Bad decisions about scholarships.

The current administration is making a big deal out of its investment in graduate scholarships. Complaints have already been raised about the ridiculously high scholarships that they have instituted for a small number of awardees ($50K, or about twice the operating grant for many new labs) and the requirement for SSHRC to focus on business-related programs.

The other significant change that I don’t know has been discussed widely is the cut to the MSc graduate scholarship duration by NSERC. It used to be that both the MSc and PhD scholarships were for 2 years (and you could get both, for 4 years of funding overall). No one does a PhD in science in 2 years, so it is good that this has finally been extended to 3 years. However, the MSc scholarship has now been cut to 1 year.

Anyone who does a PhD in Canada either completes an MSc first or transfers from the MSc to the PhD directly. Many students complete the MSc and move on to non-academic careers, so there are far more MSc students than PhD students. In other words, whether they will finish with an MSc or go on to a PhD, all recruitment decisions of graduate students involve admission to an MSc program at some point.

Scholarships are an important supplement to operating grants which, as everyone now knows, are small in Canada and mostly are used to fund students and their research (if you have $30K, $25K may be spent on salaries for 2 MSc students, for example). If a student can obtain a scholarship, he or she is essentially “free” to an advisor because the stipend is then paid. This makes it much more likely that a student will get into a lab of his or her choice, and it also increases the number of students who can be trained. However, if the funding is only available for 1 year, then an advisor has to decide whether he or she can afford the second year.

Cutting the MSc scholarship to 1 year will, I predict, significantly reduce the positive impact that the program has at the MSc level. It may also indirectly affect the PhD level by causing advisors to suggest that students transfer to the PhD even if they are not really qualified.

There is another effect that will surely arise. In addition to the NSERC scholarship program, students in Ontario can seek funding from the Ontario Graduate Scholarships (OGS) program. Most students apply to both. Generally speaking, if a student receives an NSERC they also get an OGS, as the latter is slightly less competitive. However, a student can only accept one, which means that NSERC and OGS fund different students and therefore increase the total number with support. Now that NSERC is 1 year, scholarship holders will no doubt be applying for OGS for the second year. This means that the pool of applicants will soon include former NSERC winners along with new applicants for OGS. Unless OGS greatly increases the number of awards, this means fewer scholarship students and thus fewer graduate students trained.

One thought on “Bad decisions about scholarships.

  1. Great analysis. Thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention – important considerations that can get overlooked over more-straightforward dollars-and-cents issues. Hope you won’t mind me picking this up on my site.

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