The Importance of Grant Writing in Graduate School

Image description: a cartoon illustration of a Black man sitting at a desk while reading a book. In his environment are shelves with books, a plant atop the shelves, a globe atop the shelves and a clock on the wall.

As early career graduate students, we are often dissuaded from focusing too much of our time on anything other than courses, milestones and research. While these are undeniably important and essential for our academic progress, there are other skills students may also want to prioritize. Students should keep in mind what their own specific career goals and passions are and what other types of engagements will help with these personal, short- and long-term goals.

For example, my ideal career path when starting graduate school was to become a professor and PI at a research institution. I am also a founder of a nonprofit organization called MUSE. Knowing how important writing is for both nonprofit work and academia, I knew these were skills I needed to master and that I should start building these skills early in graduate school. As someone who has been employed since I was 14 years old and worked throughout high school and college, I am also acutely aware of how money provides more time and thus energy to invest in the things most important to you.

Image description: a cartoon drawing of a brown skinned person with a red backpack and white shirt has an idea, illustrated with a cartoon lightbulb drawing to the right of their head.

In my first year of my PhD program, I applied for 11 different funding opportunities ranging from small conference travel grants to national fellowships. In year 2, that number has surpassed 20 different grants, fellowships and opportunities with most of them being rejected. As a past rock-climbing athlete who used to spend weeks, months and years trying even just one rock-climb at my physical and mental limit, I know that failure is uncomfortable, but essential for growth. Every failure offers a teachable moment if we focus less on the outcome and more on the process of refining our skills and seeking a sense of mastery.

Often, if we do not receive a grant we label the entire effort a failure. Below, I’d like to reframe this thought process and highlight (1) a few reasons why grant writing is an important part of graduate school, (2) advice for how to deal with frequent rejection. I also compile a list of resources at the end which may be helpful for students, particularly severely underrepresented students, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and other programs as well.

Why focus on grant writing throughout graduate school?

Writing and storytelling are skills that need time and effort to build and improve upon. For those interested in careers in academia, science policy and outreach, writing often makes up a disproportionate amount of the work we aspire to. As early career graduate students, writing and storytelling are also heavily a part of our own jobs as we write our dissertations, research grants, manuscripts and also give countless presentations. While writing that first manuscript or grant may be an agonizing process, with practice it may result in future efforts taking a fraction of the time. Frequently writing about your work may also lead to more confidence in your ability to tell a story about your work, communicate its importance and explain why your work is deserving of funding.

Image description: a Black woman with glasses writes in an agenda or notebook while sitting in front of their computer.

Reading and compiling literature early in your graduate career is essential! When you have a grant writing deadline or goal, it encourages you to stay current on the literature and do a deep dive of your field. In order to appropriately frame your research question, you need to understand where the field has been and what are the current, gaping holes in the field that you want to address.

Networking can be a really valuable part of applying for grants and fellowships. For example, you may be able to find professors at your university who served as grant reviewers and can offer invaluable feedback. You may have an idea that necessitates collaboration with multiple labs, or form a peer-review group who can offer feedback on drafts. While applying, I also took advantage of UMass Amherst’s Office for Professional Development (OPD) where previous fellowship winners would talk to students looking to apply. I was able to network across fields and find amazing individuals who were knowledgeable and offered to help review statements (Note: Twitter is a great place to ask for help too!)

Scientific outreach and being able to share your science with an audience who may know nothing about your subject is such an important skill. For fellowships, often your reviewers will be random and outside of your field. You will be required to write in a way that is both accessible to someone with no prior knowledge of your research and communicates the importance of the work. For other fellowships and grants, you may have someone very knowledgeable about your research topic. It is wonderful when you have the flexibility to speak about your research in a way that is accessible to everyone as well as experts in the field. Every application asks something different of you and gives you new challenges of how to discuss your work in a limited amount of space. This exercise will serve you well.

Feedback from reviewers may be tough, brutal and often unfair. When the reviews are valid, there is value to having someone more senior pick apart your research and freely offer advice that would help you better frame your ideas in the future. Maybe folks are critical of your study design, limitations, didn’t quite understand the way you framed the problem, and/or saw gaps in your proposal that even your colleagues didn’t see. This feedback, gleaned over time, is truly invaluable.

How to reframe and sustain your efforts despite frequent rejections?

Define success by your own metrics. These skills are not lost even if we face frequent rejection. In a world that loves to see everything in a binary way (e.g. success or failure) sometimes we may have to identify our own metrics of what it means to be successful. What do you value? What skills are important to you? How can you celebrate and validate yourself outside of the way academia traditionally celebrates and validates individuals?

Caption and image description: A photo of the author on a climbing project, or rock-climb at her physical and mental limit. A brown skin woman with muscles and an afro is struggling to reach a hold to the right and climbing on granite overhanging face in the pacific northwest.

Set smaller, attainable goals to improve confidence. As an athlete, if I didn’t find success on a project (again, a long-term climb at my physical limit that I would try for months) I would try to take away something I learned from each session. Additionally, I would try to have smaller projects that were more attainable to improve my confidence (e.g. pick a climb you are certain you’d have more success with and work that into your schedule as well). For grant writing, this might look like applying to travel awards, internal awards and smaller fellowships that may have a higher acceptance rate than national organizations in which tens of thousands of people apply from all over the country. Additionally, accumulating smaller grants and fellowships helps considerably when applying for those larger pockets of money.

Identify your application weaknesses. Where in your application are you strongest? Where are you lacking? Look very closely at the application details and criteria, and ensure that you are doing everything you can to be a well rounded applicant. *IMPORTANT NOTE: please do not do outreach or DEI work if you are only doing it for your applications. Marginalized students, especially hyper-marginalized students deserve so much more than to be a bullet point on your CV. Do not engage in DEI work if you are not doing it first and foremost for the affected communities.

Separate your identity from your rejections. You should be proud of the efforts you put into any venture or application and, with time, you will have a great application that ranks well. However the greatest lesson we can learn early on is to separate our identity from our rejections. Do not internalize a rejection, especially when SO many factors go into a rejection that are beyond our control. For example:

  • You may have different reviewers than your peers.
  • Your application could be at the very bottom of a stack when reviewers are more tired or already have their favorite applicants in mind.
  • You could be part of a racially marginalized group (Black and/or Indigenous people) who are the most underrepresented and less likely to get funding compared to their white peers.
  • The research topics they are most interested in funding may not be your research topic even if you yourself are a fantastic candidate and have a great idea.
  • Your letter writers did not thoroughly read the criteria and wrote a subpar letter of recommendation.
  • Ivy league schools disproportionately receive funding and awards…..a massive issue that needs reform.
  • Your application may be ranked less because of an old GPA (happened to me!)
Image description: Four Black and brown cartoon characters placed at four different locations of the drawing (top, bottom, left, right). The leftmost character is a darker skin woman pointing to a whiteboard and appears to be instructing. The bottom character is a brown skin girl looking at the whiteboard. The character on the right is a darker skin woman with headphones on and typing on a laptop. The topmost character is a brown man typing on a laptop. Assumed to be in community learning with one another.

The list goes on. The take home remains: you are so much more than your academic successes or failures. You are a multifaceted human being with goals, dreams and hopes beyond validation from the ivory tower.

Talk with your team. If you received a rejection, talk with your team (PI, collaborators, etc) and consider finding different funding opportunities. Have a conversation with them about the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal. Maybe you need to slightly tweak the grant and apply to a different opportunity that is more targeted to your research.

Advocate for yourself when it comes to letters of recommendation. If a subpar LOR is a fear you have for the next application; take the guesswork out for your letter writers. It is common to send your letter writers emails saying exactly what they need to say, what points they need to emphasize, and provide them with a recent CV. Tell them what their deadlines are and any formatting rules that letter writers need to follow. Although it is more work on the students, our advisors are incredibly busy and this just helps make it as easy as possible for them to write us a great letter without having to dig for the answers.

Resources for UMass Amherst Students

1. Center for Research on Families (CRF) (<- link)

The CRF is dedicated to family research, but many might be surprised what qualifies as family research! If you can make an argument that your research could help families in any capacity, you should absolutely apply for their awards and programs. For example – my research focuses on age-related cognitive decline and effects of estrogens on synaptic homeostasis. While on the surface, that does not seem tied to family research, I argued that Alzheimer’s disease affects families, caretakers (who are disproportionately women) and the disease also disproportionately impacts women and other communities. Whether you research molecular and cellular science, policy, marginalized communities, psychology, mathematics, engineering, etc I am sure you can find a way to relate it to family research.

The CRF offers dissertation awards, travel awards and a program that was invaluable for me: the Graduate Student Grant Writing Program with Dr. Bekki Spencer. Bekki is an incredible mentor who has been extremely successful when it comes to applying for grants as well as mentoring students. They are especially looking for folks who are underrepresented. While many of the applicants may be white or white-presenting, the CRF stresses that they want more racially underrepresented folks to apply!

2. Office of Professional Development (OPD) (<- link)

OPD is an INCREDIBLE resource for every graduate student. They offer a wide range of events that focus on grant writing, inclusive teaching, TAing for the first time, finding careers post-graduation, public speaking, writing accountability groups and so much more. When I was applying for my grants, I heavily relied on OPD grant writing workshops, panels with successful awardees and peer-review workshop. You can also schedule a one-on-one consultation with Dr. Heidi Bauer-Clapp and get personalized feedback on your fellowship or grant applications!

3. Blackademics / Black in CNS

*Website coming soon* but for Black graduate students at UMass Amherst, this is a great way to find community as well as work on grants together, ask for example statements, etc. We have NSF GRFP winners, Ford Foundation Pre-doctoral & Doctoral awardees, HHMI Gilliam scholars, CRF scholars, and more who are a part of our community and eager to help with your applications. Email me or comment below with your email address to learn more.

4. International Student Community Conversations

There is a need for community among international students and support when it comes to discussing your research (especially if in your second, third, etc language) and how to apply for funding. I would highly suggest joining the Community Conversations with International Students (click here) as well as contacting the International Student Coordinator in Graduate Student Senate, Sohini Banerjee. Please do not be afraid to voice programming or events you need to be successful in graduate school. These folks are here for you! Also keep in mind that while many fellowships are not open to international students, internal awards and those offered by societies (e.g. Society for Neuroscience) often are!

Resources for ALL students!

1. Fellowship Finder (<- link)- a searchable database for finding grants and fellowships.

2. Open Grants (<- link) – a repository of successful and unsuccessful grant & fellowship applications. Some common ones are the NSF GRFP, Ford Foundation, etc.

3. Shadow CVs! What’s a shadow CV, I hear no one ask? Shadow CVs are basically a CV for all of the things folks *didn’t* successfully do. Often our CVs paint this unrealistic picture that we are constantly succeeding and doing well when, in reality, we succeed like 20% of the time. Here are some examples of Shadow CVs:

4. MUSE Mentorship (<- link) – an organization I started to provide representation and mentorship to severely underrepresented individuals in STEM fields. We are working on offering mentorship in person as well as virtually for the Fall 2021 semester. Stay tuned to learn more and follow us online http://www.musementorship.org and on social media @ MUSEmentorship

5. Cientifico Latino (<- link) – an organization that has countless incredible resources on their website as well as cohort mentorship for students applying to graduate school. Additionally, they offer amazing webinars for various funding opportunities to demystify the process. Support them on social media and follow their work!

6. BlackinNeuro (<- link) – an organization that has truly offered so much to the neuroscience community. They have many resources on their website for funding opportunities at any career stage. Please check them out and support the invaluable work they are doing.

WILL TRY TO DO A POST WITH ACTUAL TIPS FOR GRANT / FELLOWSHIP WRITING SOON!

(For example: how to work grant writing into your normal schedule and make it a goal to apply for one or several opportunities each semester, how to make a 5 year roadmap or funding plan for your graduate career, etc.)

One thought on “The Importance of Grant Writing in Graduate School

  1. Bravo Melise!

    I was amazed by the quality of your writing and the lessons I could learn from it.
    I would like to be able to write like this some days.
    Keep up the good work you are doing for the community and the newcomers like myself.

    Chapeau bas! ( Hat down for you)

    Like

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