So you are well on your way to developing an individual funding plan. Maybe you’ve created a list of all the awards for which you will be eligible during your doctoral degree. Great! The next step is determining when to apply for these awards. And this is not always an easy task. Different awards are intended to help doctoral students and candidates at different phases of their degree, and funders often have diverse ideas about how to define these phases.
The Straightforward Cases: Early Graduate and Dissertation Writing Fellowships
Admittedly, for some awards the question of timing an application is relatively simple. This is particularly true of those awards intended for students very early on or quite late in their degree. Early graduate study fellowships, such as the National Science Foundation – Graduate Research Fellowship and the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship for example, are awarded to students during their first or second year. In this case, students do not need to have completed any significant milestone in their degree (other than beginning a program or having a relatively coherent idea of their research interests). At the other end of the degree are the dissertation writing fellowships, such as the Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship and the AAUW American Fellowship. Determining when to apply for these should be relatively straightforward too, because they are geared towards students who have finished nearly all phases of their doctoral degree (except the defense) and just need to write up their research.
Where the Confusion Begins
During the middle years of your degree you may be eligible for several fellowships and grants, but determining when you should apply for them is often not quite so clear. These awards require students to have achieved some significant milestones in their degree, but not always the same ones. And to make matters more complicated, some awards require students to have not yet achieved certain milestones. This is typically where the confusion comes in.
Let’s break down some of the requirements for these doctoral awards.
Some awards require doctoral students to be done with their coursework, regardless of how long this takes. Take for example the University of Hartford’s prestigious Jackie McLean Fellowship.
Other awards merely require that a student has completed a certain number of years in their program. This includes the Rand Graduate Summer Program award, which requires all winning applicants to have completed at least two years of their doctoral or professional degree by the time they are funded.
A few awards require students to have completed their comprehensive (a.k.a qualifying) exams. This includes Fermilab’s Accelerator Physics Graduate Research Appointment, which is targeted towards physics students who have passed their exams.
The “Pre-Milestone” Requirement
To make things more complicated, some awards require students to have not yet achieved specific milestones. For instance, the Smithsonian Institution’s Graduate Student Fellowship (10-week) requires that award winners have not yet advanced to candidacy. For the Fermilab appointment, students should have not yet decided on a thesis/dissertation topic.
Quite a few doctoral awards will only provide funding to students once they have advanced to candidacy. This includes the National Science Foundation – Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, which is administered to different fields and disciplines (e.g. biology, sociology, geography, etc.). Although this stage might seem a little more straightforward, it too is not without its complications. Different programs have different requirements for what constitutes a doctoral candidate. Some require a student to have defended his or her dissertation proposal, while others simply involve the completion of coursework and exams. Moreover, expectations for dissertation proposals can differ drastically from one program to the next. Some require minimal research and time, while others might demand months or years of work.
How to Pin Down the Timing of Your Applications
If you are planning to apply for funding it is imperative that you determine not only if you are eligible for an award, but also when you will be eligible for it. Only then will you be able to determine the best time to submit your application. This is never a clear-cut process because different funders usually have different expectations and requirements.
In order to help determine the best time to apply it may be helpful to make a few short notes to yourself as you make your individual funding plan. These could entail something as simple as the following.
Name of award:
I will be eligible for this award…
After I have completed _________________
Before I have completed _________________ (if applicable)
Month/semester when I anticipate achieving this status_________________
Date when I will apply for this award_________________*
(*This date is often earlier than the month/semester when you anticipate being eligible for the award. Also, be as precise here as possible. The date must coincide with the funder’s application deadline for a given year. If the date is not yet advertised, you may include a rough estimate of the deadline—e.g. month or semester—and update it later.)
As long as you progress through the different phases of your degree on schedule, these notes will help ensure you’re submitting your applications at the best possible time.