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The first time I applied to graduate school to study animal behavior I was rejected. Heartbroken yet determined, I called them to ask what I could do to strengthen my application for the next year. The response from the woman on the other end of the phone was, “Well, what funding did you apply for?”
Applying for funding had not occurred to me. Wasn’t the whole process of applying for grad school enough? “What funding should I apply for?” I asked. I scribbled down the names of the fellowship programs she listed and immediately looked into them.
Of the list she gave me, I was only eligible for one of them (the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship). So I looked it up, completed the application as best as I could and submitted it at the same time as I submitted the next year’s round of graduate applications.
By the next March, seven of the ten graduate programs I had applied for had rejected me. One had accepted me and the other two had not yet made up their minds. …And then the letter came: I had been awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.
Big Whoop, I thought. The schools have already made up their minds. But my parents talked me into contacting all the schools anyway so they could update my files.
Within a week, I had received e-mails, letters and personal phone calls from not only departments, but researchers from almost every school I had applied to. They all apologized for not accepting me and explained that they just can’t possibly accept all qualified candidates. The limiting factors are the advisors’ time and money available to support the students. Now that I had my own money to support myself, I was accepted into nearly every program I had applied to!
As much as we like to think about our paths in science as pursuing our passions and curiosities, the fact of the matter is money often dictates the limits of what we can and can’t do. Obtaining your own money will not only help you get into graduate programs, but will help you be able to pursue the questions that you are passionate about. Here are some funding opportunities available to students during the time that they are applying to graduate schools:
The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP; The NSF Fellowship)
The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is a fellowship that awards outstanding graduate students and graduate student candidates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Awardees get three years of an annual stipend (this year’s stipend is $32,000 per year!), some tuition for the university, and access to international research and professional development opportunities. To be eligible, you must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or permanent resident; be enrolled in a U.S. graduate program by the following Fall; and have less than 12 months of experience as a graduate student.
Applications for the NSF Fellowship are generally due in the first week of November. Most of the application process is similar to applying to graduate school; They ask for a personal statement, graduate research statement, 3 reference letters, and academic transcripts. It is all online and the technical version of the instructions (which you really should read) are in a document called the NSF GRFP Program Solicitation. This year’s document can be found here.
The heart of this application is your graduate research statement. This is a short research proposal of something you would like to study in graduate school. As a proposal, it should include a hypothesis, the background research that lead you to this hypothesis, briefly how you would test your hypothesis and how you would interpret your results. If you get the award, you won’t be held to the project you propose, but they will be looking for how you think as a scientist, whether your research plan is feasible with reasonable university resources and time, and how your proposed research could contribute to advancing knowledge and benefiting society.
The Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowships
The Ford Foundation Fellowship Programs seek to increase diversity in academia and promote the use of diversity as a resource for enriching student education. The Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship is a program that provides three years of funding to Ph.D. and Sc.D. graduate students and graduate student candidates in a broad range of fields, including life sciences. Awardees get a $20,000 annual stipend, a small university payment, expenses to attend a Ford Fellows Conference and access to Ford Foundation mentors. To be eligible, you must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, permanent resident, or granted deferred action status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program; be enrolled in a research-based graduate program at a U.S. graduate institution by the following Fall; and have more than 3 years left before you complete your graduate degree.
Applications are generally due in late November. They ask for a personal statement, statement of previous research, statement of proposed research, 3 or 4 reference letters, and academic transcripts. Instructions can be found here.
Because the focus of the Ford Foundation Fellowships is to promote diversity in academia, they are looking for applicants that have very high academic achievement, display interest and promise in following a career as a scholar and teacher, and display a capacity to serve the needs of a diverse student body. Although race and ethnicity does not determine eligibility, they do look favorably upon applicants from underrepresented groups in academia. They also look favorably upon applicants that engage with and will continue engaging with underrepresented communities and who will use diversity as an educational resource in teaching and research.
If you are a U.S. citizen and you would like to study in the United Kingdom, then a Marshall Scholarship might be for you. This prestigious award can be used for any field of study at any college or university in the U.K. as long as the program can be completed in two years (although it can be extended for a third year under some circumstances). Award amounts vary, but awardees get tuition, travel expenses, living expenses, and an arrival allowance. The interesting thing about this award that you must specify your first choice of where you would like to attend (even if you haven’t applied to it yet) and if you get the award, you must attend that program to get the award (they will try to ensure you get in). Their rules for this year can be found here.
The application is generally due in early October. It is online and they won’t give you the instructions until you open an account and start the on-line application.
All of these fellowships can be applied for in the same Fall in which your graduate applications are due. They are all highly competitive and require that you have good grades and test scores in addition to a spectacular application. But if you are one of the few that can secure your own funding for the start of your graduate program, your chances of getting into a program and specifically the program of your choice will increase dramatically.
Would you like to add a fellowship program to this list? Write it in the comment section below! And for more advice on applying to graduate programs, go here.