Specific steps to take for writing a successful grant application (opinion)

Graduate school has become expensive, and while some graduate offer financial support through work-study, loans, scholarships and fellowships, graduate students may still need additional funds to survive. An external fellowship or grant can be that extra push toward a graduate degree and, aside from the financial incentives, may include a supportive community of pastees that can serve as a resource for scholars early in their academic career.

In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, Jude Mikal counseled grad students to “avoid self-disqualification” for grants and fellowships, and I agree: if you meet the criteria, don’t count yourself out. In fact, you should keep applying, refining your proposals and throwing yourself into the pool of candidates, because you never know who on the committee might gravitate to your story and project. At the very least, if you are not selected, you leave with a more polished version of your application for the next time—and there will always be a next time.

Unfortunately, however, as Hector M. Callejas, a University of California graduate student and National Science Foundation fellow, has observed, “Fellowship applications are a genre that is seldom taught in literary class.” So how do you even begin to map a successful fellowship application? There is no one cookie-cutter approach, given that research topics and areas of interest reach far and wide. But you can, in fact, take certain specific steps to see your application through to the finish line.

Seek out successful models. The first step is to ask peers and faculty mentors if they have winning statements that they can share with you or if they can make an introduction to a student who might be willing to do so. Try to find an application aligned with your research area or design so you can see the general structure of winning applications and the kinds of information they have included. Also look for applications written particularly for the organization you’re targeting. Specific fellowships such as the Ford Foundation Fellowship and the AAUW Dissertation Fellowship ask for a detailed timeline toward completion, while others, like the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant and any of the National Institutes of Health-sponsored grants, ask for a detailed budget on how you will use allocated funds.

Review available resources. Several colleagues have recommended the Professor Is In blog and book, while others the Grant Writers’ Seminars and Workshops and faculty blogs and articles focused on demystifying the application process and reviewer perspectives. Those include Jennifer Ailshire’s “Have You Heard About the NIH Dissertation Awards for Doctoral Students Studying Population Health?” among others. Also, reach out to your department and college to see if they offer support for fellowship writing.

Create an outline. What is the fellowship or grant requiring you to complete? Is there a prompt for the statement? What paragraphs/sections will you need to include to answer their request? If there is no prompt, what paragraphs/sections do you think will be most important to have? Keep in mind the maximum length or word count for the statement.

Some typical sections in the application are:

  • A discussion of why the research mattersanswering the “so what?” question.
  • A mini literature review, which helps you show the reader your research’s contribution. This section should not be an exhausted list of your sources—just those you are most engaged in your scholarship.
  • A timeline with concrete goals you plan to complete for your project. If space is limited, consider creating a graph instead of writing a paragraph.

Think deeply about your first paragraph. What will be the opening sentences or hook? Your first paragraph—in fact, your first sentence—needs to grab the attention of the readers.

Tailor your writing based on what the prompt requests. For example, if the statement is more research-oriented, you can begin with one of your major research questions. Or you can start with statistical data that alludes to the importance of the research question or a sentence about the gap your research addresses.

Shaontá Allen, now a Mellon Faculty Fellow in the sociology department at Dartmouth College, began her application with the overarching theme of her research agenda on Black Americans’ perceptions and their responses to racial inequality: “Black Americans’ perceptions of responses to racial inequality orient”. my investigative agenda. While racism has been a persistent aspect of American culture since its founding, the tradition of protest and resistance to oppressive structures has been similarly present.”

She then shifted to the importance of studying resistance in specific contexts and shared the three institutions that framed her work: “We often conceptualize race as a social construction, but rarely do we extend that conversation to think about how social context impacts resistance. My research draws on race and social movements literature to examine how Black resistance varies across institutional contexts. To theorize contemporary strategies for navigating racial and gendered hierarchies, I explore black resistive practices within three institutions: religion, higher education, and pop culture and sports.”

Of course, the importance of certain aspects of research grants may differ. For instance, the “specific aims page” is arguably the most important part of the application for any NIH-sponsored grant. Still, you should set up the broader research question from the outset before introducing the specific aims of the project in order to motivate the reader.

You can also open with a story about why you began your research or how you came to your current research trajectory to grab the reader’s attention. For example, as a doctoral student, I began my Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship application with, “My introduction to ethnographic research began as a child when I became conscious of my grandmother’s experiences as an older Latina. I witness firsthand her struggles navigating Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, and finding informal work among family and friends so that we could make ends meet.”

Request feedback. Vanessa Castañeda, the Guarini Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellow at Dartmouth College, told me that continually asking for feedback led to her success in securing a Fulbright award. In fact, she had shared her proposal with two individuals who thought it was well-done, but she found someone who offered critical input that made her application much stronger. “Students should not be afraid or take it personally if they receive harsh but helpful feedback,” she said. “It’s all part of the process. And we all have to go through less than perfect drafts to get to a good one.”

Give your statement to a peer or mentor with a few questions to consider, such as:

  • What do you think my theoretical contribution is?
  • How does my work fit in the already established literature on this topic?
  • Do I state why my project is timely and important?
  • Do you think my application speaks to what the reviewers are looking for in a candidate?
  • How can I improve?

Jovonna Jones, a doctoral candidate in African and African American studies at Harvard University with a fellowship at Dartmouth, recommends asking people from outside your field to read your work: “I was applying to a fellowship that was primarily for philosophers, ethicists and political theorists . I went to my colleague in political theory for advice on how to translate my topic/argument into terms that would resonate with people from these other fields. The essence of my topic and argument didn’t change, but I learned how to be flexible with how I framed my project so I could reach a variety of audiences.”

You can also see if the fellowship committee uses a publicly available rubric or look through its website to try to determine what measures the committee uses to assess applications. Use this rubric to look over your statement/application, or create one on your own. It’s an objective way to critique your application and help you improve its overall narrative.

Revise, revise, revise. NIH grants often require multiple revisions—from grant submission to a “notice of award” can often take more than 10 months. And that’s if the process goes perfectly, which it often does not. It is not uncommon to have an award funded after a significant revision from the initial submission, which will add months to the timing of receiving the grant award.

While revising, make sure that:

  • Your theoretical contribution is easy to pinpoint;
  • The methodology works with the research questions posed;
  • The statement flows organically and is easy to read for a nonexpert in your field; and
  • You have followed all fellowship guidelines.

Look at your application with fresh eyes. You’ll need to take a break from it, which is another reason why it is crucial to begin your statement sooner rather than later. For fellowships that include several separate statements, you should make all pieces come together like a cohesive narrative. For example, you can have the opening or personal statement and then move on to the other parts of your story that discuss your previous and proposed research, threading them together to show your distinctive academic trajectory. Sarah Whitt (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), assistant professor of global and international studies at the University of California, Irvine, reminds us that “every example, every anecdote, every personal experience included must strategically move the narrative forward in some way.”

End strong. Beth Piatote, associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has said that one of the most crucial sentences in writing your application is the last one: “The last sentence, and especially the last word of the sentence, are important because, however, you end, that phrase/word has some ‘hang time’ in the reader’s mind. So make sure you end on a strong word. It’s more impressionistic than anything. Think about music and how a song ends—after the final note, there’s an impression in the air. It is the same with writing.”

In sum, as Hector Callejas advises, “Fellowships are a numbers game, and rejection is the name of the game. Go for fellowships, even if you think you might not qualify. At best, you will win the award. At worst, you will receive no response. But hopefully, you will receive some helpful feedback.”

Even if you don’t obtain a fellowship or grant right away, you should view it as an exercise for other statements and documents that you will write throughout your professional career. You may find yourself using and revising some of the sentences you constructed in your fellowship for other applications in the near future. And who knows? You might even succeed on your first try. So get going, and good luck!

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