabilities, or any other circumstances. And now with COVID-19, you can write a special circumstances document to describe COVID related delays, which essentially allow applicants or students to devote your entire research section to your research plans and not your COVID-19 contingency plans. So you can definitely be open about describing delays and disruptions in your section. So that’s an important addition that that has happened since I wrote my application, but I think is useful for many students.

The other things that you have to add are transcripts, as usual, two reference letters. Generally, they’re from your thesis supervisor, and another academic supervisor. If you have more questions about what to ask your thesis supervisor or academic supervisor, you could listen to our podcast on the Vanier CGS. If you have questions about it, right now, what I would recommend is you want to have your application almost complete by the time you’re asking your thesis supervisor to write a reference letter for you. Because you essentially want them to focus on all the reasons why you should win the award. And by writing out the full application, you have the ability to discuss all the awards you’ve won and how your research is impactful and significant. And you want your referees to draw on those positives in your application. And so that’s very key. We go into depth on reference letters in the Vanier CGS podcast.

And lastly, for CIHR applications, you have to submit a Canadian common CV. It is very long and arduous to fill out. But the main tips I can give here are to make the most out of every entry, and expand when possible. So the example I like to give is when you’re describing awards or scholarships you’ve won, in the title box, on the CCV, for writing the award, always you can include in brackets what the award is for and why it’s prestigious. And the reason for that is arbitrary names for awards are not ubiquitous to reviewers who are reading them, such that they won’t know a specific award at every Canadian university. So it’s really important to expand when possible.

The next advice I can give is, if you have publications, you should basically be very honest, when you are describing your contribution to a particular publication. And that’s because if you were a fifth author, you definitely did not do 50 to 60% of the work. And not being honest like that, looks like you’re overstating your contribution to particular publication. So you want to be as honest as possible there.

Also, with publication contribution, you want to be concise with what you’ve done and not too technical. And generally avoid acronyms, because the reviewers will not all be experts in your field and understand the impact or significance of your contribution to a particular publication.

And lastly, one comment I like to make about the CCV is that the CCV can be used as a place to discuss parts of your application that are not discussed elsewhere. It depends how you format your contribution statement, but it can be very difficult, or you can run out of space to describe your leadership contributions. So your CCV is a good place to list all of them very concisely.

So for the next section, we’re going to talk about the best practices when reading a CGS or a PGS application. And that’s really broken down into two sections, what not to do and what to do. So let’s start with the first section. What are some of the common mistakes that people make when they’re writing a doctoral PGS application?

Joseph Sebastian: I have experiences writing NSERC and CIHR focused application. So my advice is, is based on those. So the common mistakes that I would like to remind people of is, lack of focus or coherence, I find that a lot of students will write their proposal and it will make sense to them. But the ideas don’t flow well, because the students know the information very well. But people reading it outside of their field do not. So lack of focus, I think is a very common mistake.

Repetitiveness, I think that a lot of times, students think that the reviewer did not catch, their piece of information the first time when they said it, but I think you can assume that the reviewer has understood the information the first time you said it.

Another important thing is failure to cite important relevant work in the area. I think that if you do get a reviewer who is knowledgeable of your field, and they look at your bibliography section, and you haven’t cited important papers, they could definitely dock your points. On the other end of the spectrum is citing too many articles, such that your bibliography section is too long, or it’s oversaturated with irrelevant articles. So you have to be very particular about which articles you choose and which ones you cite.

The next mistake is an obvious one, but it’s been told to me and I’ve seen it in many PGS-D NSERC applications which are spelling and grammar mistakes. Spelling and grammar mistakes are the basis for losing points on your application, you want to make sure that you’ve checked and double checked that everything is correct.

Another mistake is too much detail on minor issues or the nitty gritty. And essentially, students get too caught in the weeds and don’t see the forest, by thinking that the most minor of information is important to the reviewer. And generally, it’s not. You just need to provide a coherent and focused research proposal or contributions statement, because that is what will get you the award. Being simple, concise, coherent, are the best tips I can give.

The next thing is really being too modest. So you definitely need to highlight your research contributions, the impact of your work because that is really key towards them understanding your research ability and potential, which is 50% of if you will win an award.

And lastly, emphasizing the impact or importance or significance of your research proposal. You really need to dive in to why your work or your PhD is significant. They are funding for three years through tax-payer money is impactful and significant and important in the context of your field and throughout science, I think that is very, very key.

Do you mind going through some of the things to do for each of the components that you were describing earlier?

mistakes to avoid
Lack of focus or coherence in the written application

Too many repetitiveness

Not citing work in the relevant area in the bibliography

Rampant spelling and grammar mistakes

Too focused on details

Too modest and not selling your skillsets
best practices
Demonstrate your progress throughout undergraduate to graduate education

Showcase productivity inside and outside of academia

Keep the proposal clear and concise, while understandable by experts and non-experts alike

Using style and formating to separate the various sections of the application

Discuss how sex and gender-based analysis can be applied to your work

Joseph Sebastian: Absolutely. So the first tip I can give is to use the tri-agency website that describes the selection criteria for your award. So NSERC and CIHR have very well put together websites of what reviewers are looking at when they’re evaluating your award. Reviewer spend probably less than 10 minutes, maybe six to eight minutes on each application, and you need to hit all of the selection and evaluation criteria as much as you can. You only have a short period of time to sell yourself, and so following the selection evaluation criteria for whichever tri-agency you’re applying to, is extremely important.

In terms of academic achievements that you want to describe. So reviewers will look heavily at your progress. So your progress in your undergraduate, through your PhD so far, any awards, you’ve won. That progress and those ongoing awards look great, your publications, your historical grade trends. So I know many people who have won awards, even if they didn’t have that grade in first year, but by their masters or their PhD they have been doing very well. That progress is really looked highly upon by reviewers.

Another thing is productivity. So have you output more publications or conference presentations as time has gone on, or started contributing more to particular projects in your lab. So your contributions or role in a project, the impact of the work that you’re doing, awards, presentations, your research background, even undergraduate projects, any achievements outside of just science, so science communication, leadership roles, so volunteer elected positions, clubs, sports, and generally you want to limit it to university level achievements. And (generally), you’re talking about academic achievements, but the experiences outside of academia can be extremely variable.

In terms of your research proposal or plan of study, you want to make sure you write a clear and concise research proposal, like I emphasized earlier. But you want to make sure that an educated non expert could understand. And you want to give your proposal to as many people as possible to review. A professor or senior graduate student, your PI, people outside of your lab, (and) past winners. The CGS-D and the PGS-D are more widely one than the Vanier CGS so it’s easier to find a winner of a Canada graduate scholarship doctoral than a Vanier Canada graduate scholarship. So it might be easier to find a past winner that can critique your work.

Another tip I have is to read the proposal out loud to yourself, if it doesn’t sound natural, if the ideas don’t flow well, if it’s all over the place – it definitely needs more work. And you want to make sure you know that you’re engaging the reviewer. And it’s really important to make sure that the reviewer is enjoying reading your application. They have to read many, many applications, so if you write an enjoyable one to read, they might be favourable with their scores for your particular application.

And lastly, I want to focus on specifically for the research proposal and the planning to study is the importance and significance again, which is you want your reviewer to fight for your application, you want your reviewer to see the need for the funding for your work. And that is a key way of looking at how to argue the impact or significance of your work.

Now, in terms of the last two parts, I want to talk about writing style and formatting. And so I talked about this also on the Vanier CGS podcast, which is you want to make it easy for the reviewer to read your application and to find key information. Use headings to separate each section, apply boldface, or underlined text very sparsely, but very strategically used. You want to be clear, you want to be succinct, and you want to be scholarly, but you also want to be understandable. So using fancy words or bigger words that you’ve looked up on, may not always be the best way to describe an idea. You always want to be understandable. And it goes without saying you want to follow the formatting standards outlined on the either NSERC or CIHR website to the tee, do not think that you can get away with changing the margins or, adding an extra line on a third page or anything like that, they will not give you the award, they will throw out your application because you did not follow the formatting standards.

And the last tip that I have is to think about sex and gender-based analysis in your work. Essentially, both NSERC and CIHR, and SSHRC for sure, they want to ensure that the research that they fund is impactful, but also relevant to the diversity of the Canadian population. And so they require applicants to systematically examine how differences in identity factors such as sex, gender, race, ethnicity, affect the outcomes of the research and impact of the research findings. And so you definitely want to think about how sex and gender based analysis affect your work. And I think that it’s also key to think about how if you’re working in in vivo work, or even in vitro work, how you can use cells or animal lines from both males and females, that would change the fundamental understanding of the conclusions of your thesis.

When someone writes an application, the next stage is it’s being reviewed by a panel of reviewers. And that’s often somewhat of a black box, right? Because as an applicant, you never really know what happens at that stage and how your application has been decided to move on to the next stage. How does the review process work?

Joseph Sebastian: Yeah, so you’re definitely right, that after an applicant submits an application, generally they don’t get feedback on it. In my experience, I didn’t get feedback at all, from any of the reviewers at the departmental, university, and federal level. So how does the review process work? So essentially, you have to first submit your application through your department. And in some cases, students who are affiliated with hospitals that apply to CIHR have to go through generally their institution, and their institution has quotas on how many applicants they can nominate. And then you also have to compete university wide, which means that, U of T will have a competition for how many awards for NSERC they can particularly nominate to the federal level.

NSERC Doctoral2019 – 20202020 – 2021
Total applications Canada-wide16931878
Total awards Canada-wide713786
Success rate42.11%41.85%
U of T – applications received374358
U of T – applications reviewed at SGS284340
U of T – applications forwarded (= quota)246276
U of T – awards received97116
U of T – success rate of applications forwarded39.43%42.03%
U of T – % of total awards nation-wide13.60%14.76%
Table 1: NSERC application success rate. Data was collected from the federal agency website and University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies (SGS) competition information.

And so I’ll just go over a few of the results that I got from the slides from the School of Graduate Studies that outline some of the results from past years. So in 2019-2020, because they haven’t released the results for this year yet. And for NSERC, there were 1,693 applications forwarded by U of T to NSERC but only 713 were awarded, which is a success rate of 39% (Please see addendum in Table 1). So that’s how many are forwarded versus how many are awarded.

Now, they also look at how many are reviewed for CIHR for U of T. So that, like I mentioned earlier is administered through the institution that you’re affiliated with, generally for health research. So some institutions include Baycrest, Center for Geriatric Care, Holland Bloorview, the Hospital for Sick Children, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, Sinai Health System, St. Michael’s Hospital or Unity Health, and Sunnybrook Research Institute. So U of T specifically received 156 Awards in 2020-2021. And those were the applications reviewed and received, but only 18 awards from U of T specifically, were awarded. And so what that means is that U of T is separate from those hospitals that I mentioned earlier, such that the hospitals may nominate or send specific applications to Ottawa or the federal level, but if you’re not affiliated with the hospital, you have to go through U of T which has its own university wide competition. And so of the 156 that were reviewed and received, only 11.54% were awarded. So you can see already that CIHR is actually more competitive to win a CGS-D or PGS-D than NSERC. And so that is something to think about when applying. If you can make your work NSERC focused, then you should try to because there’s a higher probability that you will win an award, if you apply to answer versus if you apply to CIHR, because the success rate is just less than 12% last year for U of T (Please see addendum in Table 2).

CIHR Doctoral2019 – 20202020 – 20212021 – 2022
Total applications Canada-wideN/AN/AN/A
Total awards Canada-wide212180172
Success rateN/AN/AN/A
U of T – applications received144156180
U of T – applications reviewed at SGSN/A96174
U of T – applications forwarded (= quota)1407191
U of T – awards received331829
U of T – success rate of applications forwarded23.57%25.35%31.87%
U of T – % of total awards nation-wide15.57%10.00%16.86%
Table 2: CIHR application success rate. Data was collected from the federal agency website and University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies (SGS) competition information.

And so the review process number one is rigorous. It goes through a departmental or institutional competition, sometimes university wide depending on your institution, and then you compete with everyone across Canada. Now, across Canada, you get a score for each of the sections that are the criteria for the award. So like I mentioned earlier, is based on research potential, and research ability, but also relevant experiences in academia and beyond.

And so I mentioned earlier in this podcast at the beginning of my introduction, that I was in committee 194, which focuses on chemical, biological and material science engineering. So when you apply for these awards, you have a specific committee or section that you’re a part of where you’re competing with certain people. And for NSERC, I was in committee 194, that is the tri-agency I applied to and the committee I applied to, and you get a score in each of the sections. But those scores are based on six possible merit categories. Essentially, it is a ranking system from one to six, where six is the highest score you can get, and one was the lowest score. Now, I was lucky enough to rank first in my entire section, which means that out of the 149 applications in my section, I got a six in both sections, both the research potential and ability and the relevant experiences both within and outside of academia. And essentially, that six represents a merit relative to that of the other applications received. So it’s not an arbitrary value that is given. You are judged based on your applications merit relative to that of all the other applications in your particular committee. So for me, it was based on other applications to chemical, biological and material science, engineering, everyone in those three disciplines are competing against each other.

And I just want to make a note that these applications are very tough to get but they are more popular than Vanier CGS and essentially allow your supervisor to pay less for you per year, because you’ve won or in some cases not pay at all. And so although it is rigorous and difficult to get, because you have to go through all this work, I think that it is worth it, even with the success rates for the review process for both NSERC and CIHR.

In the other podcast, you talked about the tips and tricks on how to apply for a Vanier CGS scholarship. And now you’re talking about the doctoral CGS or the doctoral PGS. What’s the difference between the Vanier CGS and the doctoral PGS? And when someone’s going through the kind of awards that they can apply to, what’s the decision process for them? How do they decide which award to apply to?

Joseph Sebastian: So I’ll start off with your first one. So the difference between both of these scholarships is number one, the criteria for which you can win an award. Number two, how many awards are given out per year. Number three, how competitive it is to win the award. And number four, many components of the application are different.

Number of awards given out for the Vanier CGS in encircle last year was only 55. Now if you look at the number of awards given out Canada wide for the PGS-D or CGS-D it was 786, which is a huge difference in the number of awards that can be given. Another thing that’s different is the Vanier CGS is based on your academic achievements, your research achievements, and your leadership achievements. And they’re all weighted equally. Whereas the CGS-D or PGS-D is heavily weighted on your research contributions. Your research is really the key component of this application, and your relevant experiences outside of academia, which can be anything, because like I said earlier that, they’re both within and outside of academia. Now, you should be explaining as much as you can, all the experiences you’ve done, but sometimes people have experiences that in one way, so focus on within academia outside of academia.

Whereas for the Vanier CGS, you have to talk about your leadership in terms of not just the experiences that you’ve had, but when you’ve gone above and beyond the status quo, or what is normally done in a particular role for actually qualifying it to be leadership. And so I think that that is a key difference in how the awards are judged.

And that translates to my third point, which is that the applications are different, right? So the Vanier has a whole statement and two reference letters just focused on leadership. Whereas in the PGS-D and CGS-D, it’s one part of a document that you submit, just part three of your statement of contributions is where you talk about your relevant experiences. And so I think that is a key difference. It’s apples and oranges in terms of criteria for each award. And I think that that is really a big difference in why you know more people just go for the CGS-D or PGS-D.

Now, the obvious other difference is that the money awarded for the Vanier CGS is $50,000 per year untaxed in three installments, whereas, the money for a NSERC PGS-D is $21,000 or CGS-D is $35,000. And the money for a CIHR CGS-D is $35,000. That’s actually a $30,000 stipend and $5,000 research allowance. So it’s a difference between the maximums of $15,000 to $20,000 per year. So more prestigious meant more money, which means that, there’s not as many awards for the Vanier, but many awards for the PGS-D or CGS-D. So those are the key differences I would highlight. But you can also go through the Vanier website versus the CGS-D websites for criteria and see very specifically how they’re different.

Thanks again, Joseph for coming back again for the second podcast and offering a your very insightful advice to the current students or even prospective students who are applying to these awards.

Joseph Sebastian: Yeah, no problem. And I’m happy to help and happy to read or edit people’s applications. I think people listening to the Vanier podcast already reached out to me to help them you know, provide feedback on their applications, and I’m happy to do so. I hope that anyone listening that doesn’t have someone to read their application will definitely reach out, and good luck.

If you would like to learn more about the CGS-D or PGS-D Scholarship application process, you can reach Joseph Sebastian at