The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funding competitions for graduate students and post-doctoral students have become increasingly competitive, leading to discussion about the anxieties of young researchers and strategies for success. Using information from SSHRC’s online competition statistics, I took a closer look at how the funding rates for graduate students applying to the SSHRC Doctoral Awards program have changed over the past decade.
As one of Canada’s three main granting councils – along with the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) – SSHRC’s annual budget is determined by Parliament. In some years, the Canadian government indicates that a certain area of interest will receive priority, allocating additional funds to these areas (for instance, the 2012 and 2013 Budgets each allocated $7 million to Industry Academic Partnerships). According to a report by the CAUT Education Review in October 2013, when adjusted for inflation, SSHRC’s budget fell by more than 10 percent in real dollars since 2007-08. Both NSERC and the CIHR have also experienced a decline in their budgets. The budgetary decline has, unsurprisingly, meant that the success rates for SSHRC doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships have fallen from their peak levels. The success rates have also been influenced by trends in higher education and the global economy.
Part A: Graduate Awards
Before I go any further, here’s a brief run-down of how the funding process for doctoral students applying to SSHRC operates. (Students interested in applying for SSHRC funding can find specific guidelines on the council’s website and Canadian universities run funding workshops. A number of bloggers have also weighed in, giving out advice on where to start with an application and tips for what they think make for successful applications). SSHRC distributes two types of awards for doctoral students, the Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS Doctoral Scholarships, which are held for 36 months and have a value of $35,000 per year, and the SSHRC Doctoral Awards, which are held for 12, 24, 36, or 48 months (depending on the applicant’s year of study) and have a value of $20,000 per year. Interested graduate students submit a single application for both competitions. The majority of Canadian universities have a quota of awards, so applicants are first ranked internally before those selected move into the national competition. For this blog post, I looked at the SSHRC Doctoral Awards, using statistics publicly available on SSHRC’s website.
Figure 1: Number of SSHRC Doctoral Awards in History Compared to All SSHRC Doctoral Awards
SSHRC funding levels for the Doctoral Awards in all disciplines suffered following the global financial crisis in 2008-09. The high point of funding between the 2003-04 and 2014-15 funding years for Doctoral Awards was 2008-09 when 675 awards were granted. In the following funding cycle, the number of awards dropped to 557 before falling again in 2010-11 to a low point of 500 awards.
After a low point in 2010-11 the number of total SSHRC Doctoral Awards given in all disciplines (represented in blue in the above graph) has demonstrated an upward swing, bringing the number of awards back in line with those of the mid-2000’s. Despite this encouraging trend, SSHRC distributed 95 fewer Doctoral Awards in 2014-15 than at the peak of funding in 2008-09.
In the discipline of History, at the peak of funding (2008-09), SSHRC rewarded 70 successful applicants. In 2011-12, this number fell to a low of 43 awards and has remained relatively static for the following three annual funding cycles (with 45, 44, and 44 awards respectively). Applicants in History have not experienced an uptick in the number of awards in the past few funding cycles, but this is likely because of a decrease in the number of applicants in the discipline, as represented in the graph below.
Figure 2: Percentage of History Applicants Compared to the Percentage of History Award Winners in the SSHRC Doctoral Award Competition
The percentage of SSHRC Doctoral Award applicants from the discipline of History (represented in blue) has been slowly and steadily declining since the height of applications in 2008-09. This is likely a result of the shrinking size of graduate programs in the humanities due to the global financial crisis and a belief in the need to ‘right size’ programs given reduced academic job opportunities for graduates, as well as the movement of students towards degree programs perceived as leading to more practical job opportunities.
Figure 3: Percentage Success Rate for SSHRC Doctoral Awards in History Compared to the Success Rate for All SSHRC Doctoral Awards
Applicants from History can take heart that their success rate has generally followed the overall trend for all disciplines. There is more encouraging news, as the success rate for all disciplines, History included, is slowly rising following the low-point of 10% for all disciplines in 2010-11 and 10.2% for History in 2011-12.
Part B: Post-Doctoral Fellowships
Funding for SSHRC post-doctoral fellows also bore witness to SSHRC’s declining budget. In 2013, SSHRC introduced changes to its post-doctoral fellow program, announcing that post-doctoral fellow awards would increase from $38,000 per year to $40,500 per year for up to two years, but that a separate research fund provision would be eliminated. SSHRC also announced that applicants to the post-doctoral fellowship competition would now be only eligible for two years after graduation, instead of the previous three. (In 2012, NSERC announced that its post-doctoral applicants could only apply once).
Ian Milligan, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Waterloo, has discussed the declining rates of postdoctoral funding in his thought-provoking blog posts, “SSHRC Postdocs: What’s going on?” (2012) and “It’s Getting Harder to Commit History: SSHRC Postdocs, 1995-2013” (2013), which chart and reflect upon the declining success rate for postdoctoral applicants. Milligan wrote: “There’s a war on junior scholars in Canada. That’s being a bit provocative, I know, and the federal government doesn’t deserve all the blame. We have seen declines in total postdoctoral fellowships awarded in several years as seen above, which we can attribute to funding issues. Universities and provincial governments also deserve some blame, as they’ve flooded the market. But whatever the root causes, we’re seeing a major issue of human capital in the data above.”
The number of post-doctoral applicants in the competition from all disciplines has grown significantly over the past decade (from a low of 484 applications in 2003 to a high of 986 in 2012). The new eligibility restrictions may have reduced the number of applications to the competition as a whole, as the number of applications dropped from 903 in 2013 to 842 in 2014.
In the discipline of History, the lowest number of applications came in 2004 (66 applicants) and the highest in 2011 (131 applicants). Applicants in the discipline of History also demonstrated a drop in numbers from 2013 (120 applicants) to 2014 (106 applicants).
The number of awards has not kept pace with the increase in the number of applications over the past decade, leading to a reduced success rate for post-doctoral applicants.
Figure 3: Success Rate for SSHRC Post-Doctoral Applicants in History
The success rate for post-doctoral applicants in History has generally followed the pattern for the rate of all applicants. Over the past decade, the peak for historians came in the 2004, when the success rate was 34.8%. The lowest point came in 2012, when the success rate fell to 14.9%. In 2014, the success rate was 17.9%, with 19 successful applications.
The financial crisis, budgetary constraints, and changing educational trends substantially lowered the success rate for SSHRC Doctoral Awards in the discipline of History in the years immediately following the 2008-09 funding cycle. However, the success rates are now showing a trend towards recovery. Another notable trend is that the percentage of applicants to SSHRC’s Doctoral Awards competition from the discipline of History has demonstrated a decline from peak levels as graduate programs in Canada limited enrollment and students gravitated towards other disciplines of study.
The post-doctoral fellowship program, unlike the Doctoral Awards competition, has not experienced a significant decline in the percentage of applicants represented by the discipline of History in the competition. The number of applicants to the post-doctoral competition in all disciplines has grown substantially over the past decade, as has the number of applicants from the discipline of History. SSHRC’s decision to reduce the eligibility of applicants from three years to two seems to have limited the number of applications in 2014, although it will be necessary to examine additional funding cycles to determine if this is a lasting trend.
My next post will take a look at some of the specific trends related to Canadian federal funding for the history of health over the past decade.