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Building a Successful MSc Application Package

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

Written by: Sebastian Srugo


Applying to postgraduate programs can be a painstaking and anxiety-inducing process. First, you need to make the decision to go back to university after years of schooling. Second, you need to compile a list of programs that are the right fit for you. Then comes the most dreaded part: the application process. We’ve been through it ourselves. We know what you’re going through — and we’re here to help. Here is a list of tips and considerations to make the application process a bit easier for you than it was for us.


Have any questions that we didn’t answer? Send us an email!


Disclaimer: This guide is based on our personal experiences and opinions as successful applicants to SEPH programs. What we consider to be important may not be the same as the admissions committee. Please refer to the specific application guidelines for each program and contact the Faculty of Medicine Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Office (aka. Grad Med) for more specific enquiries. 

 

First of all, when is the application deadline?

Make sure to send in all supporting documents for your application before the deadline. Deadlines can be found here.


Do I need to find a supervisor before applying?

The short answer is no. The Grad Med website says that “If you’re applying for the MSc in epidemiology, you do not have to find a supervisor to be accepted”. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t! In actuality, applying with a supervisor will probably increase your likelihood of getting accepted, and here’s why:

  1. It shows that you’re organized and keen. Contacting potential supervisors months ahead of the application deadline, deciding on one supervisor, and writing your application with them is difficult and takes planning—and the committee will see and appreciate that passion.

  2. It shows that you’re a strong candidate. Contacting potential supervisors is one thing, but getting them to conditionally agree to take you on if you get into the program is another. That conditional agreement is worth gold; it says that you are strong enough as a candidate to gain their approval.

  3. It shows that you’ve thought about your future career path. Choosing a supervisor is as important as being accepted by a supervisor. It means that you have a general idea of what type of research you want to do and what you want to do with your career. This clarity is important, and shows the committee that you’ve thought about your path through the program and beyond.


How should I contact potential supervisors then? 

First, make a list of supervisors who do research you’re interested in. It doesn’t have to be a field that you have experience in, but it does strengthen your application if you can show consistency. Remember that the professor must have supervisory privileges or you may need a co-supervisor. The full inventory of faculty with supervisory privileges is here, though not all these supervisors may be looking for students. SEPH also maintains a current inventory of supervisors available to take on students, which you can find on our resources page.


Once you have that list, rank the supervisors and select the top 3—these are the ones you should contact first and all at once. The rest are back-ups in case the professors aren’t taking students, are on sabbatical, or don’t respond.


Now here’s the hard part: you need to write unique emails to all of them. Cookie-cutter emails will probably be ignored. You want to make a good impression, so put in the time and effort to do so! The email should not be too long or too short; three short paragraphs of 3-4 sentences is ideal. The email should be unique to you and your style, but here are some points that you may want to include: introduce yourself and your background and explain why you’re emailing them; explain why you’re interested in their work specifically; talk about some of your key successes and experiences in academia that show that you’re a good candidate; and finally, ask if they would be available for a meeting to discuss opportunities for potential graduate students. Be sure to include both your Curriculum Vitae and undergraduate transcripts. Science Magazine has a guide to writing emails to potential supervisors here.


Here’s a tip: Most professors are least busy in the early morning and their inboxes swell up as the day goes by. Emailing them in the morning may increase the likelihood that they read your email and respond quickly. You also get bonus points for looking like an organized early riser!


I have a meeting with a potential supervisor. Now what?

Congratulations for making it to this point! If a supervisor accepts to take some time out of their busy schedule to meet with you, it means they see potential in you and think you’re a good candidate. This means this meeting isn’t really them interviewing you (although, be prepared to have questions asked to you)—it’s more you interviewing them! As such, go in with questions to determine if they and their research are a good fit for you. And be prepared with qualities you are looking for in a supervisor. You might want to ask about:

  1. Frequency of one-on-one and group meetings

  2. Number of students they are currently mentoring

  3. Career paths of previous students after finishing their degrees

  4. Number of publications they expect for an MSc student

  5. Current research projects and interests 

  6. Specific projects they would think to add a student to

  7. Funding packages available (refer to our blog post on funding options)

  8. Ask for emails of current students to get their point of view


Grad Med has a great guide on finding your supervisor here.


Now I need to prepare my application documents. But, what should I write in a Letter of Intent?

The Letter of Intent (LOI) is your chance to show who you are, list your goals, and explain any discrepancies in your transcript or CV. The key here is to tell a story! Even if there’s no clear path from your previous experiences to your application, try to find one. Detail your past experiences, the research area you want to study and with whom if you know (bonus points for outlining a specific research project with your supervisor), and the scholarships you’ll be applying for, if applicable. That being said, the most important — and most difficult — question for you to answer is why. Why uOttawa? Why epidemiology? Why that research area? Give concrete examples and explanations that make the committee members think you’ve thought this through and are passionate. Be genuine and that will show through your LOI. 


Here’s a tip: many universities have career services available for students and alumni, but few people know about or use them. Before sending off your application, set up an appointment with your undergraduate university’s career department and have it reviewed, for free! 


Grad Med has a new suggested template for the LOI, which you can find here.


What is a CV?

A Curriculum Vitae is basically a long resume. Whereas a resume is usually limited to 1-2 pages, a CV covers your whole academic career, from undergraduate studies forward, and has no page limit. Your CV should include: contact information, education, research experience, extracurricular/volunteer experience, honours and awards, publications, and presentations. Unlike in other countries and cultures, Canadian CVs should not include a photograph of yourself or personal information besides contact information.


The internet is full of CV templates and guides. Canadian universities have also created helpful guides for graduate students, such as those by McGill University and the University of Toronto.


Who should write my letter of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation are vital to a successful application. Try to get previous professors to write them, ideally your undergraduate thesis supervisor or a professor who knows you both personally and academically. You want to set yourself up for success, so only ask professors to write you a letter if you’ve left a good impression with them. A previous employer is also a good choice to write a letter for you, but the job should be relevant to the program (e.g. in academia, research, or public health). A good letter will take them some time to draft and finalize, so make sure to ask them a few weeks early. If they accept, send them your other application documents so they can write the best letter for you, and send them a friendly reminder a week before the deadline. 


Do I need to submit proof of language proficiency?

If your first language isn’t English or French, you will need to provide your test scores from one of the certified language tests. More information can be found here.


Which part of the application package matters most? Does GPA matter?

Unfortunately, we can’t say. Every student is unique and will submit a unique application, so it’s hard to know which part of the application is most important. What we can say is that this program is very competitive and receives many more applications than spots available. Treat each part as equally important and you will do well. And remember, being rejected doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough; many students in the program had to apply multiple times before being accepted and continuing successful careers in epidemiology and public health.


What funding packages are available?

We have a whole blog on funding your program. Briefly, the main funding options for the MSc Epi are: part-time jobs (research assistantships, teaching assistantships), scholarships, and bursaries/loans. We would highly recommend planning to apply for external scholarships in the year you submit your application package, especially the CIHR Canadian Graduate Scholarship (federal, $17500) and Ontario Graduate Scholarship (provincial, $15000), which are usually due in December for funding the following May or September. More information about those (and other) scholarships can be found here and here. We also have a blog post on some applicable internal scholarships.


Note that funding options may differ for international students.

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