What if I'm Not Qualified to Apply for a Graduate Fellowship?

March 5, 2020

The idea of applying for a graduate fellowship can be daunting. Surrounded by high-achieving individuals, you might wonder if you measure up. Is it worth even trying to apply to a fellowship?

Well, you are reading a newsletter from the Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement, so, surprise! I’m going to say yes. But here is why I think you should write a few applications for funding while a graduate student.

I have been in this position for about seven years. This means that students who began doctoral programs when I started this position are getting jobs. People who graduated with a masters are now several years into their careers. I keep in touch with some of them. Not all of them are going into academic positions. The more I learn about graduate education and about various career paths, the more I believe that every single grad student should apply to funding opportunities. Not every student will get a prestigious national award, but every student will find grant writing useful in the future. Academics, people in industry, parents, those working in nonprofits – every path will involve grant writing in some form. Grant writing is a skill and, like any other skill, improves with practice. Why not get started with grant writing by working on a few fellowship applications?

Here are some reasons you may think you are not qualified and some ideas for moving forward.

I can’t apply become I’m missing things on my CV.

Ideally, if you are in the sciences you have robust research experiences and prestigious publications on your CV. And if you are in the arts or humanities, you have training and publications or performances. But none of us live in an ideal world. Even if you do not have experience in a lab, you have likely done some systematic investigation into something and can apply what you learned to future research. Peer-reviewed publications are a big boost to getting funding. But remember that there are other forms of publication. Try to get something on a blog, in a small journal, or even in a newsletter. You can include any kind of publication in your application as long as it showcases your abilities and is germane to the opportunity.

I can’t apply because I need better letters of recommendation.

Strong letters of recommendation are central to getting funding. Depending on your department and where you are in your graduate path, it might not be easy to get to know professors. But most professors want to get to know students and want their students to do well. Take your advisor out to coffee, ask more about their research. And get to know a few other professors in your department as well. This takes time, but it is time well spent.

I can’t apply because my experiences are too varied.

Some people feel they are underqualified to apply for fellowships if they, for example, finish undergrad, spend a year training to go into the priesthood, and then switch gears and work in a high school. But funders often find students with varied experiences to be interesting. The challenge is writing those experiences into a cohesive narrative. Our office can help you do that.

If you think you might not be qualified to apply for a graduate fellowship, here are three suggestions for moving forward:

  1. Apply to smaller opportunities, especially those on campus

Opportunities like the GPSC travel and research grants are great practice. It is a bit discouraging if you do not get these “easier” grants. But remember that grant writing is a skill that you need to develop. The more grants you write, the better you will get.


  1. Try for the big ones

If you are eligible for and interested in opportunities like the NSF GRFP or the Student Fulbright or the Ford Fellowships, apply. You may not get them. But your work on the applications will benefit you in multiple ways: Your relationship with your advisor will likely improve; you will nail down your research ahead of time (or at least go through the process of writing a proposal); you will figure out what things are most important for your professional development.


  1. Keep your eyes open for what fits YOU

One of the things I like about looking at graduate fellowships is that many are so specific. For example, in the March GradFunding newsletter, there is an opportunity for someone interested in how gender relates to philanthropy. Then there is another for students interested in applying marketing skills to horticulture-related businesses. You might not be the best candidate for a fellowship for artists working in Alaska, but you might be a good fit for the fellowship for people from developing countries studying sustainable electricity.


Our office has just opened our Summer Fellowship Application Development Program. The key to grant writing is persistence and we are here to help everyone, even those who don’t feel qualified, persist with fellowship applications.


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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