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Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 11: Fellowship Applications Are FUN!


Here in Micella-land, I am desperately trying to finish a fellowship application for one of those prestigious awards that go to only two people each year. For some this would be a deterrent. But hey, I'm a glutton for pain, and maybe, just maybe, the committee will think I'm good enough to warrant awarding me fabulous sums of money to do the work that is so near and dear to my heart. And of course, there are the prevailing money woes that go with being a graduate student (Ramen noodles, or soup again?).

So, aside from working to keep Jeff at bay, stay satisfied with my progress, and maintain my sanity, I am now in the midst of justifying my work and trying to demonstrate how fabulous I am so that a foundation will give me money to do even more work. Why not just pay graduate students a little bit more? Why must we compete for the ever-shrinking slice of the research money pie? Philosophical questions for another time.

Alas, I have found that this process has given me new vigor about my work and the work I am proposing to do. As I struggled to complete the fellowship application, I found that applicants must be able to examine "the big picture" in order to justify their work and say, "Hey, I'm worth your money." Applicants also have to be able to see beyond their current experiments to what the project could be. For some of us this is simple: We've always known what the point is, and it has always been a shining light in the distance. But for those floundering in reality, it might be easier said than done.

Lucky for me, I have an adviser who, when I said, "I'm interested in doing work in this area," said, "Start here and try this." And so I did. After a great deal of work--digging through the stacks, deciphering older papers related to a new concept, drafts wet with the blood of Jeff's red pen, and even an all-nighter or two--earlier this year I wrote a proposal that could hold some water. Now I am expected to take that proposal and pare it down--slicing this detail and chopping a smidgen here and there--to create a broader and prettier picture, one that earns me money, notoriety, and fame! (Just kidding--I only want the money at the moment.) But I've learned some things along the way.

Playing the Game: Dancing for Dollars

  • Look for the fellowships to which few people are applying. Fewer applicants mean a higher probability of actually receiving an award. When searching award databases (e.g., GrantsNet and the Minority Scientist Network Resources Page), search for the broad and for the specific. You might be surprised: There could be an award given to students doing exactly what you are doing, but if you don't look, you'll never know.

  • Don't always go for the big bucks. Small awards add up to big awards. Yes, you may have to submit more applications, but as you submit each one, show that you've taken the initiative to seek funds in many places. You will also build a network of contacts and a library of proposal language to be used another day.

  • Check out programs offered by your professional societies; many offer fellowships and scholarships to graduate students at various stages of their career.

  • Read the instructions and program announcement carefully. Then read them again. And again. Make sure you are qualified for the programs to which you are applying. There is nothing worse than spending time on an application for which you are not qualified, except disqualifying yourself for a program because you neglected the fine print.

  • Submit a complete application! Answer all of the questions posed; do not leave anything out. Make sure they know how wonderful you are. When in doubt, ask an objective reader who may not be familiar with your project to go over your materials. Do they reflect the excellent qualities that make you an outstanding young researcher? Do they show excitement for your work?

  • Procrastination, as usual, is NOT your friend. Sound proposals cannot be written in a week, or even 2 weeks. Excellent proposals require constant rereading and revision, preferably by someone other than you. We are often blinded by what we believe to be our brilliance, and it is only through the eyes of others that we can see the holes we have left unplugged.

  • Your adviser can be very helpful. Simply put, she usually knows a lot more than you do. The "new" idea you think is so wonderful might well have been tried before, so before you invest a great deal of time and effort, talk to someone knowledgeable in your field. Besides, it might be in your adviser's interest for you to secure your own money, as this might free some of her money for other uses.

  • Make your research relevant. Why should others care about your ideas and work? As with all good research proposals, the reviewers need to know why this project is important. You don't have to cure cancer every time, but you do need to have an understanding of the impact your project could have on the larger society and express that view clearly and with enthusiasm.

  • Write to the right audience. Often program announcements tell you who will be reading your proposal. Is it a general audience with limited knowledge of your field, or do the readers know everything already? This will invariably affect how broad or razor-sharp your research description will need to be. It can be burdensome trying to emphasize the finer points of your proposal, so when in doubt about what to emphasize, ask your adviser and the program officer.

  • Program officers are there to help, so contact them. They are your best friends if you have any doubt about wording on the application. Be polite, introduce yourself, get their name, state your question, and thank them for their time. It all seems so simple, yet so many people seeking funding wander needlessly in the dark

  • Former awardees can be helpful. If you happen to be applying for one of those prestigious programs, contact past winners. Find out what it was about them and their application that was spectacular. Ask them about the application process. Get all of the information you can; they have what you want.

  • Examine the data on past awardees. If there is a database of awardees, examine it for projects that are similar to yours. It might be that the funder has already given money to someone doing what you want to do. This might be reason enough to give your proposal a different spin. Innovation is the key!

Well, to all of those applying for fellowships this season, good luck, and to those who have already been awarded funding, hearty congratulations! Send tips for those of us waiting in the wings.

You can send e-mail to Micella at

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