Tips and Pitfalls for Securing Research Funding

Scaling the Ivory Tower“How do I secure money for ___?” Whether you’re a grad student or faculty member, you’ve probably asked yourself that question at some point in your career. Perhaps it’s for tuition or living expenses. Maybe it’s for travel to a conference or research funding to prepare a manuscript for publication.

The bottom line, as any decent economist will tell you: money is scarce. People generally do not hand it out as the result of pure benevolence. It follows that the quest for research funding is highly competitive.

Here are a few tips to help your name stand out from the pack and, hopefully, maximize your return.

 1. You are not entitled to free money.

This should go without saying for a classical liberal audience, but it is worth reiterating. Even when you do receive a grant, scholarship, or award, it is seldom if ever out of the pure benevolence of the giver. It is almost certainly not something you “deserve” by simply being you.

Think of funding in academia as a specific investment in your research. Like any other investment, funding is scarce and a wide variety of qualified candidates are seeking it. In order to succeed in this market, you need to demonstrate that your research agenda is worth supporting.

That means a strong and consistent output, research of a scholarly caliber, and often work on a topic of importance to advancing your field.

If you’ve been accepted to a graduate program, you’ve probably already done this at least once without explicitly viewing it as an investment pitch. But if you forget that funding is an investment in your work—if you neglect your work and let its quality slip—don’t expect the funds to keep flowing for long.

 2. Express appreciation for the funding you receive.

When a department, scholarship fund, or grant-giving organization decides your research is worthy of support, show your appreciation. In all likelihood, they selected you out of hundreds of other applicants. They did so because they saw something in your work that merited their attention.

  • No matter the size of your award, thank the granting institution for its support.
  • More importantly, keep your granting organization apprised of your progress.
  • If you received funding to do research in a specific library or archival collection let it know how its materials assisted your overall work.
  • Attending a conference on a travel fund usually involves reporting back to the granting institution with what you accomplished while there. (Note that this also entails using your time wisely at the conference. Don’t attend a meeting in Vegas on funding only to spend three out of four days there in the casino.)

Grant-giving institutions are probably not expecting a polished copy of your dissertation or a discourse on the complexities of the literature in your field. But they do like to know that their investment yielded a meaningful result.

Also, showing appreciation for what you have now sends a signal that you are worthy of additional support in the future.

3. Demonstrate that you are reliable when using your research funding.

Research FundingYou have to show that you can put your research funding to good use. This entails following through on the requirements of the granting institution, such as submitting a post-research summary or attending required sessions of a seminar or conference.

Reputation matters in fulfilling your obligations as the recipient of funding. If you have a reputation for being unreliable, fewer organizations will be willing to invest any further in you. Here are just a few bad habits that signal to granting organizations that you are misusing their resources:

  • Accepting a travel voucher for an academic meeting, only to duck out early and miss important sessions.
  • Forgetting to answer a survey on how your grant money was spent.
  • Habitually canceling on conferences because of a research paper/midterms/grading/work. (If anything, that means you misallocated your time months ago when you applied for funding and accepted the invitation to attend.)

 4. Remember that in some respects, graduate students actually have it easy.

Yes, you read that right. While it’s difficult to obtain large grants as a graduate student, you do have the advantage in some areas.

The first is a funded graduate program itself. Perhaps the grunt work of “TAing” and grading is taxing, but think about it. You’re essentially being paid to go to school. Not many people can say that.

Second, you have the opportunity to get small, dedicated grants for conference attendance as a graduate student. Most academic associations have some form of discounted rate or subsidy for travel to and attendance at their annual meetings. Some are more competitive than others, but this is one of the many ways they encourage new blood to join. Avail yourself of it now. It won’t last!

 5. Keep a calendar.

It is extremely easy to lose track of dates and deadlines for grants, scholarships, and other funding opportunities. That’s because there is no fixed schedule for them, and they tend to fall in clusters throughout the year.

Organizing a calendar helps you manage your time across the semester. You will need a way to keep from missing deadlines for a follow-up report or from mismanaging your courseload when a conference comes around.

It will also help you develop the habit of tracking deadlines for other aspects of the academic life in the future—specifically, the job market.

6. Above all else, don’t be rude when you get rejected.

Not everyone gets the funding he or she desires. The fact that you think your project is an ideal fit for a grant program does not mean the reviewers will agree. There is only one certainty to grant applications in the academy: you’ll fail to obtain funding at some point in your career.

In fact, you will probably fail more often than you succeed. Sometimes, this will be very disappointing, even infuriating, given the time you put into writing your essays and polishing your application materials.

You must resist the urge to fire back an angry email or make a pestering phone call. You’ll gain nothing, but you’ll have plenty to lose. 

Think about it. Most grant-givers don’t know you from any of the hundreds of other applications they receive. All they know is (A) what you formally submit in your application, and (B) how you interact with them throughout the application process.

Regarding part (A), you can always redo and resubmit your application materials next year if things don’t work out quite right. Perhaps this year’s applicant pool was highly competitive.

Messing up part (B) will destroy your reputation. Rude emails and haranguing phone calls are a sure way to signal to the application reviewers that you’re a pest.

Nobody likes giving free money to a pest, so it’s in your long-term self-interest not to become one.

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