Aug. 30, 2019

Graduate awards: Two doctoral students reflect on succeeding with scholarships

Julia Poole and Haley Vecchiarelli are both recipients of multiple graduate scholarships. My GradSkills asked them about the secrets of their success
Graduate Scholarship Officer Erin Coburn delivers scholarship workshop
The Faculty of Graduate Studies offers scholarship workshops Fritz Tolentino

Scholarships can make all the difference for a graduate student. Receiving a major award might mean you can attend more conferences or better equip yourself for field research. It might mean that you can focus on your studies without worrying about next month’s rent or daycare bill. It might even give you a better chance at receiving more awards.

My GradSkills caught up with doctoral candidates Julia Poole (clinical psychology) and Haley Vecchiarelli (neuroscience) to get their perspectives on scholarships. Both Poole and Vecchiarelli have received multiple major scholarships. Based on our interview, My GradSkills put together a list of recommendations for other graduate students thinking about applying.

My Grad Skills: When you applied for scholarships, what were you thinking about? Did you think you had a good chance of winning, and were you surprised when you did win?

Vecchiarelli: I apply for everything I am eligible for. I never think I have a “good” chance of winning, because a lot of the time it does come down to luck, but it takes putting the work in to be lucky.

Poole: I applied for the Vanier, CIHR Doctoral Research Award, and Alberta Innovates scholarships three times each before I won them. I have also applied for other scholarships that I didn’t win! Throughout the process, I focused on the benefits of the process rather than listening to my inner critic (“you’ll never win!” “This is pointless!”). Instead, I reflected on how these applications motivated me to push myself in research and leadership roles; even if I never won, the applications served a greater purpose.

When I was awarded these scholarships, I was shocked and thrilled! Mostly, I feel truly proud of the efforts and growth that these awards reflect.

MGS: Are there times when you thought about applying for other scholarships, but didn't bother for any reason? If so, what were they and why didn't you apply?

Vecchiarelli: I really only do not apply for awards when I am not eligible, or I cannot give a referee enough time to provide a reference. I do not think I am eligible for any award where you only get “one chance.” In a case like that, I might try to strategize for when I have the “best” chance, but largely, if you can apply multiple times, you might as well.

Poole: I applied for every scholarship I was eligible for! Even when I knew my chances of winning were low, I tried to view the application process as “practice” for future opportunities that may have been a better fit.

MGS: What is one crucial piece of advice that you'd like to share with other grad students when it comes to scholarships and awards?

Vecchiarelli: Apply for everything! Ask for someone to read it over and take advantage of resources. The Graduate Leaders Circle provides scholarship cafes for one-on-one support, for example. Your department or research group might have additional resources. Ask around, ask people in your cohort.

MGS: Do you have any particular advice for preparing scholarship applications?

Poole: Create a story. Rather than simply listing my accomplishments, I worked to centre my applications on a theme that was consistent with the objectives of my research program. If you use your application to tell a story (e.g., how have your personal experiences or reflections shaped your research interests?), it will likely be more compelling and memorable to reviewers.

The idea of telling a story was particularly helpful for my Vanier and Alberta Innovates applications, which are longer than most and request more personal information about the applicant.

Haley Vecchiarelli

Neuroscience PhD candidate Haley Vecchiarelli

Haley Vecchiarelli

Vecchiarelli: Read the eligibility criteria and application instructions carefully. Follow them. If you have questions, do not be afraid to ask, but do not necessarily expect a response 2-3 business days prior to an intake deadline. Be respectful of others’ time, but don’t not apply for an award because you are worried about asking too much of referees. It is part of the job for academics to provide references. Of course, you have to be respectful and provide enough time. A good bet is 4 weeks, but some people might require longer.

Get a few people to look at your application, particularly those who have been successful before. Ask if what you’re trying to convey is coming through, and if not, try reworking that part.

Like writing an assignment, publication or dissertation, just get a draft out, and then it is all about the rewrite. Do not try to make it perfect the first draft, just get a draft done.

MGS: What is the hardest thing about putting together a scholarship application?

Vecchiarelli: I really do not love to talk about myself, particularly when it feels like bragging, so it helps to have a few people to reframe what I have done. I think looking over others’ applications has helped me learn how to feel more comfortable with this; if I can say to them, “you did thing “x”, and “y” was the outcome and it was important because of “z”, and that’s not bragging but just a statement of what happened,” then I should be able to take that same advice.

Julia Poole

Clinical psychology PhD candidate Julia Poole

Riley Brandt

Poole: For me, the hardest thing about applying for scholarships was my own self-doubt. I applied for many scholarships that I did not win, and initially I found it really discouraging. Over time, I worked to change my attitude so that I focused less on the outcome and more on the process of the application. As I fine-tuned my applications over the years, I used the process as a way to reflect on my journey as a clinician and scientist; putting together the applications helped me reflect on the influences that shaped my research and clinical interests and my desire to be a leader in my community.

Promising practices to keep in mind when considering graduate awards:

  • Attend scholarship workshops offered by the Faculty of Graduate Studies.
  • Explore awards opportunities and resources for preparing a strong application on the graduate studies website.
  • Apply for everything that you are eligible for.
  • Apply again! You may succeed the second or third time around.
  • Learn as you go. Every application gives you a little more practice and experience.
  • Tell a story. Use your application to create a memorable story that captures the impact of your research.
  • Give yourself, your reviewers and your referees enough time to respond.
  • Get a draft done. Don’t worry if it’s perfect, just get it written and then you can edit and refine.
  • Explore other supports and resources like Graduate Leaders Circle cafes, SAGE cafes for Indigenous students, and departmental workshops.
  • Contact the graduate studies awards team if you have any questions.

Check the My GradSkills workshop calendar for upcoming scholarship workshops.

Julia Poole, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology, has been awarded a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CIHR) (2018-2021), CIHR Doctoral Research Award (2018-2021; Declined), Alberta Innovates Graduate Studentship (2018-2021), Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship (2017-2019), Alberta Innovates and CIHR Alberta SPOR Graduate Studentship (2017-2018), University of Calgary Ruby Doctoral Recruitment Scholarship (2016-2017), and a Canada Graduate Scholarship- Master's Award- CIHR (2014-2015).

Haley Vecchiarelli, a PhD candidate in neuroscience, has been awarded a Branch Out Neurological Foundation PhD Graduate Studentship (2015-2019), Alberta Innovates Health Solutions Graduate Studentship (2015-2019), Vanier Canadian Graduate Studentship (CIHR) (2016-2019), and an Izaak Walton Killam Doctoral Scholarship (2018-2020).