How to write a successful Vanier CGS application

Joseph Sebastian: My name is Joseph Sebastian. I am a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering in the lab of Dr. Craig Simmons. I was recently awarded the NSERC Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS) ranked 27th out of 190 candidates in the final round of competition.

What is the Vanier Scholarship and why is it so prestigious in Canada and internationally?

Joseph Sebastian: The Vanier CGS or Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship was launched in 2008 to attract top doctoral students from around the world to Canada. The program has a strong emphasis on bringing international students to Canada and moving domestic students away from their home university, where they did their undergrad or masters to another university for their Ph.D.

The program is administered through the three funding agencies in Canada which are CIHR, Canadian Institutes for Health Research; NSERC, which is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; and SSHRC, which is the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Each Canadian university within these three funding agencies has a quota of Vanier Scholarships per tri-agency Research Council listed on the Vanier website. One of the most important things about the Vanier Scholarship and why it is so sought after is because it awards recipients with $150,000 in untaxed research money over three years, which works out to $50,000 per year, that is given to each winner in three installments over the course of a year.

Is this award eligible for everyone? Can you tell me about some of the components for this award?

Joseph Sebastian: In terms of eligibility, you need to be nominated by a Canadian university. You must be seeking financial support for your first Ph.D. and must be pursuing a doctoral degree or a combined Master’s MA/Ph.D. You can’t have already won a scholarship from SSHRC, NSERC, or CIHR to complete a doctoral degree or a combined MA/Ph.D., and you must be a Canadian citizen.

The two key ones are that you can’t bring this award to another university outside of Canada, and you can’t have already won a fellowship from SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR. Eligibility requirements for the award are judged based on three things: academic excellence, research potential, and leadership ability.

You mentioned there are three components to the evaluation process for the Vanier scholarship, do you know how they’re being weighted in 100% capacity?

Joseph Sebastian: Each of these three components, academics, research and leadership are weighted equally. In 100%, they would all be weighted 33.3% such that your entire application can be sunk based on doing poorly in one section.

Do you mind going into each of the components for the Vanier scholarship, meaning, what are some of the items that you have to fill out?

Joseph Sebastian: There are seven components to a Vanier scholarship. First, you have to start with a research proposal and project references. The research proposal should outline the project that you’re proposing for the three years that you’ll be funded. Then you have to do a personal leadership statement and garner two leadership letters of reference. That’s another two components. The leadership statement outlines your past contributions to any level of leadership within your life. Then you have a statement of your research contributions, which focuses on up to five of your most significant and impactful publications, conference presentations or proceedings. You have to do a Canadian common CV, which is basically a centralized CV for all Canadian researchers. And lastly, you need to be able to submit your transcripts which outline your academic grades both for your undergrad, optionally, your masters and your Ph.D.

What are some tips and tricks on how to write an award-winning application? Can you provide some of the common mistakes that people make when they’re writing a Vanier CGS application?

Logistical Mistakes Summary
Not starting early (should aim for 3 months before closing date)

Not having enough feedback from multiple sources

Not identifying the correct funding agency

Not contacting your references early enough

Did not include all achievements and honours
Content Mistakes Summary
Not enough revisions from people outside of your field

Not contacting past Vanier winners to get advice

Do not follow formatting rules dictated by Vanier

Too conservative with self-promotion

Not gauging your competition

Joseph Sebastian: I’d like to make a few disclaimers before I start for everyone listening. The mistakes and the tips that I’ll give are based on my experience and my advice while applying to the CIHR and NSERC scholarships that focus on basic and translational biomedical science applications. This is because I have the most experience with these two applications. But this general advice can be applied to any funding agency, SSHRC included. This advice is what worked for me during my year of application. I just want to disclaim that, it’s what worked for me.

To answer your question, I think that students make two types of mistakes. The first is logistical mistakes, not starting early enough. I tried to think of a timeline that I would give a student if I was a PI or a senior member of a lab. Obviously, you’re working on multiple other things, not just your Vanier CGS, so it’s good to start early. The second thing is that you will take breaks between drafts, such that you are not constantly working on the same draft. It’s important to take a step back sometimes and not look at the application and come back with fresh eyes. For some people listening, perhaps you can write a better draft in a short period of time. But the timeline that I’m about to give is based on my advice, and what worked for me.

Logistical Mistakes

This year (2021), at U of T in BME, the deadline for the Vanier application is August 27. If we assume that you would like to do last-minute tweaks or smaller edits a week before the deadline, we should aim for a final draft to be finished by August 20th. Most supervisors want to look at the final to semi-final draft beforehand because of their busy schedule. You’d want to give them around two weeks to look at that, which puts us at August 6, which is when you would send it to your supervisor.

I think that you should send your draft to multiple lab members, senior lab members, or past winners of the Vanier CGS if you’re privileged enough to know some, to have a go back and forth with them. Generally, lab members I find can turn it around within a week. They do a first look, and then you need a week to change it based on their feedback. So that’s another week, then they would need another week to turn it around to give it a second look. And then you need another week to incorporate their feedback before sending it to your PI. That’s around four weeks, which now puts us at July 6.

Now you need six to eight weeks or more depending on your writing style and your capabilities to write each part and not just write one draft. I mean, iterate through multiple drafts while taking breaks. That puts us at a starting date for your Vanier CGS around May 11 to May 25, which is before they even make the call on the Vanier CGS website for the following year. You need to be ahead of the game, knowing that you want to apply to this scholarship and start in May for a deadline that’s due in August.

The second one is identifying the right funding agency, knowing what the funding agencies are and what they focus on is important. I’ll focus on NSERC and CIHR. NSERC focuses on the natural sciences and engineering and using engineering as a tool in research whereas CIHR focuses on health research, specifically. Anything related to health research would fall under CIHR and that’s why it is a huge funding agency with the biggest quota for the Vanier scholarships at U of T.

The third thing is contacting your references early giving them enough time and information to write a strong reference. You will need four references and out of the four, two will need to be leadership references as I mentioned earlier, and the others will need to be academic. Generally, the Vanier websites, recommend that they don’t overlap, that you have four distinct individual people that you can use towards talking about your academics and research potential but also talking about your leadership. You want to give them your application in an almost finalized state, such that they can talk about giving evidence to your capabilities. Also, by giving them your application, you also want to provide them with an up-to-date CV, and transcript and really tell them what to highlight. That requires a lot of preparation, you really need to think about what you want each referee, whether it’s academic, or leadership to talk about.

One of the last logistical mistakes I find that people make is that they forget to include all the scholarships, awards, honours and recognitions they’ve ever received. Most people receive quite a few of these, and they forget to write down all the things they’ve done, or all the times they’ve contributed to something. In the scope of logistical mistakes, I think those are the big four that people make.

Content Mistakes

The second type of mistake is content mistakes. I think people don’t have enough reviewers, whether it’s peers, or past winners to review their application. That might be because they’re not privileged enough to know some, and that’s understandable, or they just haven’t started early enough that they can’t get enough people to do it, because the timeline didn’t work out.

The first mistake is not enough revision for people outside of your field. Generally, the reviewers of your Vanier application are not going to be experts in your field. When you send this to your department, getting revisions from people outside of your field is very important. Some people forget to get revisions from senior research group members or senior trainees. Generally, senior members of your research group have written papers that have helped your PI write grants, so getting revision from them is extremely valuable.

Not reaching out to past Vanier winners for review is a content mistake, I think that it’s extremely important to put yourself out there and try and contact past winners. You can look them up on LinkedIn, or look them up on Facebook, or email them and ask them for help.

Another big content mistake is not following the application rules. The font size, the margins, the spacing and the page limits are important. Last year the font size changed from size 10 to size 12, as the smallest size you can use. I formatted my application based on the one from two years ago when I didn’t win. I realized that like a week before that the font size was not following the rules. I think obeying the application rules, read them in advance and following them exactly is key.

Remember, the Vanier reviewers don’t want everybody to win because they don’t have enough awards to give everyone a high score. In some ways, they’re looking not to give you an award, and they’re finding any reason not to. One of those easy ones is not following the application rules.

Another content mistake I find is that people don’t sell themselves enough. A piece of advice that was given to me by a PI, was that scholarship application are not a place to be humble. You really want to sell yourself as much as possible.

Something that I do is look up past winners since they’re publicly available and see how you compare. If you go on the Vanier website, you can see the Vanier scholars all the way back to 2015. You can spend a little bit of time looking up the research history of each winner, it’s as easy as finding their Google Scholar, and seeing how many publications they have. You can easily see just by looking at 10 or 20 as the average number of publications, for example.

The reason I focused on publications is because you can’t really look up their leadership history, that’s difficult to do because it varies so much. You can’t really look up their grades, those are not publicly available. But you can generally assume that the grades of each Vanier winner are quite good, in the 80 to 100% range.

The only thing that’s left is their research history and I think that is where most people benchmark themselves. How many publications do I have versus this other person? It’s not quantity over quality but you can generally gauge how many publications people have that way. You’ll see that it does vary quite a bit and you can put yourself up against the people that have previously won in your specific tri-agency. That’s a key thing to remember. If you’re applying to NSERC, don’t look at the CIHR winners, they are not evaluated the same way with the same reviewers. You must make the distinction and just focus on your tri-agency.

Regarding reference letters, because you mentioned that you need to start the application early and give the referees enough time to give you a solid reference letter. Ideally, what should they write in that reference letter that will give you a glowing review?

Joseph Sebastian: Essentially, you want your references to always provide evidence of three things. If they’re part of your academic references, then you want them to provide an assessment of your academic excellence. You want them to talk about your past academic results, your transcripts, any awards you’ve won and any distinctions. Since they are academic, they’ll also talk about your research potential.

You want them to talk about your research history, your research interests and its potential contribution to the advancement of knowledge in your specific field. You want them to include examples. You want them to talk about the research that they’ve seen you do. How it has impacted your field, not just at the university level, but externally. You want them to provide examples of your excellence both in a university setting, but also how it’s applicable to the outside. It’s important to highlight your academic results achieved outside of the university environment.

Lastly, when talking about your leadership references, you want them to talk about your leadership ability. In this scholarship, there’s no opportunity for the Vanier committee to interview any of the students. You need your leadership references to elaborate for the review committee on how you have gone above and beyond the opportunities, you presented to achieve a certain goal, or contribute to a certain community, or how you’ve taken on responsibility for others. It’s important, and the Vanier website makes this clear, that just because you’ve achieved something highly, while it’s admirable, it does not necessarily constitute leadership.

You need to be able to provide context for the committee on how your participation in any activity, whether it’s sports, something artistic, or volunteering, goes above and beyond contributing or participating and becomes you leading other people. That is what your referee should mention, how you have gone above and beyond the baseline of what any other person would do within a group. If you volunteered for some program, what makes you different than the dozens of other volunteers that were there? How did you lead and not just follow? The reason I’m focusing so much on the leadership references is because most of your academic references have written an academic reference or scholarship reference before. It’s much easier for them to talk about your academics and your research potential. But the leadership is where it distinguishes every single person.

You mentioned multiple components in this application process. There’s the CV, research proposal, the leadership statement, etc. Can you provide some tips or best practices for each of these components to make a successful application?

Best Practices Summary
Clear, coherent, and concise
Be mindful of every word and sentence

Use headings to organize your proposal

Align your methods and aims

Discuss sex & gender analysis where necessary

Avoid jargons

Use analogies to explain concepts, make your proposal accessible to lay audience

Discuss the significance of your work on a larger scale

Align your research to the correct funding agency

Expand your CCV content where necessary

Organize your leadership experience in distinctive categories, and put them into a narrative journey

Clearly identify your research contributions and collaborations in the past

Joseph Sebastian: I just need to say that applying for scholarships, in general, is a lot of work. Personally, you’ll see in my tips that I invested multiple months writing my Vanier, amongst doing other things. Getting feedback from over five people and scrutinizing every single sentence before submitting it. The tips that I’m giving are very detail-oriented and it’s just one person’s approach.

The Vanier website is extremely useful. It has the selection committee guide that lists the large table of criteria that each application is evaluated on for each component. In my opinion, when reading your application, this should be your Bible. You should aim to draw on each possible criteria to strengthen your application to get yourself more points. The frank truth of that these awards is that each person is separated by a 10th of a point, you know, 7.1 versus 7.0, and that is the distinction between the person who gets the award and who doesn’t.

The main tip I have for the research proposal is something that many researchers have heard before, there’s a reason that we say it again and again: you must be as clear, coherent and concise as possible. I think that evaluating every sentence of your proposal, scrutinizing every word you use and deciding whether it is the most concise and clear way to communicate your idea is one of the best ways to have a great research proposal. Generally, the reviewers of the application are not experts in your field, so they should be able to follow your proposal. You shouldn’t write the proposal by yourself. I think that using senior members of your lab or reviewing with your supervisor is extremely useful.

I have seen applications where people do not use headings. One of my tips is use headings. Headings organize your proposal into sections and guide the reviewer through your document. Remember that reviewers are extremely busy people, they don’t want to spend 10 minutes finding your hypothesis amongst a huge block of text.

Another personal preference is underlining, bolding and italicizing. Some people are strongly against it. I think that sparsely used, that these additions to your writing can draw emphasis to key statements, it can be useful. You must remember again, I said, sparsely used, and you must remain consistent throughout.

Focus on developing a clear hypothesis. As cliche as it sounds, (you need to) have specific aims because these are the crux of your research proposal, and formed the basis for you know, each year of your project. Make sure that your specific aims and methodology are well aligned. It’s very important that your methods and your specific aims flow well.

Another new thing that the Vanier committee has added is sex and gender-based analysis. In order to focus to ensure the research that these funding agencies fund is impactful and relevant to the diversity of the population, applicants really should think about how to examine differences in identity factors. Identity factors mean sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, and mental or physical disability, and how they affect the outcomes of the research or the impacts of the research findings. My tip is to spend time thinking about how your research could have sex and gender-based analysis or more, so not just sex- and gender-based, how you could extrapolate your data, or your outcomes, or the impacts to these analyses.

Some people’s research are more focused on basic science. Some could focus on cell lines or working with animals. How can people doing that kind of research include topics such as sex gender-based analysis, into their proposal?

Joseph Sebastian: I’ll answer your question in two ways. One is, I’ll give you exactly how I did it in mine. The second is, I’ll give you an example of working with mice. In my work, sex is known to be a factor in cardiac fibrosis, heart failure, and cardiac drug response. You can read about my project on, and see that it’s related to cardiac imaging. Because sex is known to be a factor in fibrosis, heart failure and drug response, in my project, we’ll build these cardiac micro-tissues or organs on a chip device using stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes from both males and females and examine sex-dependent differences in our model systems.

You don’t have to include sex and gender, and race and ethnicity and religion if you cannot. But in my work, sex can be included. It will be included because of this need to examine differences in identity factors and how they affect the outcomes of my research.

If someone was using mice, for example, in in vivo work, considering the effects on both male and female mice is extremely important. Say, we’re going to examine the effects in both male and female mice could be one way to examine differences in identity factors, and how they affect the outcomes of your research. Because you must also explain how you will analyze these differences.

That’s just one way on both using my research and using an in vivo study for example.

More tips on a successful application

One is removing as much jargon in your proposal as possible. Thinking about the least convoluted way to communicate a complicated concept. The most fundamental place to start is the lay abstract you write. When you write a Vanier application or even another federal scholarship, you have to write an abstract that is for a non-research-focused audience. If you start there, and you’re able to communicate your science and make it more accessible and understandable for other people, then you can really flow those ideas into your actual research proposal in a way that allows you to be more specific in your research proposal, but not have a lot of jargon that makes it convoluted.

In my work, we are using high-frequency ultrasound to assess the stiffness of engineered cardiac microtissues. These are organ on a chip beating microtissues that are derived from stem cells. What I did in my summary abstract, is related to the idea of using ultrasound to determine the stiffness of these beating 3D tissues to checking the ripeness of your favourite fruit. I started my abstract with “How do you check the ripeness of your favorite fruits? Often, a simple squeeze of a fruit can tells you if it will be sweet as sugar or sour as vinegar. Although not as delectable, our hearts can be studied much in the same way.”

Connecting the idea of stiffness of fruit related to its health, and the stiffness of hearts related to their health is kind of how I approached communicating my science in an accessible way that I used as a gateway in my research proposal. That’s an example of how to communicate your science accessibly.

The next tip I have focuses on the significance of your work. Remember that these scholarships are made through the support of Canadian taxpayers. You need to remind the reviewer or the review committee that your research will benefit Canada in some way because they are giving a lot of money, $150,000, guaranteed for three years untaxed. Emphasizing your significance very clearly, but also very accurately, is extremely important and requires some time to think about.

Lastly, the tip that I have is based around one of the sections you must write in your research proposal for the Vanier, which is about the rationale for your institution selection and your granting agency. Remember the granting agency keywords that I started to talk about in this podcast, which is NSERC funded research, must be primarily in the natural sciences and engineering, and CIHR, which focuses on Canadian Institutes of Health Research must be aimed to primarily improve or have impact on human health. You want to focus on those aspects of your application.

Now we talk about the Canadian common CV. There’s only one main tip I have for this because really, it’s just translating your regular CV to an online version of a CV. The main tip I have is to make the most of every entry. Make sure that you expand when possible. When you talk about the name of an award that you won at some University, try and use that title of the award in brackets to explain what the award is for, because not everyone will know what the award is based on the name. Make sure that you accurately explain your publication contributions (your publication contribution percentage). When including journal articles, you have to say how much you contributed to this specific publication. And you need to be concise when writing your roles, not too technical, remember the reviewers will not know exactly what your role is, or what the work is, but you need to communicate it very concisely and as broadly as possible. You want to avoid acronyms and you want to be honest. You generally did not contribute 60% of the project if you were a third author, so putting that is kind of a red flag to a reviewer that you are overestimating how much you have contributed.

A small note is that the CCV can be used as a place to discuss parts of your application that will not be discussed elsewhere. That will be a place where you can include things you have done, that you may not be able to include in your leadership statement. That brings me to the next component of your application, which is your leadership statement. Generally, the leadership statement is where you can have the most freedom, and there is the most variability between applicants.

I’ll talk a bit about me, what I did and what I think other people should do. I aimed to organize all my leadership experience into three categories. Mine were, mentorship and pedagogy, international collaboration, and academic leadership. I aimed to develop the statement as a story that took the reviewer through my leadership journey. In my opinion, this is the best approach for this piece of application. Outline for the committee where you have created opportunities for yourself and how you’ve overcome obstacles, and how this has led you now to your Ph.D. How have your life experiences and your personal circumstances, whether it’s maternity or parental leave, illness, cultural and or community responsibilities, socio-economic status, any trauma or loss, health related family responsibilities, how have all these personal circumstances shaped your academic and research leadership choices, challenges and successes? How has this leadership experience in your life driven you to now share and disseminate your research or do research? I think that is important. A surface level story is not enough. You must emphasize the skills that you have learned along the way, and how you have improved or overcome the obstacles that I mentioned earlier, from your experiences to make you this better leader. The skills that you have learned throughout your life, throughout all these different leadership contexts are, just as, if not more, important than the experiences you have.

The last thing that you need to really explain is how this institution that you want to already provides an environment that nurtures your leadership skills. The most concise and clear way to explain how to focus on this leadership statement is to create it as a story, organize everything you’ve done, and focus on taking the reviewer through this journey that you went on, but within two pages of well written concise language.

The last part of the application is your research contributions statement. It’s a little difficult for people who don’t have publications, and generally, most people who win the Vanier, do have publications, whether it’s a co-author publication or first author publication. In the research contributions statement, you’re choosing up to five research contributions from your CCV that are the most significant and relevant to your research proposal.

It’s important to realize, and I’m going to say it again that these are significant and relevant because you must essentially do six things for each of these contributions. You must describe your role in the research, you must discuss the reasons that you chose this dissemination medium, whether that was a conference or journal, you must explain if there was any collaboration. Remember, as I stated earlier, that the Vanier committee loves collaboration, it gets you a lot of brownie points. You want to explain the significance in the broader context of health research because I’m focusing on CIHR and NSERC. You want to be able to explain your impact with this work at the institutional level. So how did it impact your field? Whether it’s in health research or the natural sciences and engineering. But also, how did it shape research at your university? How did it put your university on the map? Did it help it anyway? And lastly, the sixth thing you must do is explain how this research is impactful for you in the context of your career. Is it your first first-author publication? Is it the first time you collaborated with researchers? What did you learn? What skills did you gain? To me, those are the six most important things for the research contributions statement.

Once you’ve submitted your application, what happens at the review stage?

Review Process Summary
Each agency has a quota set, you are only competing within your own funding agency

Competition starts at the university level, top applications are submitted to the federal level for the final round of competition

Scoring is out of 9
6.1-9.0 are automatically funded
3.1-6.0 are discussed
0.0-3.0 are not funded

Joseph Sebastian: I have my disclaimer at the beginning of this question, which is that at no point during the review process, whether it was in my departmental level, institutional level, federal level, did I receive any feedback on my application. The reason I make this disclaimer is because I want to emphasize again, to any applicants that are listening, getting others to review your application is critical, because you do not get any feedback from any of the reviewers, whether it’s PIs at U of T, in your department, or the selection committee. Getting that feedback early is critical.

How does it work? There’s a three-tier review for this application. It starts in your department. When you apply, I believe it’s around a month or so until you’re notified if you pass through the department. Were you selected out of all the applications from your department to compete at the university level? You compete in your department, and now you compete at the university level. At the university level, you’re competing with everyone across U of T, for example, that is applying to that certain funding agency. All the NSERC applicants compete against each other, all the CIHR applicants compete against each other and all the SSHRC applicants compete against each other at the university.

There’s a quota for the number of applications that U of T can nominate and send to the final round of competition. At the university level, the School of Graduate Studies has a quota. For CIHR, last year the number was 42, for NSERC it was 19, and for SSHRC was 23. Each year at the university level, they nominate 42 CIHR applications, 19 NSERC applications, and 23 SSHRC applications. That is what gets sent to the federal level.

After you pass through the university-wide competition, you are then notified. You have to wait until April to find out what your scores were, and where you ranked, but you never get any feedback on what was lacking, you only see a raw score.

At the federal level, each application is scored by two reviewers on a selection committee. The reviewers pre-score your application. They look at all the components and give a score out of nine. It’s between zero and nine. This year, there were 190 applications at the federal level for NSERC. Only 55 people awarded a Vanier CGS. The scores are then organized into three parts. The highest scores, so the top 25% proportion, which is between 6.1, and 9.0 (there’s no 10). Those are deemed recommended for funding.  

Then there’s a score between 3.1 and 6.0. Those are deemed ‘could be recommended for funding.’ Then there’s the last score between 0.1 and 3.0, which are not recommended for funding. You must get at least a 3.1 in every section, to be able to be recommended for funding. The 30 top rank nominations are not discussed further.

After all applications are ranked, they’re put in order from lowest to highest. The 30 top grant applications will not be discussed, unless specifically requested by a selection committee member. For example, this year, I was ranked 27th, which means that I was within the top 30 applications that were not discussed. Two reviewers pre-scored my application. Then when they put it in order (from lowest score to highest score) and they saw that I was within the top 30. No one debated over whether I was deserving of an award, I was recommended for funding, and I got funding. For applications outside of the top 30, reviewers must make a case for why a certain nomination or a certain application should be recommended for funding. Each reviewer must then make a case for why this person deserves it over another person.

When reviewers get a list of applications, they must identify any that should be reviewed by a third person or nomination that should be reviewed by a guest reader or a guest expert. Those make it difficult to be able to know whether you’re going to have experts reading your work. If your work is written broadly, but accurately, it shouldn’t be a problem. But you should never bank on the fact that you can be flippant with the words.

The last part of the review process is that once all the applications have been discussed and scored, the rankings of the nominations are reviewed to determine a cutoff point. Each federal granting agency awards up to 55 awards. Sometimes 56 is very rarely given either by CIHR or NSERC. They must determine the cut-off at 55 for one application versus another. Like I said earlier, the rankings are separated by a 10th of a point. You want to be extremely careful with how well you write the application because it could be the smallest difference between being 56 or 57 and being 55.

It’s the difference between $150,000 and potentially winning another award. It’s a huge difference, it’s a lot of money, and it could really, in many ways change your life. You want to be as careful, critical, concise, coherent and succinct as possible. It does make a difference. Every small mistake adds up. And it can be a big difference between winning the award, and not winning the award.

Let’s say a student who is coming out of their fourth-year undergraduate education, and they’re thinking about applying to Vanier. How can someone in that position write a convincing and quality proposal? Is it even possible for someone in that position to write a quality proposal?

Joseph Sebastian: In all cases, students who apply to the Vanier must be either entering a Ph.D. program or be in an MA/Ph.D. program. If someone is coming out of the fourth year of their undergrad and they’re not entering a Ph.D. program, they can’t apply.

One of the scenarios is not something that most students like to hear. But it’s a reality. Don’t apply until you have a better idea of your project. Wait a year, develop your project, develop the ideas and then apply, because you win three years’ worth of funding. If it works, it’s in your Ph.D. year, three, four, and five, versus two, three, and four, you’re still getting the money. To me, why go through the effort of writing this application that is not going to be your best work and spending months doing it? It is a good exercise, but it can be time spent doing other things as well. So, one scenario is don’t apply until you have a better idea of your project.

The second one is, if you’ve done undergraduate research, you are totally able to develop a research proposal with your previous supervisor, that extrapolates your undergraduate work. You do not have to do the same Ph.D. project that you propose, in your actual Ph.D. You can change directions, or you can switch up the work. What’s important is that you are proposing something in a well-thought-out way.  

The third scenario is that Vanier applications are generally due at the end of August. If you don’t want to do work with your previous supervisor, you can develop something with your next supervisor. By August, if you’re starting in September, I think most students at BME have a potential supervisor that they can work with. And if they do, they can develop a project proposal with that supervisor. It’s a lot of extra work over the summer, but it helps you down the line with your qualifying exam, research proposal, and many future scholarship applications.

Summary of the three scenarios: one is you wait a year until you have a better idea of your project and your supervisor and develop it solidly later. The second scenario is to use your undergraduate research and your undergraduate supervisor, as the basis for extrapolating your undergraduate work into a Ph.D. project, even though you may not stay with the same supervisor or even though you may not do the same work. The third option is finding a supervisor tell them you want to apply to the Vanier CGS and develop a project proposal and see if they’re willing to go back and forth. But those are the possible options.

If you would like to learn more about the Vanier Scholarship application process or would like a past Vanier winner to review your application, you can reach Joseph Sebastian at