6 Professional Grant-Writing Tips for Graduate Students

Everyone loves grants and fellowships.

Grants are free money. They’re a mark of distinction on your CV. They can jump-start your dissertation research in its early stages or provide the shot of adrenaline you need to clear the finish line.

As such, grant writing is one of the most important skills you can develop during your graduate school career.

As you probably know if you’re reading this article, grant writing is also a highly involved process. At times, just researching and applying for grants can feel like another part-time job.

Turns out, free money isn’t cheap!

These grant-seeking and grant-writing tips are geared towards grad students in the humanities and social sciences who have already formulated their core dissertation topic.

You know what you want to do with your research; now you need someone to foot the bill.

We’ll discuss how to: define your specific funding needs, identify suitable and realistic grants, study your audience, and craft concise and compelling proposals that funding committees won’t be able to ignore.

1. Define Your Funding Needs

“Whaddya mean, ‘funding needs’?”, you protest. “I’m living on a shoestring graduate-student stipend. I need extra funding for everything!”

Well, yes, that’s certainly true. But it’s one thing to need money; it’s another thing to convince a committee that your needs supersede those of all the other applicants for that particular grant or fellowship.

In general, grad students apply for grants for one of three reasons:

  • Support research costs: in humanities/SS, this usually means supporting travel to archives, institutions, your fieldwork site, conferences, and the like.
  • Freedom from teaching responsibilities: an early fellowship, ideally in the third or fourth year of your PhD program, can help you jump-start your dissertation writing.
  • Late-stage writing support: some PhD programs provide an allotment of guaranteed funding for grad students—say, five years or so. Once you’ve exhausted that, you need a bit more cash to keep your head above water while you finish your research.

Depending on what research stage you’re at, you’ll be eligible for very different funding sources. Hence, it’s essential to know your funding needs as a grad student. Don’t waste a whole bunch of time applying for grants that you don’t qualify for.

2. Start Small

There are millions of grants out there. Just scrolling through a major funding database like Pivot, GrantForward, or Harvard CARAT can feel overwhelming.

But before diving into an ocean of applications, try to start small. The best way to identify suitable grants and fellowships is not through some gigantic database but through good-old-fashioned word of mouth.

Talk to your advisor, other grad students, or alumni from your department/program. If a colleague won a local fellowship or grant, chances are you’ll have a decent shot at it yourself.

What’s cool here is that most PhDs keep a ready-made list of grants in the form of their academic CV.

Ask friends and fellow grad students if they’d be willing to share their CV. Identify which grants people in your department, at your current career stage, tend to win. Aim to replicate that success. No need to reinvent the wheel here.

Additionally, many campuses have an Office of Research, Office of Fellowships, or some such thing. If you’re unsure whether your school has one, just google it! They’ll advise you on which on-campus funding opportunities will best suit your current research aims.

Your local grant office will likely have subscriptions to several prominent funding databases. When you’re ready to branch out and start applying for national and international funding, keep these resources in mind.

In grant writing, as in all things, it’s good to start small.

3. Make a Grant-Writing Spreadsheet

Seriously! Make a master spreadsheet with all the grants you’re considering. You probably won’t apply for all of them, but it’s crucial to keep track of them nonetheless.

Here’s a template that you are more than welcome to steal.

Even better, make a Google spreadsheet. Share it with your advisor (and anyone else who might write you a letter of reference). This lets them easily check the spreadsheet at any time for updates, new information, etc.

In your spreadsheet, track the requirements and deadlines of each grant. Note which referees you plan to use for each. Copy/paste the web links for easy reference.

Make different spreadsheet tabs for different years of your academic career. If it’s too soon to apply for such-and-such major international funding scheme now, make a note of it for later.

For fellowships and grants at the graduate student level, start working on your proposal one month before the deadline. This might seem excessive, but good proposals require several weeks of reading and revising.

When requesting letters of reference, a good rule of thumb is two weeks before the deadline.

Now, if you stumble upon your dream grant opportunity five days before the deadline, don’t be shy about asking for a letter at the last minute! But, in general, two weeks of advanced notice is considered polite.

It’s crucial to meticulously update your spreadsheet and share it with all relevant parties. Keep yourself and others well-informed about the process from beginning to end.

4. Study Your Audience

When you finally put pen to paper and start your proposal, make sure you know your audience. This is essential not just in grant writing for grad students but in all facets of professional life.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re applying for a multi-million-dollar research grant or a part-time dishwashing job at IHOP. Anytime you want something from someone, be it a grant, fellowship, award, job offer, partnership, or anything else, you get it by knowing your audience and convincing them that you can serve them.

Study the grant description/funding guidelines very carefully. In fact, study them with the same thoroughness and attention to detail that you bring to your dissertation research.

The grant description is the primary source. Analyze it and tailor your proposal accordingly.

Stick close to the language of the grant. If it emphasizes interdisciplinarity, area studies, certain subfields, etc., play those up as much as possible in your proposal.

Show how your work will fulfill the mission of the granting organization. If the organization aims to make some kind of demonstrable impact on society through its funding schemes, clearly state how your proposal will do that. Don’t leave it implicit.

Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about them.

5. The Hourglass Model

The form of your proposal matters every bit as much as its content. One of our best grant-writing tips for grad students is to adopt the ‘hourglass model’ of grant writing.

Huh?

An hourglass grant proposal conforms to the following structure:

  • Broad introduction to your research field or dissertation topic.
    • Survey of the current state of the field/topic.
      • Identifying a specific gap in the literature that has heretofore gone unnoticed.
      • Clear, concise explanation of how your project will fill this gap and solve this problem.
      • Concrete details on the sources, methods, and previous scholarship you plan to draw on
    • Brief explanation of the immediate impacts you expect your work to have on your area of focus.
  • Broad conclusion showing how your project will benefit your scholarly field and areas of interest of the granting organization.

So, the proposal starts broad, narrows down to the nitty gritty details, then zooms out again to explain the ‘so what?’ of the whole project.

Hey it’s, uh, shaped like an hourglass!

… Get it?

Oh, by the way, you typically must do all of this in 2–3 pages. Be as clear and concise as possible. Know the essentials of your project. Cut out superfluous details.

Again, it’s like an hourglass. Every grain of sand must be precisely measured. Even the tiniest bit of fluff will jam up the whole thing. 

Man, we’re really torturing this metaphor, aren’t we? 🙂  Apologies.

6. Revise, Revise, Revise

Out of all our grant-writing tips for grad students, this one is perhaps the most important. To truly stand out, your proposal must go through several rounds of editing and revising.

No matter how clear and compelling your proposal seems to you, there’s a chance it’s only clear and compelling to you.

Put differently, a piece of writing that makes perfect sense inside your own head might be completely incomprehensible to anyone else.

In the humanities and social sciences, this sort of thing happens all the time. We all work in such narrow subfields. It’s easy to lose sight of what other people do and do not know about our chosen topic.

So, ask other people to read your proposal. Your advisor, other faculty members, grad-student colleagues, etc. Anyone who can help you step outside of your own head and see your proposal from a different point of view.

Ideally, find a previous recipient of the grant you’re applying for (see grant-writing tips #2).

Regardless of who you work with, plan to go through several drafts of your proposal before it’s ready for submission.

Don’t be afraid to write a bad first draft! By the time draft #5 comes around, you’ll have had plenty of time to iron out the kinks.

The more drafts you go through, and the more different people read your proposal, the more opportunities you’ll have to catch gaps in your logic and clarify any ambiguities.

Again, a grant proposal isn’t about what sounds good to you, or what makes sense to you. It’s meant to be read by others.

Strive to see your grant proposal from an outside observer’s point of view. Beyond grant-writing tips, this is an excellent piece of writing advice in general.

Conclusion

As you can see, grant writing is definitely not a one-and-done kind of thing. Don’t expect to hammer out a proposal in one night and then wait for the cash to come rolling in.

No. Grant writing requires research, planning, collaboration, and tons of editing and revising.

Given how many other tasks grad students have to juggle on a daily basis, this kind of in-depth grant writing can be a daunting task.

That’s why Beyond the Professoriate offers a variety of grant and fellowship coaching services.

Our resident fundraising consultant, Ben Arenger, will walk you through the process and help you communicate your research clearly and efficiently.

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