The Bittersweet Truth of Award Adjudication

One of the hardest things to take as a student and an academic (forget that – for all of us) is the bitter taste of rejection and denial.  It’s hard to hand out rejections too, but receiving them is way harder.  We all know that.  It’s part of the price that is paid for supporting and being part of the neo-liberal market economy where competition and excellence rule the day (you can find my critique of the university of excellence online in New Proposals)

Recently I read a comment about how a student found the process of fellowship award adjudication unfair.  I appreciate that feeling.  It was sincere and heartfelt. Oh, and yes, I do sometimes read what students post online – it’s a public place- I don’t go looking for these things, but it is amazing what one stumbles across on a causal jaunt through the blogosphere.   That said, I think that some of the conclusions and information that the student had been provided with aren’t quite accurate. 

The student’s concern was over what they had been told about the granting process and the likely outcome of this process.  Then, to make matters worse, the explanation for why their file didn’t actually get sent up to the next level of decision making was even more innervating!

You should know that over the course of a couple of decades I have sat on local, national, and international adjudication panels for graduate students and faculty.  I was a member of the doctoral fellowship national adjudication panel in Canada for about 6 years and even chaired the committee one year.  I’ve also reviewed faculty grant applications (as both a member of adjudication committees and a peer reviewer on behalf of granting agencies) for a range of national and international grant awards.

So here’s my gloss on the local process for grant awards . 

The faculty of graduate studies gives each department a quota of how many applications for each award that can be sent forward to the university-level selection committee.  This quota will vary from year to year, but this year (for example) the department in question was only allocated one space for international student applications for affiliated awards and eight spaces for Domestic & Permanent Resident applications to  SSHRC MA fellowships.  Departments have nothing to do with setting the quota.

The selection process involves each member of the departmental committee individually ranking all applicant files.  We are provided with clear criteria (as are students when they fill out the forms) for assessing each file. I personally create a quantitative rubric that includes research proposal, student record (i.e. publications, presentations, employment history, and consider that relative to stage of career), reference letters, and transcripts.  I personally tally up those scores and then rank applicant files accordingly. Other committee members may have different approaches, but we are all expected to follow the criteria set by the granting agency and/or UBC (as the case determines).  Then the rankings from each individual committee member is combined and tallied up to created an overall ranked list of applications.  The outcome thus involves  a combination of factors and no one factor can be singled out as ‘the’ main factor.

[Note, I am very deliberately saying applications, files, etc.  These are rankings of the FILES, not the STUDENTS.  Semantic point?  I don’t think so.  To be fair and honest rankings should look only at the material in the files that we are provided with.  That’s the application, that’s the data we have to work with.]

The SSHRCC MA fellowship applications are considered separately from the MA affiliated award applications and are not compared against each other. The department in question had 20+ applications for the SSHRCC. Our quota to send up to the university level committee was 8. Perhaps 2/3 of those will ultimately be funded. The Affiliated pool was much smaller and only 1 space was allocated to be sent up. Only when there are cases in which the number of applicants equal the quota set by the university would all applicants be sent up.

I also know that no amount of explanation or empathy will make a difference as to how one might feel about the outcome.  Say what one might, rejection is always a bitter pill to swallow.