Tips and Pitfalls for Research Funding in Grad School

By Phil Magness

“How do I secure money for ___?” Whether you’re a grad student or faculty member, you have probably asked yourself that question at some point in your career. Perhaps it’s tuition, or living expenses, or a grant to buy data or books. Maybe it’s for travel to a conference, dues in a professional association, or a stipend to conduct research or prepare a manuscript for publication. The bottom line, as any decent economist will tell you: money is scarce, and it generally isn’t handed out free of charge for pure benevolence.

While the quest for research funding is highly competitive, here are a few tips you should consider to help your name stand out from the pack and, hopefully, maximize the return.

1. You are not entitled to free money.

This should go without saying for classical liberals, but it is worth reiterating and remembering. Even when you do receive a grant, scholarship, or award, it is seldom if ever out of the pure benevolence of the giver and it is almost certainly not something you “deserve” by simply being you. Instead, think of funding in academia as a specific investment in your research. Like any other investment, funds are scarce and those seeking them differ widely in quality and focus. In order to attract an investment you need to demonstrate that your research agenda is worth supporting. That means a strong and consistent output, research of a scholarly caliber, and often work on a topic of importance to advancing your field. If you’ve been accepted to a grad program you’ve probably already done this at least once without explicitly viewing it as an investment pitch, even though in part it was exactly that. But if you forget that a scholarship, grant, stipend, or endowment is fundamentally an investment in you and what you’re doing, if you neglect your work and let its quality slip, don’t expect the funds to keep flowing for long.

2. Be appreciative of what you receive.

When a department, scholarship fund, or grant-giving organization decides your research is worthy of support, be appreciative. In all likelihood they selected you out of hundreds of other applicants, and did so because something in your work was thought to merit their attention. If you receive an award no matter how large or small, be sure to thank the granting institution for their support and, more importantly, keep them apprised of your progress. If you were funded to do research in a specific library or archival collection, inform them of your finds and how their materials assisted your overall work. If you attended a conference on a travel fund, report back to them what you accomplished while there (note this also entails using your time wisely at the conference, so don’t attend a meeting in Vegas on funding only to spend 3.5 out of 4 days there in the casino). While grant-giving institutions are probably not expecting a polished copy of your dissertation in hand or a discourse on the complexities of the literature in your field, they do like to know that their investment was well spent and yielded a meaningful result. Just as important – being appreciative with what you have now helps to signal to a grant-giving organization that you are worthy of additional support in the future.

3. Demonstrate that you are reliable.

If you seek grant money or receive funding for your program, understand that it comes with an obligation that you put it to good use. This entails following through on the requirements of the granting institution, such as submitting a post-research summary or attending required sessions of a seminar or conference. The bottom line is that reputation matters in fulfilling your obligations as the recipient of funding, and if you have a reputation for being unreliable fewer organizations will be willing to invest any further in you. Don’t be the student who accepts a travel voucher for an academic meeting, only to duck out early and miss important sessions. Don’t be the researcher who forgets to answer a survey on how his/her grant money was spent. Don’t be the person who habitually cancels on conferences the week before because a research paper/midterms/grading/work is keeping you too busy (if anything, that means you misallocated your time months ago when you applied for funding and accepted the invitation to attend). All of these and other bad habits of some academics are a signal about your reliability, because they tie up resources that could be better utilized by somebody else. If you show you aren’t reliable with a funded program or grant now it’s a virtual guarantee that you won’t be offered it again in the future.

4. In some respects, grad students actually have it easy.

Yes, you read that right. Large grants are difficult to obtain if you’re only a grad student, but think of the opportunities where you do have the advantage. The first is a funded grad program itself. If you have funding, it may not seem like much and perhaps the grunt work of TAing and grading is taxing but think about it: you’re essentially being paid to go to school. Not many people can say that. Second, take advantage of your status in grad school to get small, dedicated grants for conference attendance. Most academic associations have some form of discounted rate or subsidy for travel and attendance at their annual meetings. Some are more competitive than others, but this is one of the many ways they encourage new blood to join. Avail yourself of it now as it won’t last!

5. Keep a calendar.

You’d be surprised how easy it is to lose track of dates and deadlines for grants, scholarships, and other funding opportunities. That’s because there is no fixed schedule for them – they tend to fall in clusters throughout the year. Organizing your calendar now will also get you in the habit of tracking deadlines for other aspects of the academic life in the future – specifically, the job market. And in keeping with the tip above about reliability, it helps you manage your time across the semester so you don’t miss deadlines for a followup report and don’t find yourself swamped with exams or papers when a conference comes around.

6. Above all else, don’t be rude when you get rejected.

Not everyone gets the funding he or she desires. The fact that you think your project is an ideal fit for a grant program does not mean the reviewers will agree. There is only one certainty to grant applications in the academy: you will be rejected for funding at some point in your career. It will probably happen more often than you succeed, but the fact is it will happen and sometimes it will be very disappointing. It may even be infuriating, since you probably spent many long hours writing your essays and polishing your application materials. No matter how frustrated or angry you may be and no matter how “justified” you feel (even though you are never truly justified: see point #1 above), you must resist the urge to fire back an angry email or make a pestering phone call. Simply put, there’s nothing at all you will gain from it, but plenty to lose. Think about it. Most grant-givers don’t know you from any of the hundreds of other applications they receive except for (A) what you formally submit in your application and (B) how you interact with them throughout the application process. The good news about part (A) is that it can almost always be redone and resubmitted next year if things don’t work out quite right. Maybe your application was a strong one, but this year’s applicant pool was highly competitive and they had to make the cut somewhere. So polish up your essays and try again, or try another funder. If you screw up part (B) though you will become known for it. Rude emails and haranguing phone calls are a sure way to signal to the application reviewers that you’re a pest to work with. Nobody likes giving free money to a pest, so it’s in your long term self-interest not to become one.

by Phil Magness


For more advice on graduate student or research funding:

Dr. Mike Munger on Obtaining Research Funding

Obtaining Funding as a Grad Student

Etiquette for Emailing Scholarship Programs

Be a Colleague, Not a Pest

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