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 GRFP, Mellon/ACLS, AAUW, and Ford Foundation Fellowships.
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:
- The Graduate College
- GSS and GPSG
- International Programs
- Individual departments
- Student Disability Services
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:
- UI Grant Bulletin (note: default entries are mostly for faculty; “Student Grant Opportunities” section is on the left bar)
- UCLA GRAPES
- Michigan State University Library Grants
- SPIN (notes: need to use an on-campus computer or remote desktop log-in to have institutional subscription access recognized; click below the text box to “edit filters,” especially “Applicant Type,” to limit to only most relevant results)
- NIH-hosted lists of organizations that fund predoctoral students and postdocs doing biomedical research
Database search tips: (A) The databases have some content overlap, so any one 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.
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 GRFP, Mellon/ACLS, AAUW, Ford, NSF DDRIG, NIH), and generalizable advice is below.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
- 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.”
The UI Grad Success office can meet with graduate students and postdocs at Gilmore Hall or MRC to discuss fellowship/grant writing strategies and provide feedback on external grant and fellowship application drafts.
- We are not able to give feedback on applications for Graduate College fellowships, GSS awards, GPSG awards, or other funding provided from the Graduate College.
- If you have introductory questions about how to identify funding opportunities, please first (A) read all material on this “Fellowships” page (including FAQs) and (B) conduct some preliminary searches of the external funding databases before booking an appointment.
- Once you have identified an opportunity of interest that you are eligible for, you can book an appointment to discuss preparation in further detail.
- Make an appointment.
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 the $500 Fellowship Incentive Program. Student must get feedback on a written draft and online signatures from two people before submitting an application for a nationally competitive fellowship: (1) the faculty advisor and (2) a graduate fellowships advisor from the list below.
- Current fellowships advisors in scope for FIP: the Grad Success Office (Jen Teitle & Elizabeth Savelkoul), Nancy Goldsmith (Nursing), Amy Charles (Chemistry -- only students specifically in the Chemistry department), and Karen Wachsmuth (International Programs).
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org to ensure coordination with the Fellowship Incentive Program.
Request a Workshop
The Graduate College offers workshops that can be requested by student groups (formal organizations or informal groups of students), faculty, departments, or other campus organizations. You can review the offerings below. To request a workshop complete the Workshop Request Form.
Please note all workshops:
- are 60-90 minutes in length,
- require at least 5 students to attend, and
- room accommodations reserved by the requester.
Applying for Nationally Competitive Fellowships (faculty mentor attendance required)
This workshop is divided into three parts: Identifying opportunities, creating a writing plan, and tips from experts. Student learn about the Fellowships Incentive Program (FIP) and how to connect with an Iowa Fellowships Community. Students leave the session with an understanding of how to find appropriate fellowships and what steps they need to take to prepare a competitive application package.