Apply early — and often — for success in funding your research as a graduate student, experts say.
"Securing your own funding — be it through a research grant or fellowship — shows that you have the capacity to be an independent researcher," says University of Iowa psychology doctoral student Edmarie Guzman-Velez, recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellowship to conduct memory and emotion research on people with Alzheimer's disease.
The ability to bring in their own grant money also changes students' relationships with their advisors, allowing for more peer-based interactions and discussions, says Bruna Martins, a doctoral psychology student at the University of Southern California, who has also secured an NSF fellowship.
"It really gives you the opportunity to pursue something that might not align perfectly with the research goals of your lab," Martins says.
Sounds great, right? So how do you procure this money?
Students should begin identifying potential grants before they are even eligible to apply, advises APAGS Assistant Director Eddy Ameen, PhD. "That way, you can shape your research pathway so that it crosses a few potential funding streams."
In addition, Martins notes, developing your grant-writing skills early in your graduate career gives you more time to hone your abilities and your research story, which will likely lead to more success.
"Starting off is the hardest part," she says. "Getting your feet wet is a great way to get that process started and to start mastering the art of writing grants."
Do your research
It may surprise you to learn there are scores of research funding sources for graduate students — as long as you know where to look. For starters, check in with your department and university. These internal opportunities offer an excellent way to begin applying for grants and credentials en route to "meatier" awards from the federal government.
Also, be sure to ask your school's grant/fellowship office about other grants and fellowships they know of, Martins says.
"This is often a little-known resource on campuses, and the officers there are so knowledgeable, not only about the existence of grants and fellowships but also the procedure and things to keep in mind, as well as what the mission of some of these grants are, which is really important," she says. "Then you can write your application with that in mind."
In addition, APA, the American Psychological Foundation and several other affiliated organizations offer grants.
Listservs, including those of APA divisions, state psychology associations and other more specialized organizations, can also be a great way to find potential funding sources, says Ana Hernández Kent, a doctoral psychology student at St. Louis University and member of the APAGS Science subcommittee.
"Their emails often include grant and other funding opportunities and give helpful information such as deadlines and who should apply," she says.
Follow the instructions
Guzman-Velez still cringes when recalling a friend who had a stellar application for an NSF fellowship but was automatically disqualified after submitting her references in nine-point font, when the instructions required nothing smaller than 10-point font.
"They didn't even look at her application," she says.
Martins cautions that every step of the grant process is a test of a student's ability to be detail-oriented as a researcher, so it's important to find out as much as you can about the rules of the grants you're after.
"It's the first litmus test for the people who will be judging your grant," she says. "They need to know that you're very invested in it and that you're going to follow the instructions that they set forth diligently and not think you're beyond the rules."
Making connections with more senior graduate students — particularly those who have received the grant you're applying for — can also be a key factor in helping you strengthen your application, says Mike Sladek, an NSF graduate research fellow and developmental psychology graduate student at Arizona State University. Ask what they did, how soon they started writing their grants and what they think helped them succeed, Martins says. If they're willing to share their application with you, it can be a great way to better understand the components that may lead to success. And definitely ask them to be part of your review team when it's time to finalize and proof your application, Sladek says.
Your cover letter is your chance to showcase your career as a scientist, and specificity is key, says Guzman-Velez. As a grant reviewer for APAGS, she says she's constantly seeing cover letters telling her that the applicant is a promising student, without providing evidence to back up that statement.
Martins agrees, and encourages students to avoid vague descriptions about themselves, such as, "I have a passion for science," which don't give the readers a true sense of who you are and why you're qualified for the award.
"We all have a passion for science," she says. "Most of the people who are applying for the grant will use that kind of language, so be concrete and really spell out who you are and what your background is. It gives you a step up relative to the other applicants."
Showcase the fit
In addition to describing who you are as a scientist, your cover letter should convince the reader that your research goals are in line with the grant maker's mission and goals.
"You're trying to tell a story about who you are as an applicant, what you envision in terms of your relationship with this grant institution and then show them how the fit is great and that you are ready to perform this project that you're proposing," Martins says.
Go outside your field of study
Have your application reviewed by your advisor, other faculty who may have experience with the particular grant, and other graduate students, Sladek says.
"It's also not a bad idea to get feedback from scholars outside of your area of study," he says. "They should be able to follow your application just as well as someone familiar with your research area."
Be sure to factor in this extra review time from the start.
"If your mentor usually takes a week to get back to you, make sure you give him or her a few weeks to review your application," Guzman-Velez says. "It's not only the writing part that you have to keep in mind, but also the back-and-forth between you and your advisor, so that you can get your application as polished as possible."
Don't give up
Persistence is key in grant writing, Guzman-Velez says.
"I applied for NSF my first year in grad school and didn't get it, but I used the feedback I received from them to strengthen my application and then in my second year, I was awarded the grant," she says.
And rejection is simply part of the process, Martins says, making it important to develop a thick skin early on.
"Getting practice with dealing with no and understanding that it's not personal and moving on from that builds your emotional resilience as a scientist," she says.
By Amy Novotney