How to ask for a scholarship

I have had some experience reviewing scholarship requests from graduate students. Here are a few pointers:

  • For God’s sake! Know why you are going to graduate school! Boring reasons include: learning more about your favorite field, wanting to become a professor one day, finding your topic fascinating (why is it fascinating?), and so on. Yes! You are expected to figure out an original and interesting story as to why you are trying to get a Ph.D.! Yes, it is hard! That’s the point!
  • Avoid telling us about how good your school, supervisor or department is. Assume we know.
  • Waste no time telling us why you got bad grades or why you have no research experience. We know you are young. We know bad grades can happen.
  • Have some accepted research papers. Short of that, claim to have submitted research papers. Short of that, post some research reports on your web site. No need to dump a large list, but have something. Everyone can submit a research paper to a journal or a conference! Show that you are trying!
  • Avoid telling us about your teaching experience. Not relevant. We are not hiring you as an instructor!
  • Come up with a simple, original and clear research proposal. It is no time to explain complicated ideas!
  • Avoid specialized acronyms or terminology. I do not know the first thing about robots, but I still have to read your proposal. Make it interesting to me!

To sum it up:

  • Write well.
  • Be interesting.
  • Be original.

Extra pointers:

  • Do not join 20 sheet of papers when one would suffice.
  • When given 2 pages, take 2 pages! It is no time to pull a 10-liner!
  • If asked to provide 2 letters of references, do so! Do exactly as your told. Provide a complete file!

8 thoughts on “How to ask for a scholarship”

  1. In Quebec (Canada), we don’t have standardized testing like the American schools.

    A whole bunch of undergraduate students look alike. They all took the same courses. They all got As (mostly). They all have gorgeous reference letters where people say that they are in the top 1% of their class.

    I think that is partly the result of self-selection. If you got bad grades, you are less likely to apply for a scholarship to attend a Ph.D. program.

    But they are also all alike in other respect:

    1) I want to do a Ph.D. so I can learn more about X and hopefully become a professor in this field.
    2) My project is … some uninspired variation of the supervisor’s research program….

    I guess they all fail the Turney test: be ambitious. Don’t just decide to do a Ph.D. Have some grand vision… people will forgive you if it is ill-conceived… you are young… be excited… be exciting…

    Oh! And even if you are old… try to be exciting still!

    Disclaimer: not that all research I do is sexy…

  2. This is interesting… your first 5 bullet points as what any “How to write a scholarship” web page (for NSF GRFP) write up would say. I guess if everybody is using the same manual the papers would look pretty boring.

  3. All of your advice seems to follow from common sense. But I’m curious, how much of a role does the elective application material typically play in the process? In other words, to what extent is the probability of getting a scholarship predetermined by objective factors that reflect the applicant’s accomplishments but are now outside the applicant’s control?

  4. Interesting to learn that most undergraduate students got A’s in Canadian Universities. This is totally different from my University days, where only the 5% would likely get an A. For me, I am interested in doing research, though not for qualification. PhD is a bit remote for me due to personal reasons. But I am aiming to achieve it through my collaboration with others in research. See http://suifaijohnmak.wordpress.com on my posts.
    Thanks for your advice

  5. Very good advice, sort of late for me to use but let’s hope (and try) that next generations of PhD applicants read this page.

  6. Thanks for interesting pointers. I am looking forward to apply for MS/Phd program fall sem (2010). I have one question related to this post.

    a)I never got straight A’s

    b)I do not know if I wanted to be a Prof or not.At presnt I am intersted in web science (as whole subject) and would like to focus on solving problems related to web mining.

    c) Ggt no research background.

    I graduated in 2004 with a degree in engineering in CS from a nobody enginering college in India, then I worked for 4.5 years in system software domain. Last week I resigned to focus on my new interest that is ‘web science’. I will not bore you with why I find it interesting, what I want to know is: how will you evalute a guy with straight A’s and some research paper published/pending telling you all boring stuff (wanted to prof or interested in xyz) from a guy like me who gots C’s but very much interested and commited to do something meaningful in his area of interest. I said something as at present I am just exploring and tryting to connect dots.

    What minimal expectation do you have from candidate appying for Phd.

    What suggestions do you have for candidate like me?

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