The Perfect Time to Work on a Fellowship Application

Aug. 23, 2017

Graduate students have a lot to do. On top of completing classes, passing exams, doing research, and writing papers, most graduate students plan to present at conferences, get papers published, teach, etc. When I encourage graduate students to apply for fellowships and grants, I realize this is one item on a long list.

So, when should students work on applications for funding opportunities and when should they focus on other things?

After speaking to dozens of students and faculty about this question, I have found that the best time is between the third month of your second semester and the fourth week of your third semester, provided that falls after a summer session.

Just kidding. This is life, so there is no easy answer to the question.

Or is there?

David Bradshaw, guru to graduate students and coordinator of the Graduate Center, has a simple and extremely useful suggestion to help students figure out when to work on applying for funding and when to focus on other projects. He suggests students create an Individual Development Plan (IDP).

Individual Development Plan (IDP)

An IDP helps you to figure out where you want to go next and how to get there. According to Bradshaw, “IDPs can be very useful because they help one identify what they want to work on, what strengths and weaknesses one has, potential careers options to consider, and a framework from which to work.”

Additionally, Bradshaw explains, the planning and self-assessment portions of IDPs may actually help you write a stronger statement of interest other funding application documents. The IDP will also help you set goals for developing skills that will help you be more successful in obtaining funding.

Bradshaw has the following advice about where to begin with an IDP.

“Two great free resources to start with are the online tools MyIDP and the forthcoming ImaginePhD available this October 2017. While MyIDP is geared more towards STEM fields and ImaginePhD on social sciences and humanities, both have features to help you with self-assessment, career exploration, and planning. In addition, some professional organizations have their own tools which are worth looking into.”

Actual Plans

Some departments may currently encourage the use of formal IDPs, but these online tools for creating personal plans are only beginning to gain traction with graduate students. So I wanted to know how current students decide when to work on funding applications and when to focus on other things. Their responses were instructive and sometimes surprising.

Melissa Clutter in Soil, Water, and Environmental Sciences explains how she sketches out a big picture plan for herself. “I made a personal "PhD Plan" my first year of my program. I added when I was going to take each class, how many hours a week I would likely work, and planned my paper submissions around my "least busy" semesters. There are so many unknowns in funding/research that I think it's good to have a "big picture" plan even if you are unsure you can accomplish it. You can always revise it as needed. Because PhD students generally do not take many classes, it is important to factor in other time-constraints like fellowship obligations, graduate assistantships, and TA positions into the plan.”

Megan Mills-Novoa in Geography and Development describes how she moves from the big picture to specific goals. “At the beginning of the summer and each semester, I review what my priorities are for that term. As an example, this summer my priorities are to draft/submit a publication from my master's, create an interactive story map for collaborators, and create an 5 page proposal of my dissertation. With these bite-size goals in mind, I set aside 3 hours in the morning, 3 days a week and only allow myself to work on these priority projects during this time.”

Advice of Advisors

One factor that varies significantly from student to student is the level of involvement advisors have in their planning.

Talking about the big picture plan with your advisor is essential for several reasons. Melissa Clutter says that “it may take a few back-and-forth exchanges to get [a plan] you both agree on. It is easy to underestimate the timing of everything!”

Joan Palmiter Bajorek in Second Language Acquisition & Teaching keeps in continual contact with her advisors. “My advisor knows my overarching goals and we frequently discuss how the little choices fit with the overall career trajectory. I keep him up to date via email or in person about what's going on with submissions and collaborations. He likes to know what's going on, asks tough questions, and gives me feedback that is specific, well informed, and thoughtful. My mentors are also aware of my vein of research and point me toward which journals and conferences I need to submit to, attend, and network at.”

However, other students such as Saleh Ahmed in Arid Lands Resources Sciences make more detailed plans on their own. He explains how he moves from the big picture plan to a weekly plan, “Almost every week Friday, I look at my calendars and see what are coming up, and then, accordingly, I prepare my work plan for next week. I also make a rough monthly plan (mostly written in a sticky note).” Ahmed, however, explains that he does not discuss the day to day details with his advisors, saving those conversations for more global concerns.

Other People

Key to figuring out how to prioritize what to work on when, is finding a few people who are most helpful to you. As well as working with her advisors, Joan Palmiter Bajorek describes how she works closely with her peers. “My colleagues and I peer-edit each other's work, share ideas about coursework and projects, coordinate transportation to conferences, and generally make each other laugh. I also get insights from family and friends who don't know my field and thus ask unusual and helpful questions.”

Do Two Big Projects

One of the most interesting ideas I received about how to decide when to work on what was from Stanley Donahoo, a student in the Department of Linguistics. He suggests adding a second significant project to your life. He explains that, “grad school can be a very singular process, culminating in the very focused dissertation.  But if you have another project, either in a different subfield or even a different capacity altogether (e.g. volunteer work, hobbies, etc.), you have more flexibility.

“In other words, I often don't decide when to work on what--whenever I get burnt out on one project, there is the other one waiting for me.  So the decision is sort of made by itself.  I can work on a syntax project for a while, and then when I'm stuck or bored or whatever, I can switch to my pragmatics project (or just go for a bike ride).  When I re-visit the syntax, it all seems refreshing and new and I recall why I was excited in the first place.”

Plan and Change Plans

In discussing this question, how to work on what, I found that some students emphasize making plans and sticking to them while others emphasize the ability to be flexible.

Joan Palmiter Bajorek says, “My calendar stays organized, making sure that I hit daily, weekly, and monthly deadlines.” While Melissa Clutter explains that, “The biggest thing for me has always been taking opportunities as they arise. Always read emails about outreach opportunities and research positions. If it is the perfect fit, make time for it!”

Creating an IDP will help you figure out your primary goals in the next few years, I encourage you to spend a few hours working on one. This will help you determine when to stick to your plans and when to create a new one.

Again, here are the two resources David Bradshaw suggests using:

Imagine PhD: (coming in October)


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