Getting Started on a Fellowship Application

Feb. 26, 2019

Travis Sawyer, a graduate student who has worked with us in the Office of Fellowships, has had great success both in obtaining fellowship proposals for himself and in assisting other graduate students in writing their own fellowship proposals.

I asked him to share a few tips about how he starts writing a fellowship application.



Hello, my name is Travis Sawyer and I am a graduate student in Optical Engineering.

For many of us, myself included, the most challenging part of writing a grant proposal or personal statement is just getting started. We’ve all experienced writer’s block, which can be particularly frustrating when we haven’t even begun to write! While we all develop our own unique way to overcome writer’s block, in this newsletter I’ll share some general tools that could help start any document on the right foot and hopefully prevent writer’s block from forming in the first place.

Consider the situation

Generally speaking, starting to write a document is no different than trying to tackle any other project, whether it’s engineering a system or composing a new piece of music. In any case, the project will be situated with a certain situation that should be considered to successfully accomplish our goal. In the case of writing funding applications, some elements to consider include your audience, the format, and the politics surrounding the situation.


The audience determines your word choice, figure selection (if applicable) and depth of detail, among other things. When you consider your audience, try to see if you can answer these four questions:

  1. Who will read the document? Will the review committee be formed of experts in your field, will it be multidisciplinary, or something else entirely? Many funding reviews, such as for the NIH, now include non-experts as well. Knowing this will help you gauge the proper level of detail to include.
  2. What does the audience know? This will influence what background information you include in the document. If the application has several documents, you can avoid repeating information between the two. If the audience is informed in your field, it is safe to assume a level of familiarity and prior knowledge.
  3. Why is the audience reading? Generally, this is somewhat obvious for grant proposals – the audience is looking for research to fund. However, on a more detailed level, consider what the criteria of selection are and what the funding body considers the “ideal candidate.”
  4. How will the audience read the document? Different documents can be read in wildly different ways. For example, consider whether the application has multiple components, whether these are narrative or technical, and so on. Understanding the way a document is read allows you to structure the format to emphasize the relevant sections. On a smaller scale, this also allows you to select appropriate sentence structure.


Fellowships and grants often provide a particular template for the overall structure of the document. However, in many cases, the finer organization is left up to the writer. For example, the NSF GRFP only species document length and typesetting. In cases like this, the format can become a tool for the writer to use. In other cases, the fellowship application may be more constrained, such as a series of short answer questions. Here, there’s not much flexibility, but realizing this early on will enable you to craft your responses to emphasize the important aspects. For a two-page personal statement, it might be compelling to tell a narrative story, while a 200-word response needs to be quick and to the point.


The politics (both literally and figuratively) surrounding a document will be unique to each case. Some research topics are inherently more politically charged than others. Realizing what biases exist in your field is important to avoid unintentionally offending a reviewer who may disagree with you -- it’s absolutely valid to hold a certain view, but just try to present it in a respectful and considerate manner. However, politics can also be a useful tool. Often the “hot topics” in a research field are those that have the most debate. If you select your research topic carefully, you can capitalize on the current interests of your respective field.

Identify your purpose

For grant writing, the purpose is fairly universal: you’re trying to persuade the audience that you are worth funding. How do we achieve this? By presenting the most convincing arguments. Before even beginning to write, it is useful to determine what arguments you plan to present. For each of these, try to think of the following:

  • How does it tie into the overall purpose of the funding agency?
  • What evidence will you use to support it?

First drafts

Okay, now that we’ve thought about what we want to write, what are some ways to actually start getting ideas down on paper?

I find making an outline is very useful. I start by outlining the overall structure of the document and then jotting ideas down under each section. These ideas could just be points that I’d like to touch on, or particular phrases that I want to include. If you’ve identified what arguments you want to present, and your evidence for each, you’ve already done most of the work!

Going from an outline to a full draft is another challenge. Many times I will begin with the conclusion, which is essentially a summary of your arguments and the overall impact. The introduction comes next, which primarily should give the necessary background information to understand your arguments, while also motivating the reader to continue – ignite the reader’s interest in the topic or narrative. Finally, I write the body. From the outline, I tend to fill in each paragraph from the inside out. I know the major points I’d like to present, and my evidence for each. Once I’ve connected these ideas, I think of what background information is needed and then what the broader implications are. After doing this for each, I add in some transitions so the paragraphs flow smoothly. At this point, the first draft is essentially done and is ready for revisions and feedback!


The GradFunding Newsletter is a service of the University of Arizona Graduate College, Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement. You may distribute this article but please acknowledge the author and the University of Arizona Graduate College Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement.