This post is part of a series where Rutgers grant and/or fellowship winners are invited to share their thoughts and experiences with the process of applying for funding in graduate school.
For Part I of this post click here.
By Rafael Vizcaíno
Research funding is basically the only way you can sustain a livelihood as a full-time scholar without distractions or getting in debt unless you have savings from a previous career or receive support from relatives. Being from an economically disadvantaged background, for me, funding is simply an elementary infrastructural aspect of my scholarship. This task is built into the research process, without which my work would not be possible. In this sense, every single grant that I received during my graduate studies, no matter its size, essentially made it possible for me to directly advance my research without having to get a part-time job or worry about basic life necessities. As I chronicled in the first part of this post, in addition to several internal awards and fellowships, I received a grant from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship.
Given the immense precarity of higher education today, I consider myself extremely privileged on this front, as such funding made it possible for me to do full-time research over every single summer, attend specialized study sessions at other institutions during different years, travel to a few conferences every single year (some as far away as South Korea) to received feedback on my progress and network with other scholars in my fields, and finish my dissertation while on the job market.
GradFund’s role during my application process
I worked with GradFund on my application materials on two different occasions. They were undoubtedly the most significant improvements in terms of crafting my materials for grant applications. Both cases were summer-long workshops to receive feedback on applications due in December. These workshops gave me the long-term planning, feedback structure, and accountability system needed to slowly improve my applications without the stress of doing so too close to the deadline. Moreover, grant writing is such a technical skill that you need to have as much help as possible from those who already have the expertise to help you hone it. At that, Assistant Dean Teresa Delcorso-Ellmann and the other GradFund advisers that I worked with provided outstanding assistance that helped me develop the more technical aspects of grant writing.
The first workshop took place at the end of my first year in 2015. Here, I worked very hard to create most of my basic materials for a big application, such as the research statement. At the time, I was having many difficulties articulating the significance of my research, so the back and forth feedback system of the workshop helped me articulate this to myself in ways that previously I had not needed to do in a scholarly setting. What was particularly difficult for me was to speak to nonspecialists, and given that this is how most grant applications are framed, learning the lesson early in my career was truly invaluable. The funny thing is that, and this is perhaps why I now consider this lesson to be so crucial in my career, I did not win the Ford Fellowship during this application cycle. This setback was a wakeup call that motivated me to get better in all aspects of my work. It helped me deepen and broaden my research, have more defined objectives and justifications as to why I am doing such work, to find my footing and the significance of my work in a broader scholarly dialogue.
Over the next three years, I forced myself to apply to many small awards, with the intention of using these applications to improve the aforementioned aspects of my work. I won 86% of these awards. And in 2018, I came back to the GrandFund summer workshop to take another shot at the Ford Fellowship. I now had the advantage of not having to start my materials from scratch (I could now build on the materials from 2015), but I also felt more comfortable about my grant writing skills. To be sure, the stakes were much higher in this application cycle, as that academic year was my last year at Rutgers with guaranteed funding. I could not afford to lose this time. Once again, the feedback from the GradFund team proved to be essential. This time not only did I successfully win the Ford Fellowship, but I also won a second award of the same size – as per the rules of the Ford Foundation, I had to decline this award in its vast majority.
My advice for other applicants
- Start early. The earlier you start, the more experience you will have at honing the craft of grant writing.
- Build on what you already have, such as your graduate school application essays, but do not let that prevent you from exploring new projects or from having a new perspective on your positionality as an academic. This means that at the end of your graduate career, your best funding applications could be the synthesis of dozens of prior applications. Such polished materials can then be the basis for your job market materials. In this sense, everything you produce should organically build momentum to help you advance.
- To be more explicit, aim to have a symbiotic relationship between your research and your research funding applications. The more symbiotic this relation is, the more successful you would be at both, and the easier it would get to secure future funding. In other words, translating your research for funders can be beneficial to advancing your research in previously unforeseen ways. Such new research can then be the ground for a better funding application.
- Get feedback from lots of people. However, understand what the goal of each reader’s feedback is. The specialist in your subfield is not the same as the nonspecialist in your field, much less someone in an entirely different field or even outside your branch of inquiry e.g., STEM vs. humanities. Obviously, work with GradFund!
- Apply widely but be strategic. Do not count yourself out before applying to anything, especially if the application is relatively simple. If the application is more laborious and you have doubts about your competitivity, at least know what you are getting out of applying (see above about using applications as an opportunity for building momentum).
Lastly, in the way of conclusion, I think being genuinely committed to concrete and realistic intellectual and professional goals at every step of our development gives one the sharp impetus needed to be competitive when applying to external funding. The more straightforward your goals are, and the clearer you are in terms of how and why you will achieve them, the higher chances you have of convincing funders to fund your work!
You can follow Rafael on Twitter @RVizcainoR
To learn more about Rafael’s research check out his website https://rafaelvizcaino.com/