Before beginning, visit SSHRC's website and find out the eligibility basics, such as does your research fall under the domain of SSHRC (social science and humanities), NSERC (science and engineering), or CIHR (health). Unofficially, I heard that NSERC and CIHR grants are easier to get than SSHRC grants (but I'm not sure if there are less applicants or more money to give out) so if your research can apply within their mandate you may want to consider applying there.
SSHRC publishes some application tips, which are good, but general. The first and most important tip I have is don't consider any instructions or tips from SSHRC as optional; they are commandments. Don't deviate from their instructions - no matter what. If you think you have a compelling exception, change it so it follows SSHRC rules.
SSHRC also states, rather vaguely, how they evaluate applicants:
They don't give specifics or offer a weighting for doctoral applicants. They do offer the weighting for masters students. Academic excellence is weighted at 60%, research potential is 30%, and communication skills is 10%.
- past academic results, as demonstrated by transcripts, awards and distinctions;
- the program of study and its potential contribution to the advancement of knowledge;
- relevant professional and academic experience, including research training, as demonstrated by conference presentations and scholarly publications;
- two written evaluations from referees; and
- the departmental appraisal (for those registered at Canadian universities).
I've heard speculation from various sources that there is a SSHRC bias for certain regions, universities, faculties, etc. SSHRC releases their applicant data and I went over it. There does appear to be carefully balancing to ensure that the awards to match Canada's regional population distribution and by university. There does not appear to be a significant bias by the year of doctoral study, as I had heard. Considerably less people apply in year four of doctoral students, yet the award rate is still roughly the same as other years - so one's odds are definitely better in this year.
Below are my tips for grades, application form, publication record, program of study, and references.
Your department and university
A lot of applicants don't adequately consider that it isn't just the feds approving your application, as your department and university (in most cases) must approve and forward your application first (most major Canadian universities have a quota of how many applications they are allowed to submit) . Many applications die at one's department level. So make sure you address this internal audience too. Make sure your program of study fits into your department and program. It doesn't hurt to mention the strengths of the department and university either and include a name or two of key faculty. This is not just buttering up, as it should be a sincere statement as this is what drew you to the program in the first place.
Everyone agrees that grades are a prime importance. If your grades suck, then there is no use applying. For doctoral students, anything lower than an A- average in your master's degree would probably be too low. For masters, I'm not sure but it is likely at least a B or B+ during one's bachelor's degree. I don't know how far back they look though - my first couple years of my bachelor's degree I didn't do that well, but managed to pull my grades up for the final couple years (even then they weren't that great - it was only once I became an old student that I really started to care about my grades). There's not much you can do to improve your grades - but I included my transcripts from two college certificate programs I did. I got great grades in that - so perhaps that outweighed my bachelor's.
My suspicion is that since all candidates that get forwarded by their university will represent the best and brightest, I am not convinced that one's grades and academic awards alone are that influential. It opens the door, but your program of study, publication record, and letters of reference are what closes the deal.
The application itself is rather onerous. The application is filled out online - you can save and edit it right up to submission. The application asks general, expected questions and questions about your research and background.
My thought was I don't like to leave sections blank or almost blank. I don't advocate square pegging anything into inappropriate holes, but think outside the box. For example, I included professional awards in the awards section and a volunteer position in my work experience.
I heard a great tip about the keywords that the form asks. First of all, don't leave these blank and be sure to choose these wisely. SSHRC publishes an online database of prior funded research. Use their search engine to find work similar to yours and identify the keywords they used and then, as appropriate, consider those.
They ask for your publications twice - in the application form and as an attachment. I think that doctoral applicants really need to have at least one peer-reviewed article. I also included my writings from non-academic sources. I'm not so sure that self-published sources (e.g. your own blog) is necessarily great - but if you blog is picked up by another source or syndicated (as mine is) then that would help. The publications should ideally be relevant to one's program of study or at least academically related. Still, I think some publications regardless of the topic are better than nothing.
Program of study
I think this is often underestimated by applicants. I think applicants need a kickass, flawless, unique proposal to stand out from the crowd. Also be clear on what you plan to do, how exactly, and why.
Obvious rules for any proper academic work apply. Avoid jargon or concepts only understandable by one's own field as the reviewers are from a broad range of departments. Be sure to define key terms. Consider the visual appeal of the application by judicious use of whitespace, headings, and bolding.
I frequently hear that "telling a story" is vital with grant proposals. I think it is true as reviewers do have a stack of papers to go through so a lively, concrete, compelling narrative can convince the reviewer of the interest and importance of your work. Have a clearly articulated research question and everything should center and flow from this. The last paragraph should end the work on a strong note, reestablishing the "so what" of the work.
Include how you (your interests, academic and professional background) fit into this story. Demonstrate how your professional and academic path has lead you to this point you are in as linear a form as possible. It's not a c.v. so you don't need to mention every career detail - I highlighted the parts of my history that were relevant and disregarded those that weren't. It's not an autobiography, either, so only share your life history that is relevant. It's rather boring to begin or end your paper with a paragraph about yourself unless your experience is vital to the proposed research.
You should also demonstrate that you have experience and ability to execute your study, so explain relevant coursework, access issues, necessary skills and how you have or will attain them. SSHRC also insists that the "scholarship is tenable only in degree programs that include significant research training" so briefly mention how your program provides this training.Don't include a course list with all your professors names and course numbers - remember all content has to be meaningful to external reviewers.
I believe that it is helpful if your topic has contemporary social value and is not just esoteric academic navel gazing. SSHRC has a mandate to promote research that is "connecting with society" so check out their information on this aspect. However, don't go too far and get the Miss America syndrome, in which researchers naively promise that their research will save the world. It's not a dream study either, so ground it in some reality of what one can feasibly accomplish.
Your method section should have the specific steps of your plan, but you don't need to go overboard and specify minute details such as your transcription strategy. In general, you should touch upon your approach to sampling, recruitment and/or access, data gathering, data analysis, and presentation of results and dissemination. Show you know your method. For example, don't say you plan to do interviews, for example, but rather specify structured, unstructured, semi-structured. A citation or two to show why your methodology is appropriate is definitely helpful. I prepared a research proposal checklist. It goes into more details than may be necessary for a SSHRC application, but it is useful to look over to make sure you haven't missed any major areas.
If you plan to study humans (or animals), be sure to briefly mention your ethical review process. If you're using deception or planning any research that will harm or will greatly upset participants, you'd probably should reconsider. This kind of research is sensitive and needs to be handled carefully. If you really need to do this, then you should probably have at least 2-4 sentences on what this is the only possible approach and how you are going to mitigate harm.
Demonstrate your knowledge of your subject area. At a master's level this should include at least a couple citations to canonical sources and probably at least a couple to more recent (within the last 2-3 years) research published in journals. Identify your camp and pitch your tent - that is figure out what discipline you are in and show how you fit into this area. If you are deliberately trying to shake things up (and a SSHRC graduate grant application is probably not the place to do this) then mention that you are aware of your unorthodox approach and state why it's a good idea and how you will make it work.
Make sure you have ample, but not wanton citations. Initially, I only included works I referenced, but I believe there may be a limit of up to 5 pages of bibliography. Someone advised me to show my knowledge of the relevant literature in this space, so I did. I still only used 2.5 pages as I really doubt any reviewer will ever read 5 pages of bibliography. I believe it is better to have 2-3 pages of great references than 5 (or more) pages of filler - at that point it seems like shameless padding.
As with any time you need a reference, make sure they will give you a great one. After that, choose your references wisely - not just who likes you and who you like, but also consider your referee's position and credentials. For example, I was told that letters from adjunct faculty (ie. non-tenure track) don't count very highly. Can one infer that a letter from a dean would then be more impressive?
I was told that at least one reference should come from the university that you'll be studying at and one reference should be your current advisor. It makes sense that you should get an internal reference as in most cases applications must be vetted by one's department, so if you don't have someone there officially vouching for you it certainly doesn't help.
I heard a good tip to help get referee's to return their letters quickly is to open a courier account and provide your reviewer with the account details, so they can easily express return it without having to worry about the cost.
Your references should definitely be familiar with your program of study - ideally even incorporating it into their reference letter. So be sure to give them a copy of your program of study and your c.v. - even if they don't ask for it.
The reviewers have huge stacks of applications to review, so they are looking for ways to weed out so be very careful in following all the rules. Have someone proof every word in your entire application. Actually, have two or three people proof it.
The best thing that helped me get the grant was listen to the advice of professors, university staff, and colleagues. Most universities, I suspect, hold seminars on how to apply for grants - don't miss them. Just the process of following all the steps is daunting, so it's best to get help. It also helps to get to know the contact person at one's university (e.g. an awards officer, registrar, etc.) as they are an invaluable source of information on the process. Another source of help and comfort in numbers is GradCafe.com. It has a forum thread where grad students get advice, fret, and lament with fellow stressed-out applicants.
It is painful to even apply for these things, but it does represent a decent amount of money and prestige so it is worth the effort.
In the end, the odds of winning a SSHRC are not great. Only a handful of candidates get selected by a given university to be forwarded to SSHRC and of those less than half this year got an award. One can do all the "right" things, have a great academic record and still not get it. So it does almost seem like winning a lottery.
If you do not get it, it is definitely worthwhile to apply again, particularly if you improved your grades, added peer-reviewed publications, or wrote a better program of study.