I love going to scientific conferences. They provide me with great opportunities to learn about exciting new research, expand my professional network, and catch up with colleagues and old friends. Over the last few months (and at this point in previous years) I’ve spent some time evaluating student applications for a couple of different conference travel awards. Many academic societies offer such awards, providing grants to support and encourage undergraduate and / or postgraduate students to attend their annual conferences. This year I had more applications to read than usual, and found myself noting some of the same points (both good and bad) many times. So, while this is all fresh in my mind, here are my top five tips for writing a good travel award application*.
1. Provide all the information you’re asked for, and in the format requested
This might sound obvious, but some people don’t, and if we’re struggling to make decisions it is easy to justify excluding an incomplete application. If we ask for a cover letter, your CV, and a reference letter from your lecturer or supervisor, make sure we get all of those things. If we ask for a single PDF, don’t send two Word documents and an Excel spreadsheet.
2. First impressions count
Perhaps I’m being a bit old-fashioned, but a concise and well-written cover letter is not going to harm your application and may even help. You’re applying for a professional award from a professional organisation. If possible, find out the name of the contact person for the award and address your cover letter to that person. If you start your letter with “Dear Professor Smith” or “Dear Selection Committee” you will make a much better first impression than the student whose letter starts with “Hi!”. Likewise, if the application letter needs to be detailed, and I need to read 30+ letters, good use of punctuation and well-structured paragraphs will make my life a lot easier (and make me a lot happier) than a two page stream of consciousness.
3. Tell us why you deserve an award
All of the conference awards I have evaluated have ranked candidates based on both excellence and enthusiasm. This latter point is especially true for undergraduate travel awards, where applicants may not have had much opportunity to gain research experience or demonstrate their excellence in ways other than exams. So make sure that you use your cover letter as an opportunity to sell yourself to the committee, to emphasise your excellence and your enthusiasm. Don’t just hide the key points in your CV and assume we’ll notice them. Did you come top of your year in your biochemistry / ecology / genetics / whatever-the-conference-topic-is classes? Tell us. Were you selected for a summer internship in your lecturer’s research lab? Tell us. Can you demonstrate your enthusiasm through your involvement in the student science society? Tell us. Have you already published papers from your thesis or made an important discovery? Tell us. Did you receive a University award? You get the point!
4. Show you’ve done your homework
We’re funding you to come to our conference. Naturally we think our conference is wonderful, but we would like to know why you’re interested in coming. Hopefully it isn’t just for a week’s holiday at a resort / mountain / beach location! If you can, take some time to read through the society / conference website. Most conferences will publish details of symposia and plenary speakers well in advance, even if the final program isn’t confirmed until almost the last minute. Is there a symposium that really excites you? Tell us about your interest in that field of research. Maybe one of the invited speakers is a famous international scientist whose papers you’ve read during your course / cited in your thesis. You don’t have to go into a lot of detail, but this is a great way to signal that you have a real interest and enthusiasm in the area. Some of the applications that most impressed me this year came from students who identified specific speakers whose work inspired them, or specific symposia that motivated their interest in attending.
5. Tell us how this award will help you
Most societies are keen to help their members develop their careers, and student awards are one way that a society can invest in the future of its members. We’re also keen to encourage promising students to develop their careers in our field. So tell us how a travel award will contribute to your career development. Perhaps attending our conference will help you to decide whether a career in science is really for you, or to define which research topic you’re most interested in pursuing for your PhD, or allow you to meet with potential postdoc advisors. Of course we understand that not all students will have a full career plan worked out just yet, but we’re keen to know what you think you will get out of the conference experience.
I hope this post will help you or your students in the next round of travel award applications. There are always many more applicants than we can possibly fund, but of course if you don’t apply you definitely won’t get funded – so good luck!
* Caveat: my experience is in biology, I’d be interested to learn if things work differently in other areas of science.