Securing Funding During Graduate School

The freedom that research support brings is particularly important for radical scholars of color, writes Victor Ray, who gives advice on how to obtain it.

February 17, 2017

In an earlier post, I argued that research funding is racialized and that disparities in funding exacerbate racial inequities in academe. Although nothing short of institutional change can significantly reverse those patterns, below I offer advice to help students successfully apply for funding during their graduate training.

Early in my graduate career, I felt insecure and worried about my place in the department. It was clear that my political and intellectual commitments were, to put it mildly, somewhat out of place in my chosen graduate program. Although I was funded, I felt that the support was precarious. In retrospect, perhaps that feeling was overstated. But it was nonetheless real, and I needed a way to combat it.

As a person of color from a working- to lower-middle-class background, funding was extremely important to me. It influenced my decision about which graduate school to attend. When I received my acceptance letter informing me that I would be funded for five years as long as I maintained adequate progress in the program, that was the most economic security I had experienced in my life.

Of course, funding was partially freeing. And given what I felt was my precarious position in the program, the external validation was instrumental in my continuing in graduate school. The freedom that funding brings is particularly important for radical scholars of color whose work may make some (white) colleagues uncomfortable.

When I talk about funding opportunities, graduate students and some faculty members often tell me that applying for funding is a waste of time, that it requires too much work or that agencies are not interested in their type of work. Below, I address each of these concerns with practical advice. Although I am mainly talking about sociology departments, some of these strategies may resonate beyond my discipline.

Understanding the structure of funding. The structure of funding is often a bit confusing. Although there is occasional overlap, grants are typically for expenses related to research, while fellowships pay for living expenses. Federal and private sources of support tend to have considerably different application procedures and expectations attached to their funding. Those applications can be complicated, so I advise you to start them early. Make yourself familiar with a given funding agency’s reporting requirements and make sure you are willing to meet them.

How to find funding. I identified funding opportunities primarily in two places: university databases and the CVs of more senior colleagues whose work I admired. The latter strategy allowed me to see how people were funded at different points in their career and what opportunities I should be looking for down the line.

Many undergraduate institutions have grants and fellowships that are reserved for alumni who are in graduate school. Those are prime places to look for funding, as the applicant pool tends to be smaller. Search your institution’s website, write to the program officers and apply. Although the funding from such sources may be lower than national competitions, they are great places to find seed support for projects.

Once I found opportunities for which I qualified and that were related to my work, my strategy was to apply for everything. Applying for funding, like working in academe in general, is largely about learning to manage rejection. I made a spreadsheet that covered the next three to four years of graduate school and systematically applied every year. Early on, I got a lot of rejections. They were an opportunity to revise and refine my ideas. One success can make those rejections recede from your consciousness pretty quickly.

Another strategy (to use sparingly) is to contact program officers at funding agencies. Make sure you find out the policy regarding contact so as to not violate protocol. However, if the officers are open to talking, send an email briefly outlining the most important aspects of your project and ask whether they are willing to set up a phone conversation. I have had program officers give me information that I think was central to eventually being funded.

Before you contact a program officer, make sure your project description is far along and perhaps even reviewed by a colleague or two. You do not want to antagonize a program officer with a proposal that is not well thought out, as that may ultimately hurt your chances.

Writing the application. If you have colleagues who have successfully received grants or fellowships for which you are interested in applying, ask if you may look over their applications. Many people are flattered by the request and happy to share; others, not so much. Remember, however, that they are in no way obligated to help you and may consider the request inappropriate for any number of reasons. They could be shy about sharing work, view you as competition or resent your success. But while the academy often still functions on an outdated notion that intellectual work is the result of heroic individuals, ideas -- and your personal success in deploying those ideas -- are the result of a community.

If someone is willing to help you, remember you owe them. Write a thank-you note, take them out for coffee or a drink at a conference, or just generally show that you appreciate their help. Also, never pass along an application someone has shared with you without permission. They agreed to share it with you, not the entire applicant pool.

Grant and fellowship writing is not an exercise in creativity. Grant and fellowship writing in sociology is different from composing papers. Papers can be somewhat meandering because of their standard format. For grants, the punch line needs to hit the reviewer within the first few sentences. They need to know the purpose of the proposed research, the theoretical tradition from which you are drawing and a little about what you expect to find. If you have been fortunate enough to get successful examples of the particular grant or fellowship for which you are applying, make sure you look over them and mirror their outlines.

Tailoring your work to the call. This is a tricky one. Foundations and federal grant agencies issue calls because they are looking for specific niches, have political leanings or are chartered to further research in particular areas. You should never do violence to your own research interests and commitments to land a grant. However, you should look at calls for applications with the widest possible lens when it comes to applicability to your work. This isn’t just pragmatic; it is also an exercise in intellectual growth, as it forces you to think about your work in the widest possible context.

Reusing your work. Writing a funding proposal is ideally the first step one makes on a new project. Agency deadlines can help to force you to write your ideas down. These drafts are then recycled, becoming the first draft of research papers. One of the most useful things that a trusted and brilliant adviser in grad school told me was, “Everything you write has to count for more than one thing.” You should never use a piece of writing that you have spent a considerable amount of time or thought on for just one class or conference. The same is true for fellowship and grant writing. Revise your applications according to the call, but if you had a successful application in a prior round, it indicates that you’ve hit the sweet spot. Use that as the template to apply to subsequent grants and fellowships. It is also a good indication that your proposed research is a potential contribution to the discipline, as the reviewers were likely drawn from a pool of experts in your area. Getting this feedback at an early stage can be extremely useful for shaping your subsequent projects.


Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. You can follow him on Twitter at @victorerikray.


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