How Applying for Fellowships is Like Making Spaghetti: An Interview with Beth Stahmer

March 9, 2016

Elizabeth Stahmer, the Director of the Social and Behavioral Research Institute, has worked on applications for funding from multiple organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Department of Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the State of Arizona, and dozens of private foundations.

In my recent interview with her, she gave numerous nuggets of excellent advice for finding and applying for funding. I share them with you below.

What do you do?

I like to call myself a specialist at being a generalist. In a nutshell, I support SBS students and faculty in finding funding opportunities, developing responsive grant and fellowship applications, and connecting them to research relevant units both internally and externally.

If you could give one piece of advice regarding funding issues to graduate students, what would it be?

My top piece of advice is to plan ahead. Graduate students should make (and continually revise) a timeline of several years of funding opportunities. External sponsors are slow; often you have to apply up to a year in advance and you may not know the results for six months or more after applying.

As deadlines approach, applicants need to take time to be familiar with UA processes and to build time for internal processes into their schedule. For example, Sponsored Projects often needs time to review the grant, which will affect the deadline for the applicant.

What advice do you have for graduate students searching for funding?

  • First of all, access the many tools available on campus and externally. For example, the Pivot workshops, the GradFunding newsletter, the GIFT Center newsletter, the Foundation Directory Online workshops.

  • Apply to both internal and external competitions. Always keep your pipeline full!

  • Connect with offices and college resources that can be of help.

  • Talk to a discipline-specific librarian.

  • Most professors have online CVs. Look at their sources of funding, especially how they were funded when they were graduate students.

  • Often published papers will list sources of funding, so keep an eye on those as well.

What advice do you have for graduate students applying for funding?

I look at applying for funding as cooking a big pot of spaghetti. You have to throw the noodles up on the wall – some will stick and some will fall. Keep looking for the right spot, throw, get feedback whenever possible, and keep throwing the spaghetti!

What insight do you have from reviewing grants that might be helpful for graduate students?

  • Do your homework – know the sponsor.

  • Study the instructions and the guidelines.

  • Write in a way that is comprehensible across disciplines.

  • Know the deadlines and the process for submission. Don’t wait until the last minute!

  • Proofread. I like to remind applicants that regardless of if they are applying for a big or a small grant, the reviewers are usually volunteers. Proofreading and paying attention to detail is one way of being considerate to the reviewers.

  • Provide what the instructions request, not more or less.

  • Use the guidelines to shape your narrative. Section headers can be helpful. I am a big proponent of feeding sponsor information back to the reviewers in the narrative. This helps the reviewers know that everything is covered.

What is one funding issue that is often intimidating to graduate students?

Budgets and budget justifications can often be daunting to applicants. But there is help! Graduate students should contact their business or finance administrator or their office for research for assistance. Offices like mine, the Social and Behavioral Research Institute, can also be of help.

What are some key components of a fundable project?

  • Is it situated in the literature?

  • Does it expand or add to current knowledge?

  • Is it innovative, significant, or important? If so, has the applicant clearly explained why?

  • Is it comprehensible to a broad range of people?

  • Are methods for data collection and analysis explained in detail?

  • Has the applicant anticipated questions that the reviewer might have?

  • Are all the components (e.g. budget, budget justification, methods, bio sketch) related and relevant to the research or project?

Can you share a favorite story about a graduate student applying/receiving/not receiving funding?

One of my favorite stories is about a student who did not receive a grant to do international field work. Some of the research equipment that she needed was quite expensive. So she set up a crowd funding site. People who donated at a certain amount had their name featured on the equipment. She worked with a friend to identify potential donors and created a marketing plan that would appeal to their interests.

I like this example because it demonstrates how creative students can be in where they throw that spaghetti. Funding possibilities are so diverse and finding funding can be a really creative and innovative process. In general, I find that looking for and applying for funding, advances student research in interesting ways.

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

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