Key Players When Applying for Fellowships

Published: Tues., Sept. 8, 2015

Applying for a fellowship or grant takes time and effort, from researching opportunities to drafting and editing statements, to proofreading the application. When you’re working on your statements, it’s easy to focus solely on your project and what you’re investigating. But it's good to know the key players who will help you develop an outstanding application that's worthy of funding.

Funding agency

While the funding agency isn’t technically a person, it still plays a key role in your quest for external funding. Pore over the solicitation, the funding agency’s mission, and their "About Us" statement. For example, part of the Ford Foundation’s mission is to “increase the number of professors who can and will use diversity as a resource for enriching the education of all students.” This mission shows up in the Predoctoral Fellowship evaluation criteria: applications will be evaluated for the “likelihood of using the diversity of human experience as an educational resource in teaching and scholarship.” A strong application would therefore feature key terms about diversity and education. These key terms make it easy to see how your work is a good fit for the funding agency.

Some agencies have a training office. If they do, contact the office to talk about your project and see if it’s a good match for the agency. You may glean tips for improving your application from the conversation!

Previous winners

If they aren’t the ideal candidates for a fellowship, previous winners of an award are pretty close. Consider their projects (think about how your proposed project compares) and read their proposals. There are two ways you can look for application materials: searching the internet and using your network.
Conduct a Google search to see who’s won and see if they’ve posted their statements. For example, some NSF Graduate Research Fellows share their statements online.
You may have resources closer to home. Perhaps a friend or even an advisor has won the fellowship. Ask if they’d share their strategies and statements, and see what you can glean from the documents.

When you read the statements, pay attention to the overall statement, and how previous experience and proposed research get woven into one cohesive narrative. Also look at how key terms or formatting emphasize how the proposed research fits in with the evaluation criteria.

Once you know what a successful proposal looks like, you have a model you can use to outline and organize your own proposal.

Labmates & Your Cohort

After you’ve finished several drafts of your statements and improved them to the best of your abilities, share them with trusted lab mates or members of your cohort. A thoughtful reader can help you develop your statement more quickly and thoroughly than if you worked on it on your own. At some point, even the best writer begins glossing over the same words and phrases because they've become too familiar. A new set of eyes can catch a repeated phrase, and a good reader will tell you where you’re too vague and need more description and where you’re beating around the bush and you need to get to the point.

Friends from your lab can pay special attention to your research statement, while those from similar disciplines or even those who aren’t familiar with your research area can help you detect jargon and provide feedback on the overall flow of your statements.


Your lab supervisor, advisor, and other trusted faculty members have two key roles when you’re applying for fellowships: (1) They provide valuable feedback and guidance, and (2) They are your letter writers.

In terms of feedback, everything we said about having lab mates and friends read your statement is true, and then some. Faculty members have submitted numerous applications and received fellowship and grant funding, so they’re in a great position to give you constructive feedback.

Letters of recommendation are key to your application. They create a well-rounded picture of you and your work—and they offer unique insight into your abilities as a researcher and into the uniqueness of your project. It’s therefore vital for your letter writers to be familiar with your statements and know what’s on your CV. Letter writers also need to know about the fellowship and the criteria you’re going to be judged on. Make your recommender’s job easier! Provide your recommender with your application materials and document the aspects of your work you'd like for them to write about.

Remember, your recommender is in a great position to sing your praises—something that you can’t do in your own statements. For example, if you touch on key skills that you’ve developed in your advisor’s lab in your background experience statement, your advisor can evaluate and praise your work, highlighting how you already think like a postdoc or a more advanced researcher.

Graduate Studies

At some point in the application process, you may want someone from outside of your field to look at your materials and give you feedback. The Office of Graduate Studies offers one-on-one consultations on your application materials, with a focus on your statement of purpose and proofreading/final edits.


It may seem obvious, but don’t overlook yourself as a key player when you work on your application! A successful fellowship application requires hours of drafting and revising. The effort is worth it. Funding makes it possible to focus on your research or dissertation without additional lab or teaching responsibilities.
To write a successful application, give yourself as much time as possible to work on your statements. Create a schedule for getting a little done each week, and have a plan for rewarding yourself once you submit your application!