Schulich school of Medicine and Dentistry logo Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry

High-profile scholarships and increased funding

Doug Jones, PhD

At Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, we are pleased to celebrate awards from a variety of internal and external sources given to staff, trainees and faculty. Such recognition justifiably demonstrates the value we place on the high quality of all who work here.

Some of these awards also include a financial component, and for trainees these can be very beneficial, both for their personal support and as recognition as they progress in their career.

The financial component to these awards and news that there will be increases to some externally funded awards has been a topic of conversation amongst many faculty members. Each one of us has an opinion on the changes and their impact. Some of us are in agreement, while others have dramatically different viewpoints.

I’d like to share with you my personal opinion on this subject.

I believe there is a perception issue. Some of these awards are too high and are creating a “have” and “have not” community, particularly if they have a very high cash value.

The School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (SGPS) has recently notified us of a new policy effective September 2016. The Tri-Agency Doctoral Awards will be topped up with a further $10,000 through a matching program where SGPS will provide $5,000 and the Department will provide a further $5,000.

Some individual faculty members may add some top up to that as well. Awards such as the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program have a cash scholarship value of $50,000 per year for up to three years. With Western University’s top-up to $60,000+ per year, this approaches the base salary for a starting professor at the University. Similarly, a Trillium Award is valued at $40,000 per year for up to four years, plus top-up.

I question whether these high awards are justified when some graduate students are surviving on a modest stipend and Teaching Assistant (TA) role valued at approximately $20,000 per year.

Certainly, we can for the most part agree that recognition of excellence is laudable. Within our research programs we all strive for excellence and are pleased when we are recognized for the efforts we put into achieving our goals.

There also is an advantage to a trainee receiving external scholarship funding, as this provides relief for the grant support which was being used to support the student and frees up funds which can now be used for the research endeavour itself.

For the student who receives these awards, it is a welcomed recognition of the quality of their work, and it certainly makes paying the bills easier. I wonder, however, if they would be significantly disadvantaged if these awards were valued at $10,000 or even $15,000 lower? If this happened, funds would be freed up and the amount could be used to support even more students.

If this was the case, I personally would fully agree with reducing the amount and spreading the Tri-Agency support more widely. We certainly do have many highly qualified students in our program who are very deserving of external support.

I feel that the decision was made by the Granting Councils for another reason – to have a highly visible “Reward for Excellence” for a select cadre of trainees that could be “sold” to the political parties who seem to have difficulty recognizing the value of higher education.

My concern is that simply reducing the dollar value would not be used to provide more funds for a larger proportion of the student population.

One has to only look at the current funding of research grants to see that higher value is available, but the number of grants (per cent funded) has substantially decreased over the past decade. There is no move by these Granting Councils to offer a wider distribution of the funds through lower amounts overall. They do cut the grants just to make the lower cut offs that have become what is considered normal in Canada.

This is referred to as funding “the cream of the cream”, and there is no indication of that trend changing based on anything that the Councils or their respective Presidents have said publicly. Time will tell if those who receive these higher value awards outperform those who receive the normal stipends or live primarily on TA and grant funding.

So, given the alternative, it is good for those few who can qualify for these awards. Congratulations are certainly due to them for being recognized for the excellence in their chosen field by receiving the named award itself. I truly hope the award helps them in succeeding in their future endeavours. As I see it, that is the main purpose of giving out such named awards.

My perspective.

Doug L. Jones, PhD
Vice Dean, Basic Medical Sciences