Top Funding Tips

Dec. 12, 2016

Collectively, the Graduate College Office of Fellowships has approximately 31 years of experience with fellowships. In this last newsletter of 2016 I will pass along some bits and pieces we have learned along the way.

Funding is fickle. Despite all our experience with graduate student funding, we are still surprised by who does and who does not get funding. I would have bet my bottom dollar that Valentina (a pseudonym) was going to get the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship three years ago. Her research was timely and she was a good fit for the award. Two years ago, I was still confident that she would get it; she was even more qualified and her essays were almost perfect. But she did not get the award either time she applied. Likewise, we are also sometimes surprised at who does get an award.

Applying for funding is not that hard. Grantwriting is fairly formulaic. Basically, you need to follow the directions. Sometimes the directions are confusing or contradictory, but the more you apply, the easier it gets.

Know why you are getting your degree. Most funding for graduate school is intended to help you as well as your research. If you have a vision for where your degree will take you, this will be compelling to your reviewers. Since I work in the Graduate College, this is totally off the record, only between you and me, but not everyone needs a doctorate. Getting a PhD is costly in almost every imaginable way; if you plan to get one, work on articulating the reason in a compelling way. Is there a pressing issue that you feel you must research and give voice to? If there is type of work that requires a PhD, what compels you to that work?

Successful applicants do have common characteristics. Just because applicants have these characteristics does not mean that they will necessarily get the funding, but students who get the funding often have these characteristics.

  • They are passionate about their research or project. Somehow this enthusiasm comes through in their writing and the application takes on a particular shine.
  • They do outreach/service. I don’t know if this is a cause or effect of the characteristic above, but most successful applicants work beyond their department.
  • They connect their research to timely issues. Whether it is anti-biotic resistant bacteria, security of electronic health records, urban farming, or resettlement of refugees, successful applicants connect their research to issues that will concern the reviewers. As administrations change, so do funding priorities. Keep your eye on priorities and work to connect your research to those issues.
  • They are persistent. You will probably not get the first thing you apply for, or even the third. But you may get the fifth.
  • They are active in their discipline. They go to conferences, present posters, and work on publications.

The above list may seem overwhelming, but you don’t need to go all out on everything or to do all of it at once. Trust the process. As you continue in your program, you and your work will mature. That process of maturation is a beautiful thing and I feel really privileged to see it happen over and over. This is how it happens: Graduate students begin with some passion but it is a bit fuzzy, then get some clarification, and eventually things come together. In the end, their interests are focused and they understand those interests within a larger context, they understand how to go about researching their interests or actualizing their project, and they understand how to communicate their work to a varied audience. This will happen to you.

Good letters of recommendation are key to success. The letters of recommendations set one excellent application apart from another application. If you want more tips on letters of recommendation read our article here.

Remain positive! Do the best you can with the time you have. The most important research is not necessarily the most attractive to funders. But, if you can, do that research anyway. Live your life. Get sleep. Maintain your health insurance. Okay, I am getting a little carried away here as I don’t see any direct connection between health insurance and funding advice. Have a wonderful break and we will see you in 2017!


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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