Rose Campbell had never heard of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, known as the GRFP, when she began her doctoral studies in the chemistry department at Virginia Tech.

The program is one of the nation’s oldest sources of non-university initiated financial support for doctoral students in STEM field. But students must apply for it, and the process is highly competitive, as Campbell learned. She was awarded one of the prestigious fellowships in 2022, but said she would not have known to apply if someone in her department had not mentioned it to her. “It was honestly the advocacy of another student who knew about this opportunity,” she said.

 Virginia Tech students who have applied for and received fellowships such as the GRFP said they made a huge difference in their graduate research and ability to develop professional skills they will use beyond graduate school. But they had to know about them and had to learn how to write successful proposals to land them. 

What are external fellowships?

External funding and student-initiated funding are the umbrella terms that apply to grants and fellowships awarded by government agencies and departments, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and corporate sponsors to students who apply for them. Most grants go to a faculty member, who then recruits a graduate student to work on that grant. Student-initiated funding is different. It is applied for by the student and, if successful, goes to the student, giving that student more latitude and independence when it comes time to seek a research advisor. Many of the awards are aimed at STEM fields, but a large number also are available in the social sciences, arts, humanities, and business fields. The awards often provide full or partial tuition assistance, a stipend, or a combination of both, and many are multiyear. Some grants may cover travel and other research expenses.

The funds go to the student either directly or through the institution, and if the student decides to transfer to another program or institution, the grant money goes with the student. While government-funded fellowships may only be open to students who are U.S. citizens, many fellowships are available for international students as they pursue their doctoral degrees, and there are fellowships aimed specifically at underrepresented minority students as well.

Many fellowships are aimed at Ph.D. students in their first or second years, but there are grants and fellowship opportunities for master’s students, too. Undergraduates also may apply for some grants, such as the GRFP.

Meryl Mims, associate professor of biological sciences, teaches an eight-week workshop-style class each fall focused on writing a proposal for the GRFP. Some fellowships, like the GRFP, can be applied for as an undergraduate, and carried with the student to graduate school (potentially making the student more attractive to a graduate school). Mims has had undergraduate students in her class and said they have done well. 

Why are they important?

The university’s Graduate Education Task Force Report, published in November 2020, noted the importance of such opportunities for Virginia Tech’s students: “Pursuing and acquiring grant funding provides valuable professional development for students as they develop a mentoring plan and a research project that can transition them to independence, enhancing their comprehension of the research enterprise.”

The university’s peer institutions also highlight the value of such fellowships. “These fellowships also promote independent research and interdisciplinary inquiry,” according to Princeton University. Cornell’s website states that even applying for such grants help students clarify their thinking about their research and their education and career trajectory. Additionally, universities with a reputation for encouraging their students to apply for such funding and providing the training, support, and services they need to be successful attract strong potential students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members to their programs and labs.

Korin Jones, who earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at Virginia Tech and now is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas, Austin, was awarded a GRFP in 2020, and said they are considered prestigious. “The way academia works is often through prestige signaling,” he said.

Fisheries and wildlife doctoral student Hailey Conrad agreed, adding that the prestige extends to both the university and the student. “It looks really good on your CV and I'm interested in pursuing a career in academia and getting that line on your CV is not trivial, said Conrad. “That was a motivating factor.” She received a GRFP fellowship in 2022.

Some Virginia Tech departments encourage their first- and second-year doctoral students to apply for external funding. Lauren Maynard, who earned her Ph.D. in biological sciences and was a GRFP awardee in 2019, said she was aware of such opportunities while earning her degree in the biological sciences department. “I think there was this external motivation where most people were doing it,’ she said. 

“You free up time”

In addition to the value of including such awards on a CV or resume, graduate students who have earned them said the fellowships also provide opportunities to work with smaller research labs that may not have the ability to provide assistantships and the freedom to pursue their specific interests, including professional development, leadership, and mentoring. Students said having their own funding also reduced pressure and stress and gave them more control over how they spent their time outside class and the lab. Benjamin Blackburn, a Ph.D. student in the chemistry department who does research on bio-energy, said external funding also gives graduate students ownership of their pathway to their degree, including working in labs with limited resources.

“If you wanted to join a research group that’s really interesting, but you’ve known through talking to people in the department that they don’t have the most funding, having a fellowship removes that issue from the equation,” Blackburn said. While he did not receive a GRFP, he said knowing the process has set him up for future success with fellowships.

Lauren Maynard, who earned her Ph.D. in biological sciences and was a GRFP awardee in 2019, noted another benefit: “You free up a lot of your time. You are able to fill your time with whatever professionally interests you. For me, that was organizational leadership, project management, skills that aren’t necessarily built into a Ph.D. program."

Maynard served in several student leadership roles in her department and in the interfaces of global change interdisciplinary research program. She now is the interdisciplinary project launch director at North Carolina State University. Maynard said she applied for and received at least 14 grants and fellowships during her studies at Virginia Tech, and said learning to apply for a National Science Foundation grant helped her access and land the additional grants.

Writing to win

Graduate students and alumni who applied for external funding opportunities said knowing about them and knowing how to procure one are two different things. They emphasized the importance of learning to write a strong research proposal, a skill they said students would find useful during their studies and later in their careers.

“If you’re somebody who’s coming into this who has never done this before, then it is just a maze of, what is this supposed to look like?” Jones said. “Your ideas can be great, but if they are not written in a way that the referees want to see, then your proposal is not going to be something they consider.”

“A barrier I definitely see is just not knowing how to apply for these things,” said Hailey.” There’s really no formal training, really. There are so many rules or considerations or things that you would never know if somebody didn’t tell you.”

Virginia Tech offers several workshops and courses, focused on technical and science writing, and proposal writing. Mims has been teaching her eight-week course for seven years and students credit that class with their success.  

 “I’ve seen the difference between people pursuing funding on their own versus having some kind of external help. It has been amazing to see the difference,” said Campbell, who noted that many of these grants require students to write comprehensive research proposals, “which is something that we have never done to that level and it’s so competitive and very intense.”

Learning the secret rules

Jones called Mims a guide into the world of effective proposal writing. “If you don’t have a guide into that world, you’re more likely going to be left out of knowing what all of these intricate secret rules are for these proposals.”

Campbell agreed. “It’s kind of what they call the hidden curriculum or the unspoken rules, things that people who have seen a lot of applications know to expect, and that you going into it blindly are never going to inherently know.”

She noted another reason to take the class: Most students have little experience developing research proposals, but it is a skill they will need throughout their education journey and potentially in their careers.

Skills for life

Students who took Mims’s class said the brainstorming session with classmates and receiving feedback on early drafts of their proposals were important, as were the emphasis on deadlines and learning to build on first drafts.

 “I think one of the most valuable things about the class was knowing you’re not going to do something perfect the first time and it takes practice,” said Maynard. “This class was really great at making you write your crappy first draft and then work on it with peers.

Students also said working with students from across programs helped them improve their proposals. Conrad called the class “a hardcore science communications class” because students must explain their work concisely to a broad audience of scientists and evaluators. Jones shared her opinion, saying that the writing and communicating skills he learned go beyond proposal writing.

“You’ve got to tell your story. It is a critical thing both for writing papers and publishing the research that you’re doing,” he said. “It’s really important for scientific communication with other people who don’t necessarily care about what you are studying.”

Mims put it succinctly: “They have to communicate why they are excited about the work.”

Mims’ students said proposal writing classes had additional benefits. “Once you submit the GRFP proposal, or any proposal, it’s yours to use,” Blackburn said, adding that he has used elements from his research proposal for posters and pulls from the introduction when talking about his work.

Jones said he was awarded his postdoc because he was able to use the skills he learned in the application for it. And Maynard credits the class with providing the expertise she needed to receive more than a dozen grants and fellowships.  

The Graduate School’s Student-initiated funding page includes a wide-ranging list of external funding resources, including extensive databases. The page includes links to lists of fellowships and grants specifically for international and underrepresented students, as well as awards based on fields of study.

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