Seasoned researchers and other experts offer advice on how to maximize your chances of getting funding for your research
1. Cast a wide net
Explore the full range of grant opportunities in your area. APA, the American Psychological Foundation, and the Social Psychology Network maintain databases of hundreds of grants. Also, check grant funding sources directly, including federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), and private organizations such as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York or the Russell Sage Foundation. State psychological associations and honor societies, such as Psi Chi, may also offer funding. Consider both standing opportunities (with deadlines one or more times per year) and one-time opportunities.
Funding is available for researchers at every career stage. For graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, there are fellowships, awards to increase diversity and funding to help young scientists transition to independent research early in their careers. Some of those awards are still available for researchers as they transition to faculty positions. There is also a range of funding, starting with small, pilot grants to test whether a project is feasible and extending to large, highly sought grants that support specific, well-developed research projects. Senior faculty may also apply for training grants that support graduate and postdoctoral educational and research programs.
One way to identify funding opportunities is by following agencies and foundations on social media, says Elizabeth Albro, PhD, the associate commissioner of teaching and learning at the National Center for Education Research in IES. Also, watch for webinars and workshops at scientific conferences that agencies and other funders may offer to help researchers become familiar with different funding opportunities and how to navigate the application process.
Some grant or fellowship applications for graduate students or postdoctoral researchers may require a nomination or support letter from a faculty member. Don't be shy about asking professors to nominate you. More often than not, a mentor will want to write a letter for you. "Your success is their success," says Justin Strickland, a graduate student at the University of Kentucky and chair of the APA's Science Student Council. Once someone agrees to nominate you, give him or her a copy of the award instructions and a current CV to remind them of the research you have done and the activities you have been involved in to help them write an in-depth evaluation of you and your work.
2. Put your research question into context
As you think about writing up your research proposal, remember that you should explain how your research idea relates to and expands upon experiments and theories that have already been published. "We want to see how new research draws from and contributes to psychological theory in an innovative way," says Tamera Schneider, PhD, a program director for social psychology at NSF. To do this successfully, you need to be able to articulate the current state of the field and how your work advances what is already known. You also need to show how the research meets the need of the particular funding organization from which you are requesting money. Research questions that start from a newer theory or model or propose a significant twist to an older one can also give you an edge.
3. Work with the program officer who manages the grant
Program officers at the funding organization can guide you on whether your proposal is a good fit for their grant, says Bonnie Spring, PhD, a psychologist at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Sending an email with a one-page description of your project — including the question you want to answer, the theories from which the question arises, and your hypotheses and methods — and asking for an honest assessment from the program officer can go a long way toward making sure your proposal matches the call for applications for a grant, says Schneider. Program officers may also give you specific feedback about the scope, originality and feasibility of the research. After an application is evaluated, program officers "can also make recommendations to improve proposals based on our reviewers' insights, which help researchers strengthen their future submissions," Schneider says.
4. Get help from your institution, including your university grants office
Your department may have faculty with strong track records in obtaining grants, and they may have examples of winning applications to share with you. In addition, most research universities have a grants office that can help you plan your application, such as by advising on a timeline and budget for the project. These offices will also work with you to ensure your grant application has the proper sign-offs across the institution and will often submit the application on your behalf.
5. Start well before the deadline
Make sure you have plenty of time to develop a coherent description of your research. Schneider encourages applicants to read their work out loud so they can identify gaps in thinking. "If you read a proposal out loud and have a question, the reader will probably have the same question, too," she says. Once you think you have a strong description, send it to your mentors and colleagues for feedback. Plan for several weeks to develop and refine your application, then several more to get feedback from mentors and colleagues and integrate that into a new draft and more time for a final review before you submit the application. If submitting through your institution's grants office, take note that it might require you to submit the application to the office weeks in advance of the grant deadline.
6. Know your audience
One of the biggest challenges in writing grant applications is communicating your idea in a clear, concise way to reviewers with different areas of expertise. Find out who will be reviewing your application by checking with the program officer. The names of the members of the review panel may be available, or you may be able to find out only the areas of expertise that will be represented. If the panel is made up of researchers in your field, you can be more technical in your research description, Spring says. But if it is an interdisciplinary review panel, be sure you are clearly defining specialized terms and abbreviations.
7. Apply without fear of failure
Often, students won't apply for grants because they have pre-rejected themselves, says Aaron Benjamin, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "They are afraid of being laughed at for their ideas," he says. But almost no graduate student or early career psychologist wins the biggest and best awards on the first try. Of course, not succeeding can be disappointing, but there can be a silver lining: You may get the benefit of a constructive critique of your proposal and an invitation to revise and resubmit it. Plus, learning how to cope with rejection is a key part of growing as a researcher. "If you're not experiencing at least occasional rejection, you're not stretching far enough," Spring says.
For a list of funding opportunities from APA, state psychological associations, private foundations and government entities, visit www.apa.org/education/grad/funding.aspx.
By Ashley Yeager
This article was featured in the July/August 2017 Monitor on Psychology