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The Unspoken Benefits of Grant Writing

Why all graduate students should apply for grants.

September 24, 2014

Justin Dunnavant is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Florida. You can find him on Twitter @archfieldnotes or at his blog AfricanaArch.

As graduate students, we are encouraged to apply for the millions of dollars that granting agencies shell out every year to fund research and travel. Aside from the obvious financial incentives we gain, there are a number of benefits associated with grants and fellowships that often go unnoticed. Over the years, I’ve come to learn that while the money is good, the networks and resources provided to grantees can be just as important. In fact, just the process of applying for a grant is a learning experience in itself. When I applied for my first external grant, I had to ask myself serious questions about research objectives, methodologies, and broader impacts that I had never considered before. After repeated conversations with my advisor and other committee members, I was able to arrive at research goals and a graduation timeline that was both realistic and feasible. It is for this reason that I recommend everyone apply for at least one research grant before they defend their dissertation proposals. In addition to the cash award, grants can also be a great way to develop your research proposal, bolster your CV, expand your professional network, improve your chances in a struggling job market, and collaborate with strangers.

Bolstering the CV

My first foray into grant writing began my senior year of college when I applied for, and was lucky enough to receive, a Fulbright Fellowship to spend a year abroad in Jamaica. That same year I visited two prospective graduate schools and informed them of my desire to attend their university. While they initially encouraged me to apply, they began actively recruiting me once I notified them that I had received a Fulbright (follow the link for tips on developing a successful Fulbright application). The Fulbright, in addition to bolstering my CV, made me a more competitive prospective PhD student and opened up doors to additional supplemental funding that may not have otherwise been available. Just as a grant in hand can make you a more competitive PhD student, the same can be said about recent graduates looking for tenure-track positions. On a related note, I’ve heard of people submitting larger grants just before they go on the job market so they can put “submitted” under the grant section of their CV—not a bad idea if you ask me.


After returning from my year in Jamaica, I soon realized that the Fulbright, like many other fellowships, continues to pay off well after your grant year is complete. When I came back to the States, I continued to work with Fulbright briefing the new outgoing fellows on what to expect in Jamaica and how to get settled in the country. More recently, I’ve served as an Alumni Ambassador, traveling to different universities and conferences to speak about the Fulbright application process and my experiences as a student. The service is beneficial for the Fulbright program because it increases interest in the program and, although I don't get paid, it’s beneficial to me because I get to meet outstanding students, professors, and administrators from all over the country. Fulbright also hosts a number of events and networking opportunities for current Fulbrighters and alumni throughout the country. Through these events, I have been able to meet ambassadors, diplomats, university presidents, and past Fulbright recipients.  

Career Development

This year I was awarded the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship. While the annual stipend is significantly more than I was previously awarded as a graduate assistant, perhaps the greatest benefit of the award has been the professional network, access to job announcements, and professional development workshops. I’ve only been an official Ford Fellow for a couple of months but I can already say that the benefits are evident. As I travel to conferences and other universities, I have been able to establish connections with other graduate students, faculty, and upper-level administrators who are current or former Ford Fellows. As a member of the organization’s listserv, I also get dozens of weekly emails about job announcements, and although most are not in my area of research, I can usually find one or two colleagues who are good candidates. These networks are important not just for the job market but also for getting the inside scoop on what institutions look for in the hiring process and how they operate. Additionally, the Ford Foundation conferences are renowned for providing some great workshops on professional development. They offer advice for navigating the PhD, acquiring tenure-track positions, and publishing manuscripts and in academic journals.

Collaborating with Strangers

Sometimes just the process of applying for a grant can present new opportunities for collaboration as well. This summer a couple of students in my program were tasked with writing an institutional grant for the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH). The grant, totaling close to $350,000 (a relatively large sum of money for the liberal arts and sciences), involved several academic units and our university’s expansive library system. With so many units involved, I acquired a better understanding of what each unit has to offer students and the resources they have at their disposal. One of the most invaluable resources was discovering the full-time staff member charged solely with grant writing. Most universities don't have such a person on staff and the fact I have access to a professional reviewer for future grant applications is invaluable.

The practice of writing a large institutional grant taught me a few things about grant writing in general. First, I learned I’ve been constructing my grant applications in the wrong order. In the past, I used to start by writing the narrative and literature review because it was most immediate in my mind. Then I would think through the research plan and end with the budget. I’ve since learned that many successful proposals begin with crafting a work plan, then developing a budget, and conclude with writing a compelling narrative. By starting with the work plan, I’m able to ensure the feasibility of my project. Once I’ve convinced myself I have a feasible project, it’s just a matter of conveying the significance of the work.

Another lesson I’ve learned from applying for a larger institutional grant is the power of collaboration. As graduate students looking to fund our dissertation research, we are often taught to find a grant that fits our particular project. While this is critical for funding the dissertation, I’ve learned that sometimes institutions take a different approach. First they look at a pool of potential grants and then decide how their work meshes with the objectives of the grant. If there is a large grant to process collections, they may write a processing grant. Alternatively, if another grant asks for an interdisciplinary research project, an institution may reach out to potential collaborators and pitch the idea. For graduate students, developing a larger collaborative grant could lead to additional research opportunities and a larger funding tool. Since we put in our first NEH grant, we have begun more long-term conversations about other possible collaborative grants for which we may be eligible.

Words of Caution

Throughout the course of this week, and in the past, we have offered a lot of advice for crafting successful grants and while I sing the praises of grant writing, I think it makes sense to utter a few cautionary words:

1. It’s important that you don’t get caught in the perennial trap of habitual grant writing. At the end of the day, no number of successfully funded grants will lead to a completed dissertation. At some point you have to say “I have enough resources to write,” and start writing.

2. With that said, I would like to slightly contradict myself and say, “the easiest time to get money is when you have money.” I don't know who coined the phrase but I’ve found it to be the mantra of graduate school funding. Institutions and granting agencies like to support people with a track record of successfully acquiring and completing funded projects.

3. As a final note on collaboration, it’s important to understand that sometimes too many collaborators can lead to lengthy meetings that defer the application process and back-and-forth edits that slow the progress of the grant. Think carefully about how many collaborators you want to include on the project and who they should be.

Keeping these cautions in mind, I would encourage everyone to apply for external grant funding, and, if possible, for a larger collaborative grant while they can. The experience can generate some great ideas and turn what may have begun as a small project into a multi-year research proposal.

Do you have any words of advice when applying for grants? What sort of benefits have you derived from grant writing?

[Image by Flickr user Tom Sens and used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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