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How can you apply for science funding to pursue summer research?

Exploring NSERC's undergraduate student research award
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Prior research experience is not needed to receive an USRA. DINA DONG/THE VARSITY
Prior research experience is not needed to receive an USRA. DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Finding summer employment can be an overwhelming and stressful process — especially when searching for work related to your field of study.

One option that might not be on your radar is the opportunity to conduct research. Or, maybe you’re interested in research but don’t know where to start. Either way, applying for summer research as an undergraduate student is an excellent way to work in your field of study, contribute to a cause, and expand your network.

If this is you, there are resources available. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) offers support for undergraduate students looking to pursue summer research in fields related to natural science and engineering. Many university departments across Canada offer Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA) through NSERC, including U of T’s departments of forestry, chemistry, and physiology.

For NSERC, the Canadian government’s largest body of funding for science research, supporting undergraduate students is especially important: “Undergraduate students represent the base,” said the Director of Scholarships and Fellowships, Serge Villemure. “The USRA program is a mechanism to stimulate and increase [students’] interest in research and possibly give them the motivation or a taste of possibly doing graduate studies in science or engineering.”

Furthermore, the NSERC-USRA program is not only for students who are planning to pursue graduate studies — or even for students who already love research.

“We hope that the program can help those who may not be sure that they like research, or who may not know exactly what it entails, then the funding for undergraduate research allows them to get a taste of what research is,” said Villemure.

Even if students don’t end up working in research beyond the summer term, the NSERC USRA program will still have given them the opportunity to develop a set of transferable skills which will benefit them in any work environment. 

Applying, qualifications, and deadlines 

The NSERC USRA program covers a 16-week period, and eligible applicants must be Canadian citizens or permanent residents, as well as full-time students at the time of application. One award is $4,500, and each department is required to ‘top up’ this amount by a minimum of 25 per cent. Students are still eligible to supplement this amount with additional funding from their professors or from other scholarships. The Ontario Student Opportunities Trust Fund (OSOTF) is one such scholarship that can provide additional funds. 

Students apply through the department that they would like to conduct research in. General requirements can be found on NSERC’s website, but each application is department-specific. Most applications at U of T departments are due at the end of January or early March.

An NSERC USRA applicant is usually expected to have a B or B+ average. However, NSERC is committed to making STEM more equitable and accessible, and does not dismiss the connection between high marks and privilege. Not every student has the same opportunity to get higher marks, and they recognize this. “We do allow exceptions, and we do allow universities to make the case to possibly accept other students,” said Villemure. “Students who have the potential are not left aside or left behind with respect to the program.” 

Prior research experience is not needed to receive an USRA. To strengthen your application, it is highly recommended that you talk to teaching assistants (TAs) and professors. Try going to office hours or arranging a time to meet with them, and, if you can, read up on their research beforehand — a professor’s website is a great place to start.

If any of this sounds intimidating, that’s okay. Navigating STEM research environments can be overwhelming. “Look for the network of people, other students, other TAs and professors, you can identify with,” suggested Michael Dywer, a communications advisor for NSERC.

Having a conversation with a researcher will give you a better sense of what a summer project or research position could entail, and, when you go to write your statement of interest, TAs and professors will be great resources to help you identify your interests, or even find a place to start.

“The USRAs are not only useful to the students but to the [professors],” said Villemure. “Undergraduate students do make a contribution to their research that is highly valued.”