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Winter 2011

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Grant and Fellowship Funding
Lucy Mullin, DOE Graduate Fellow

Funding Tips for Graduate Students

Lucy Mullin

As a graduate student, you have four options to finance tuition, research, and living costs:

  • pay directly out of pocket, through student loans, and/or through working a job;
  • have a research assistantship paid with money your professor obtains;
  • have a teaching assistantship through an academic department; or
  • secure your own funding through grants, scholarships, and/or fellowships.

While all of these options demonstrate responsibility, determination, and a strong work ethic, the fourth option additionally demonstrates the ability to bring in money, a highly marketable skill post-graduation when you are seeking a career-path job, particularly if you plan to continue in academia where universities generally expect professors to bring in substantial amounts of money to fund their research. Below are a few useful tips to hone your proposal-writing skills and obtain funding.

1.  Follow grant/fellowship/scholarship directions as completely and accurately as possible. Demonstrating that you can competently read the fine print and execute the requested hoop jumps gains you a lot of points. Hoop jumps include things like having your transcripts and/or GRE scores forwarded, answering all components of each question, and getting the correct number of letters of reference.

2.  Write flawlessly. If your writing is wrought with incorrect punctuation, grammar, word use, verb tense, and/or sentence/paragraph structure, it screams “lack of attention to detail.” Poor writing begs the question: if you can’t muster up enough focus and commitment to thoroughly proofread this application, how can you possibly have enough focus and dedication to produce good science, a notoriously tedious endeavor requiring extreme patience and attention to detail?

3.  Give your professors ample time to get comments on your application draft back to you and to write your letter of recommendation. You will often feel like you are royally annoying your professor, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Ride them, gently pester them, and don’t let up until you get comments back and you see that they’ve submitted your letter of reference. Always be genuinely thankful and appreciative when you do get comments and guidance from your advisor.

4.  Starting a funding application is one of the most daunting tasks as a graduate student; starting seriously is the hardest part. I find a coarse outline helpful. Figure out what works for you: some people like an incredibly detailed almost prose-like outline, while others don’t use outlines at all. Find your place on this spectrum. 

To start writing, set aside a huge block of time, down some coffee, chain yourself to that location, and dive in. Getting something, anything, on the computer screen is the hardest part. Little rewards work nicely. For example, “if I work six hours on this document, I can watch a movie and knit.” Allow yourself to stream thoughts from your brain onto the page without filtering. Once you get a skeleton of a draft, you can go back and tweak things at the paragraph and sentence levels. When you go back and read the “skeleton” that you’ve written, it’s often much better than you anticipate.

5.  Within reason, make your research seem really cool and original with broad impacts to multiple fields. Make the reviewers feel like they’re getting a lot of bang for their buck with you. To do this, it’s helpful to explain how the research you will be able to do with their support will amplify/enhance research that you, or someone in your lab, are already working on.

6.  If you have any sort of preliminary pilot data this is a good place to showcase it. Reviewers love pilot data: it shows that you know how to gather data, make sense of it, and put it into a digestible picture. It’s also effective to point out that without this funding, some crucial bit of research will not be done and that as a result of this lack of funding the overall larger research effort will be substantially weakened.

7.  Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. You need to tell reviewers exactly why they should give you a lot of money.

8.  Remember that reviewers are inundated with proposals and are likely just skimming. If you want certain points to pop out in your proposal, italics and/or bullet points can be useful for things like stating your hypotheses. Be sure not to abuse italics and/or bullets; less is more in this case.

9.  While your reviewers may or may not be from your field, it’s a good idea to start out broad, as if you’re explaining your research to your grandmother, and work up to the specifics. Find a balance between making your proposal accessible to all readers and also demonstrating to reviewers in your field that you can play hardball by using a bit of vocabulary and cutting edge literature specific to your field.

10.  When you submit a proposal, make sure it is the absolute best that you can make it, with no holes in logic and no flaws in reasoning or experimental design. Also make sure that you have cited the pertinent literature; it is entirely possible that an author from a key paper in your field will review your proposal.

Lucy Mullins

Once you’ve put together a solid proposal using the above tips, you can then recycle this draft for various funding opportunities that arise by simply tailoring it to each solicitation. Remember to keep your literature citations up to date and to supplement the proposal with new data as your research progresses. 

Getting a grant proposal selected for funding is not easy: the acceptance rate often is between five and ten percent. But don’t get discouraged. Keep trying. Once you get your foot in the door and start getting funding, you become increasingly attractive to fund. Good luck!


—Lucy Mullin, PhD student in Biology and U.S. Department of Energy Graduate Fellow, is investigating how restoration-thinning management practices affect seasonal water use and carbon sequestration patterns in southwestern ponderosa pine forests. (Photos courtesy L. Mullin)