Grant Writing Support

Learn about the opportunities for support, assistance, and incentives as you plan, prepare, and apply for fellowships and grant opportunities.

Nationally competitive fellowships and grants help you clarify your research, improve your writing, and expand your scholarly network. Grant writing is a vital skill for the academic, government, and non-profit sectors, and it is best developed with supported practice. Learn about the campus support effort for nationally competitive fellowships and the Graduate College’s Incentive award for applying to these programs.  Please also visit our Fellowships Communities pages for expanded information about the NSF GRFPMellon/ACLSAAUW, and Ford Foundation Fellowships or our Fall 2019 webinar series (upcoming and recorded) on these fellowships.

Finding Opportunities

Fellowships and grants can come from two main sources: internal and external. Many opportunities have deadlines 6-12 months before the funding would start; start your search well in advance (>1 year ahead of time)!

Internal opportunities are funded through the University of Iowa. Typically, internal awards will be for smaller amounts of money, for shorter time periods, but less likely to have eligibility restrictions about your specific research topic or citizenship. Some example UI groups that offer fellowships and grants are:

External opportunities are from organizations outside of the University of Iowa. These can include government agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF), non-profit organizations (e.g., AAUW, SSRC, Ford Foundation, Point Foundation), libraries or archives, conference organizers, and professional associations. They can range from small conference travel awards to multiple-year fellowships with full stipend support. External awards generally have more specific eligibility requirements such as research discipline, identity, citizenship, and/or stage in your degree program.

Example external funding databases:

Database search tips: (A) The databases have some content overlap, so anyone can be a good starting point. However, many opportunities are not cross-referenced across all databases; checking all of them is best for the most thorough search. (B) Think broadly—use many different search terms reflecting your research, interdisciplinary connections, your identity, a travel location, the type of funding you seek, etc. (C) Keep records of your searches to avoid misplacing information about an opportunity that may be useful later.

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Writing & Submission

Grant and fellowship writing is a distinct writing genre that has many key differences from scholarly writing for a course, your thesis committee, or an academic journal. Our Fellowships Communities pages provide expanded information about some of the fellowships for which UI graduate students most frequently apply (NSF GRFPMellon/ACLSAAUWFord), and 5 areas of generalizable advice are below.

I. Know your audience. Remember, your audience will be reading about you and your project for the first time while also reading many other people’s applications (likely when busy and/or tired). They will not have spent months or years thinking about your topic, and the level of background they have in your field may vary.

  • Use the same section headings and section order listed on the website, follow all directions, and be organized. Make the document as easy to read as possible for your reviewers so they can focus on your content, not be distracted trying to find key information.
  • Write to be understood by someone doing research most different from you while still being in scope for the award (or the review panel you have selected). Example: If applying for the NSF DDRIG in Geographical and Spatial Sciences (open only to geography research), be understandable to anyone doing any type of geography research. Example: If applying for the AAUW Dissertation Fellowship (open to graduate student women in any discipline), be understandable to someone from any discipline.
  • Provide more explicit context in the introduction and significance sections than you may first think necessary; what feels obvious to you won’t necessarily be so to an unfamiliar reader.
  • Define any key terms; avoid extensive subject-specific terminology (“jargon”) unless you are certain it is common knowledge to all reviewers.

II. Make a strong impression. Opportunities that ask for a personal statement consider information about your interests, background, motivations, and goals relevant.

  • Avoid phrasing that is so general that it could be equally applicable to you and everyone else applying. Even if your goal is one that many other people may have, the way you personally would approach that goal will not be the same as everyone else.
  • Be as specific as possible about your future goals (e.g., research, teaching, mentoring, community impact, or something else)—if you aren’t sure yet, think of them as representative examples of things you’d like to do.
  • Connect your past experiences to your present or future activities. Example: If you have overcome adversity, what effect has that experience had on your skills, motivation, or types of activities you want to accomplish? Example: Instead of only re-listing all of your accomplishments in chronological order, include periodic reminders of the ways in which those activities were relevant to your current plans.
  • Be selective in what content you include. Example: Procedural information (I attended this class, I spoke with this faculty member, I submitted my application, etc.) is less informative than insight into your thought process and motivations (the aspects of the class that were fascinating, the reasons that mentor appealed to you, etc).

III. Be intellectually persuasive. You are not writing only to tell a reader about your topic. You need to convince them that the topic is interesting, your approach to studying the topic will work, you know what you’re doing, and that good things will happen if they fund this work. Always give explanations, never assertions. Asserting that “this topic is important” and “this topic is interesting” is less compelling than describing the potential impact, how little is known, what’s unexpected, what could happen if we knew more, etc.

  • Treat your methodology section as a combination of both “what you’ll do” (including background context if your audience is unfamiliar with how a step will be done) and “why you’re using those particular methods” (why this particular approach is appropriate for the type of question you’re asking, if there are alternatives, if there are existing resources or contacts at these sites that will help the project go more smoothly).
  • If there are particularly risky steps (or steps that reviewers might see as risky), it is better to address them yourself than to let reviewers wonder. Include a backup plan and/or explain the reasons why a particular step is likely to succeed.
  • Don’t forget to discuss possible results and what different outcomes could mean for the main premise you’re investigating! This demonstrates that you are prepared for the analysis and interpretation stages after your methodology is complete, even if you were to see unexpected results.

IV. It takes time to write a proposal that accomplishes all of these things (clear, individualized, persuasive.) Seeking feedback from many different people is critical to ensure that your proposal makes sense to an unfamiliar reader. Your faculty advisor will be the best source for a specialist perspective; on the off chance that you are reviewed by another expert in your specific topic, your work needs to withstand that scrutiny. Faculty mentors and peers in your department who are not working on the same topic but are generally in the same discipline will often have backgrounds most similar to reviewers for fellowships open to only particular subjects (e.g., Anthropology, Geography, History). “Layperson” readers (mentors, friends, peers, family) who do not have any background in your discipline yet will give you honest, constructive feedback are particularly helpful for fellowships open to graduate students from any discipline. Fellowships advisors, such as the UI Grad Success office, can be “layperson” or “in field but non-specialist” readers (depending on the topic).

Routing with the Division of Sponsored Programs (DSP) is mandatory if you are applying for an NIH fellowship (F30/F31/F32), NIH grant (R36), NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (DDRI/DDIG/DDRIG), or other funding opportunity that requires a faculty member or the university itself to submit the application on your behalf. Routing requires the final versions of you materials to be submitted to DSP on their website 5 business days before the deadline on the funding organization’s website. See the DSP website for routing information.

V. Reference letters are required for most graduate student fellowships. The best letters are from people who can best comment on your activities and qualities that are most relevant to that fellowship’s evaluation criteria—for some awards, this will be 3 research references; for other awards, a mix of research, teaching, and/or leadership references may be more appropriate. Some tips:

  • Ask well in advance (around 1 month). This gives the reference writer time to prepare a quality letter, and it also gives you time to find alternatives if the person is unwilling or unable to write the letter.
  • Discuss the opportunity with the reference. What are the fellowship’s evaluation criteria (and, by extension, what information is relevant to include)? What are your goals in applying for this fellowship (so that the tone of the letter matches the tone of the application)?
  • Provide information. Documents that can be helpful to your writer can include the (near-)final version of the proposal, a current CV, links to the opportunity’s website, a follow-up note with specific examples from your past interactions the writer may wish to include, etc. The Graduate College has developed fillable worksheets for both specific and general fellowships that you can share with your advisor to help them write a more effective letter of recommendation. They can be accessed here (with hawkid and password). 
  • Send (friendly) reminders as the deadline approaches! This usually will not be seen as an imposition, and applications without the required total number of letters can be disqualified.
  • Be conscious that subtle differences in word choice, how accomplishments are described, and letter length can strongly affect the overall impression a reviewer receives. If you are comfortable doing so, consider mentioning some resources to your reference writer.
    • A generally good guide from HHMI (much advice generalizable across disciplines). Especially see pp. 10-11 and 15-19 for examples of how many small word choice differences (often unconsciously done when describing male vs. female applicants) can add up to a substantially stronger or weaker impression of an applicant.
    • An article by Dutt et al. (2016) found that letter writers from the Americas tend to write longer letters than writers from other geographic regions (Table 3). Be aware of the potential impact of cultural differences in how superlative a letter is expected to be by your writer and the reviewers! Also see Table 2 and the “Methods” section for qualities of letters surveyed senior faculty saw as “excellent,” “good,” or “doubtful.”

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Incentive Program

In recognition of the skills developed from and the effort required for producing a detailed and thoughtful application for a nationally competitive grant or fellowship, the Graduate College offers the $500 Fellowship Incentive Program. The student must get feedback on a written draft from two people before submitting the final proposal to the national funding organization: (1) the faculty advisor and (2) a graduate fellowships advisor from the list below. (Full submission information is available at the FIP homepage.)

  • Current fellowships advisors in scope for FIP are listed on the FIP homepage.  If you are working with another fellowships advisor in your department who fills a similar role, please have them contact us in advance of FIP submission at grad-success@uiowa.edu to ensure coordination with the Fellowship Incentive Program.

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FAQs

What’s a “stipend”?

A stipend is your salary money for your living expenses. It can be provided through an assistantship position (Research Assistantship, Teaching Assistantship, Graduate Assistantship) or a fellowship.

I need funding next semester. Is there a fellowship that can help?

Usually not; most fellowships that provide stipend support for a semester or a year have deadlines 6-12 months before the funding would start. Graduate College internal fellowships typically have application dates in March (for Summer or Fall semester support) or September (for Spring semester support). If those deadlines have passed, your best option will be to seek an assistantship position (RA, TA, or GA).

Where can I find information about assistantship positions (Research Assistantship, Teaching Assistantship, Graduate Assistantship)?

Some are listed on Graduate College’s funding for prospective student page, but directly inquiring with specific campus and departments is often an effective way to learn about other opportunities of interest.

Most assistantships are developed through your home department. If you do seek and apply for an assistantship in another department, professionalism when contacting faculty, departments, or organizations is essential.

  • Never send a generic e-mail; include context specific to that particular person/group to show that you have read about their activities, are genuinely interested in working there, and have skills/background relevant to their needs.
  • Use a professional tone. If you are inquiring whether positions are available or inquiring about the possibility of working with them, do not phrase the message as “I would like to apply for a job working with you."
  • If you do not get a reply in 1-2 weeks, it is fine to send a follow-up message. However, if you still do not get a reply, it may be best to move on to inquire elsewhere.
  • Respect their response if they decline or do not have any positions available.
  • If you have already interacted with this person or organization, inquiring informally in person may be more effective than e-mails.

 

How do I get funds to travel to a conference?

In the short term, the main options are the conference itself, GSSGPSG, and your home department. If you are an RA on a faculty member’s research grant, you can also check with that faculty mentor to see if conference travel was included in the grant’s budget. Postdocs can apply for travel funds here.

In the long term, some larger grants open to graduate student applicants can let you write conference travel expenses into the budget. This must be done in advance (at the time you submit the grant application), and you must carefully read the grant’s conditions to determine whether conference travel is an allowable cost.

I did not find any funding opportunities applicable to me on your website or in any of the external funding databases. What can I do?

Initially, consider three things:

  • Consider whether you are thinking broadly enough. Very specific keyword search terms (e.g., “mitosis”) are much less likely to have a match than more general terms (“science”). In addition to your immediate research project, also look for opportunities related to any interdisciplinary connections, travel destinations, your identity, and your career interests.
  • Consider how extensively you searched—all of the databases or just the first 5 results? It does take a lot of time to do a thorough search, and there is no one single database that lists every funding opportunity that exists.
  • Recognize that available funding opportunities in the USA do vary based on your degree type (more for PhD than master’s or professional degrees), your stage in your program (more for students post-comprehensive exams), citizenship (more for USA citizens/nationals/permanent residents), discipline, and subject matter. It’s not the answer you’ll want to hear and it’s not an answer we like giving, but these variables can sometimes coincide in a way that may limit the number of external funding opportunities for which you are eligible at the moment.

With those considerations in mind, some tangible steps you can do are to:

  • Apply for internal fellowships through UI, which often have fewer eligibility restrictions based on citizenship or research project topic
  • Still apply for any smaller awards you find (e.g., conference travel awards, GSS, GPSG) to build your CV and gain writing experience

If you were seeking funding opportunities specifically as an additional stipend source, also:

  • Seek assistantship positions with individual faculty (RA), your department (TA), related departments (TA), and/or campus organizations (GA)
  • Consider applying for a part-time paid internship or campus job.

How do I know whether my grant or fellowship application needs DSP routing before I submit it?

Any grant or fellowship that requires the university to submit it on your behalf or is submitted by your faculty mentor on your behalf is required to have the final version of the materials submitted to the Division of Sponsored Programs (DSP) for routing 5 business days before the deadline listed on the funding organization’s website. This includes NIH F31/F30/F32 fellowships, NIH R36 grants, NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants, and Fahs-Beck Grants.

If you are submitting a grant or fellowship application directly as an individual (e.g., NSF GRFP, AAUW Fellowship, Ford Foundation Fellowship), routing before submission is encouraged but optional.

Small grants (e.g., conference travel awards) and internal funding applications do not require routing with DSP.

If you are not sure whether your grant or fellowship requires routing before submission, please contact DSP or the Grad Success office for clarification.

Will getting a grant or fellowship impact my financial aid?

Please contact the Financial Aid Office with questions about your specific situation.

Why isn’t [specific opportunity] listed on your grant/fellowship examples page?

We are initially prioritizing fellowships and grants for which a relatively wide range of graduate students may be in scope; for example, travel awards to specific conferences, libraries, or archives are generally not listed because each individual opportunity’s applicability is strongly dependent on the particular needs of your research project. We strongly encourage you to search multiple external funding databases, conference websites, and/or web pages of libraries of interest to check for additional opportunities that may be relevant.

If you know of a grant or funding opportunity that may be of broad interest to a large number of graduate students or postdocs that you would like us to add to the website, please let us know at grad-success@uiowa.edu.

How many grants or fellowships can I apply for?

At the application stage: There is generally no limit to how many organizations to which you can submit applications other than your ability to balance the time required for writing applications, coursework, research, teaching, and other activities. Preparing a competitive grant or fellowship application requires many rounds of revision and feedback to determine whether your proposal makes sense to a reader who has not spent months or years working on your topic, so give yourself abundant time to work on each application.

At the funding stage: In general, you cannot be paid for the same activity at the same time. For example, if you won two fellowships that would both provide full stipend support for year 3 of your program, you would have pick just one (or see if one organization would let you defer the fellowship to a later year). However, having both (A) a fellowship that gives stipend support for year 3 and (B) a grant paying for research project expenses in year 3 would generally be all right because different activities are being funded by different awards. Always check the specific details for each award to determine whether one conflicts with another.

If RA positions are supported through grants, can I write a grant to work as an RA?

RA positions (which provide your salary for your living expenses) typically come from faculty grants that the faculty mentor writes and submits; the faculty member’s grant budget can include salary support to pay for personnel who are necessary for the project to happen. Grants submitted by graduate students usually do not let you budget for your own salary. The type of awards submitted by graduate students that would provide a stipend are typically called “fellowships”. If you are supported by a fellowship, you would be considered a “fellow” and not an “RA”.

Shorter answer: No, but you can apply for a fellowship to cover your stipend or apply for a grant to get research project supplies/travel expenses.

I’m in a STEM field and have heard about “training grants.” What are they, and can I apply for one?

Training grants are large grants that faculty submit (e.g., NIH T32) that fund a multiple-year training program for graduate students (and/or postdocs) in a specific subject area, including stipends for multiple graduate students or postdocs who are supported by the training grant. As a graduate student or postdoc, you cannot apply directly to NIH for training grant support. Instead, if faculty members are planning to submit or have already won a training grant, you would need to contact those faculty members directly to inquire about how they will determine which students or postdocs will be supported.

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