My application for the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship

In 2021, I won a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. Out of 190 total eligible NSERC applicants, I was ranked 43, with scores of 6.50 in Academic Excellence, 6.25 in Research Potential and 7.00 in Leadership (I don’t really know a lot about what these numbers mean). NSERC gave out of 55 scholarships, so I got one.

In the last five days alone, I have gotten four emails asking for advice about applying, so out of desire to (1) avoid redundancy and (2) not help only those who dare or are encouraged enough to email me, I am posting my answer here. Of course, the standard disclaimer applies: this is just what I did to apply, and from the numbers above you can probably tell there’s people who did much better than me, so take everything I say with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions.

Note: If you are a member of an underrepresented community in your discipline and want to chat about your application further than what’s described in this post, please email me, I am more than happy to talk.

Apart from trivial-yet-boring items like filling out the Canadian Common CV and other forms, as well as your post-secondary transcripts, the Vanier Scholarship application consists of the following:

  • A research statement
  • A “Research contributions” document
  • Two research reference letters
  • A leadership statement
  • Two leadership reference letters

Let’s go one by one:

Research Statement

For this item, I submitted my standard research statement, which I used with minor changes to apply for all kinds of awards and scholarships during the Summer/Fall 2020 application season. If you have successfully applied for research awards before, you know what this is and how to do it (probably better than I do). I divide it in three parts: an (accessible) introduction which sets up a general, exciting vision for my research, a summary of past works that evidences my ability to succeed, and a review of specific project ideas for the future, both concrete and more general. You can find my statement (with some parts redacted because they are ongoing projects) and references here. Please use it for your own reference and don’t share it or post it anywhere else. Also, don’t use it as an example, it was described by people who know more about this than me as “an OK statement” and “it won’t hurt you, but it probably won’t help you either”, so you can probably do much better than this.

Research Contributions

This was a kind of unorthodox document to write, but still straightforward: I listed the research projects I had worked in prior to my application and my role in them. If it helps, you can find mine here. For each project, I also tried to summarize their impact, although this was probably redundant given they are all peer-reviewed, published works.

Research References

The usual advice for research references is to pick people that (1) have seen you do research and (2) are respected in the field, in that order of priority. I strongly recommend one of these is your PhD advisor; otherwise, your advisor not writing a letter for you can be seen as a major red flag.

In my case, I asked both my PhD advisor and an industry researcher who mentored me on a research internship that ended in a published paper. They were both generous enough to accept, and since they submit their letters privately through the ResearchNet server, I don’t have much to add.

A common question is What do I do if I have only ever done research with one person; for example, my PhD advisor? Who can be my second reference? This will heavily depend on your discipline and specific situation but, generally, I would say it is better to pick someone in your field who you haven’t worked with directly but who knows you and your work (say, another professor in your advisor’s department or lab) rather than a senior professor who knows nothing about your research.

Leadership Statement

This was one of the hardest parts of my application, and I had to make it up as I went along since I had no example of a successful leadership statement. The Vanier application site specifically suggests that you mention sports and musical achievements, of which I have absolutely zero, so I had to think outside the box. I decided to focus on my social and political activism as well as my role in LGBT+ struggle, as you can see here. Again, this document contains personal information so I would appreciate it if you just kept it to yourself and not share it around.

Update: The wiriting on the Vanier application website’s section on the Leadership statement has been greatly expanded since I applied. I recommend you read the current writing and try to see if any of your circumstances fall into the described categories.

Leadership references

I really, really struggled with this item. My personal opinion is that this item is yet another institutional barrier that discriminates against students that come from countries outside North America whose languages are different from English and French and do not have the tradition of writing reference letters. It honestly feels incredible that they keep this as an application item. But oh well, what are we going to do, we don’t make the rules.

I arrived in the English/French speaking world in late 2019, so despite having done activism and volunteering in my life, I don’t have anyone in a leadership role in my life who can write a good letter in any of these languages attesting to my life and research trajectory. I also haven’t done any music training or sports either. So I had no idea who to ask for a leadership letter, let alone two. To make it even more awkward, you must submit the letters, not the recommenders themselves, so it will be hard to convince people from the academic world to write one for you since they are used to submitting confidential letters.

I started by asking an amazing professor who visited our lab for a sabbatical year, whom I had never done research with but with whom I had built a nice professional relationship during her year here. She was nice enough to write a really generous letter about me, emphasizing my work to keep morale up within our lab and to offer to help people whenever they need help with anything, as well as to include people in our lab’s social events. I am obviously not going to share her letter here publicly.

I spent weeks without a second leadership letter. I asked a labmate of mine, who I thought maybe could attest to the same items the previous recommender had, but he (probably correctly) politely recommended I ask someone else. Then, I rememberd a friend of mine from my undergrad was now studying in the UK, and I asked him to write me a letter as a personal favour. He emphasized my activism during our college years as well as my struggles as a trans person enduring institutional discrimination during those years. Again, I am not going to share his letter publicly.

I really thought this item would be the one I would lose the scholarship over. My only senior, leadership-position recommender was academic, which went slightly against the stated spirit of the letters, and she had only known me for under a year. My other letter was from a first-year Master’s student who had been my peer and also from an academic background, and all he did was reaffirm what I had already brought up in my own leadership statement. However, I got my highest score in the Leadership item, so I must have done something right inadvertently.

Closing thoughts

Anyway, I hope this was useful! If you find any mistake or think I should add anything to this guide here, or if you’re a member of an underrepresented community in your discipline and want to chat about your application, email me.