Advice For Securing Funding During Graduate School

victor-rayNote: this blog post was originally published on our weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars on Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. You can follow him on Twitter @victorerikray.

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In my previous post, I argued that research funding is racialized and that disparities in funding exacerbate racial inequities in academe. Although nothing short of institutional change can significantly reverse those patterns, below I offer advice to help students successfully apply for funding during their graduate training.

Early in my graduate career, I felt insecure and worried about my place in the department. It was clear that my political and intellectual commitments were, to put it mildly, somewhat out of place in my chosen graduate program. Although I was funded, I felt that the support was precarious. In retrospect, perhaps that feeling was overstated. But it was nonetheless real, and I needed a way to combat it.

As a person of color from a working- to lower-middle-class background, funding was extremely important to me. It influenced my decision about which graduate school to attend. When I received my acceptance letter informing me that I would be funded for five years as long as I maintained adequate progress in the program, that was the most economic security I had experienced in my life.

Of course, funding was partially freeing. And given what I felt was my precarious position in the program, the external validation was instrumental in my continuing in graduate school. The freedom that funding brings is particularly important for radical scholars of color whose work may make some (white) colleagues uncomfortable.

When I talk about funding opportunities, graduate students and some faculty members often tell me that applying for funding is a waste of time, that it requires too much work or that agencies are not interested in their type of work. Below, I address each of these concerns with practical advice. Although I am mainly talking about sociology departments, some of these strategies may resonate beyond my discipline.

Understanding the structure of funding. The structure of funding is often a bit confusing. Although there is occasional overlap, grants are typically for expenses related to research, while fellowships pay for living expenses. Federal and private sources of support tend to have considerably different application procedures and expectations attached to their funding. Those applications can be complicated, so I advise you to start them early. Make yourself familiar with a given funding agency’s reporting requirements and make sure you are willing to meet them.

How to find funding. I identified funding opportunities primarily in two places: university databases and the CVs of more senior colleagues whose work I admired. The latter strategy allowed me to see how people were funded at different points in their career and what opportunities I should be looking for down the line.

Many undergraduate institutions have grants and fellowships that are reserved for alumni who are in graduate school. Those are prime places to look for funding, as the applicant pool tends to be smaller. Search your institution’s website, write to the program officers and apply. Although the funding from such sources may be lower than national competitions, they are great places to find seed support for projects.

Once I found opportunities for which I qualified and that were related to my work, my strategy was to apply for everything. Applying for funding, like working in academe in general, is largely about learning to manage rejection. I made a spreadsheet that covered the next three to four years of graduate school and systematically applied every year. Early on, I got a lot of rejections. They were an opportunity to revise and refine my ideas. One success can make those rejections recede from your consciousness pretty quickly.

Another strategy (to use sparingly) is to contact program officers at funding agencies. Make sure you find out the policy regarding contact so as to not violate protocol. However, if the officers are open to talking, send an email briefly outlining the most important aspects of your project and ask whether they are willing to set up a phone conversation. I have had program officers give me information that I think was central to eventually being funded.

Before you contact a program officer, make sure your project description is far along and perhaps even reviewed by a colleague or two. You do not want to antagonize a program officer with a proposal that is not well thought out, as that may ultimately hurt your chances.

Writing the application. If you have colleagues who have successfully received grants or fellowships for which you are interested in applying, ask if you may look over their applications. Many people are flattered by the request and happy to share; others, not so much. Remember, however, that they are in no way obligated to help you and may consider the request inappropriate for any number of reasons. They could be shy about sharing work, view you as competition or resent your success. But while the academy often still functions on an outdated notion that intellectual work is the result of heroic individuals, ideas — and your personal success in deploying those ideas — are the result of a community.

If someone is willing to help you, remember you owe them. Write a thank-you note, take them out for coffee or a drink at a conference, or just generally show that you appreciate their help. Also, never pass along an application someone has shared with you without permission. They agreed to share it with you, not the entire applicant pool.

Grant and fellowship writing is not an exercise in creativity. Grant and fellowship writing in sociology is different from composing papers. Papers can be somewhat meandering because of their standard format. For grants, the punch line needs to hit the reviewer within the first few sentences. They need to know the purpose of the proposed research, the theoretical tradition from which you are drawing and a little about what you expect to find. If you have been fortunate enough to get successful examples of the particular grant or fellowship for which you are applying, make sure you look over them and mirror their outlines.

Tailoring your work to the call. This is a tricky one. Foundations and federal grant agencies issue calls because they are looking for specific niches, have political leanings or are chartered to further research in particular areas. You should never do violence to your own research interests and commitments to land a grant. However, you should look at calls for applications with the widest possible lens when it comes to applicability to your work. This isn’t just pragmatic; it is also an exercise in intellectual growth, as it forces you to think about your work in the widest possible context.

Reusing your work. Writing a funding proposal is ideally the first step one makes on a new project. Agency deadlines can help to force you to write your ideas down. These drafts are then recycled, becoming the first draft of research papers. One of the most useful things that a trusted and brilliant adviser in grad school told me was, “Everything you write has to count for more than one thing.” You should never use a piece of writing that you have spent a considerable amount of time or thought on for just one class or conference. The same is true for fellowship and grant writing. Revise your applications according to the call, but if you had a successful application in a prior round, it indicates that you’ve hit the sweet spot. Use that as the template to apply to subsequent grants and fellowships. It is also a good indication that your proposed research is a potential contribution to the discipline, as the reviewers were likely drawn from a pool of experts in your area. Getting this feedback at an early stage can be extremely useful for shaping your subsequent projects.

Victor Ray On “The Racialization Of Academic Funding”

victor-rayNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. You can follow him on Twitter at @victorerikray.

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This essay is the first of two in which I will provide advice on getting research funding in graduate school. Here, I outline how disparities in graduate funding are deeply racialized and how that connects to racial issues in higher education more generally.

Let’s first take a brief look at the history of higher education in the United States. American colleges and universities were founded as white organizations. Part of their intellectual mission was to further the ideology and material practices of white supremacy. Profits from slavery, the exclusion of people of color and complicity in scientific racism were much more than unfortunate footnotes to an otherwise noble system.

As Craig Steven Wilder shows in the remarkable Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, higher education in the United States was founded on racial exclusion and explicitly designed to further white privilege. The life of the mind was underwritten by the cut of the whip. Although the civil rights movement and tepid diversity programming have reconfigured the racial relations central to higher education, they have by no means erased them. Colleges and universities attempt to project the illusion of a level playing field, yet racial disparities in funding, admittance and graduation rates remain deeply unequal.

Research funding is a racial issue in ways both easily apparent and occasionally hidden. Race shapes funding most obviously through the fact that the bulk of institutional resources remain firmly in white hands. Racial stratification is a defining feature of higher education at all levels of the hierarchy. For example, despite hand-wringing over supposedly “reverse racist” policies, whites are overrepresented relative to their proportion of the population when it comes to scholarships.

According to recent research by Louise Seamster and Raphaël Charron-Chénier, black students graduate with higher debt burdens. This bias extends to national funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health. After accounting for a host of factors that influence funding decisions — essentially, to statistically compare equally qualified white candidates and candidates of color — researchers found that black scholars were still 10 percent less likely than white scholars to receive NIH research funding. Such funding inequalities can make it less likely for students of color to be able to support their schooling and research, furthering racial inequity in higher education more generally.

Wider social factors also influence the ability of people of color to self-fund their education. As William Darity Jr., Darrick Hamilton and their colleagues have shown, deep racial differences in family wealth persist. Black and Latino families have fallen farther behind since the Great Recession, such that the “median black family has $7,113 in wealth, while the median white family has $111,740 in wealth.” The numbers are similarly stark for Latina/os. Those disparities are directly traceable to racist social policies like redlining, subprime lending and educational segregation, and they may make self-funding more difficult for nonwhite students.

Historical inequalities that can influence research opportunities and educational trajectories do not always show up in obvious ways. For instance, most legacy admittances can easily be construed as white racial preferences, given that many colleges and universities were only integrated in the 1960s. Similarly, the bias in so-called aptitude tests — which are excellent measures of inherited wealth — create the illusion of meritocracy while legitimizing educational inequality. Those historical inequalities influence current research realities. For instance, a dustup at New York University, in which the director of graduate admissions told a black student that perhaps he should rethink his application if he could not afford the fee, is a particularly blatant example of this racialized dynamic.

Because people of color are more likely to come from families without an ample and reliable store of wealth, they may not have the economic resources needed to support some basics of research. In my own discipline (sociology), necessary tools of the trade — such as laptops, digital tape recorders, data analysis software and money for transcription — may be unaffordable. A lack of funds for this basic equipment can put you behind your peers. And, psychologically, the very real sense of shame that comes from lacking resources in a society that measures your worth by your wealth can also constrain productivity. As a critical sociologist interested in racial inequality, I see how unequal funding holds implications for who gets to tell the stories of people of color.

Racial inequalities have real implications for conducting research. Sociologists have long argued that early disparities in funding create a Matthew effect that advantages scholars over the course of their careers. Based on the scripture “to them that has, more shall be given,” sociologist Robert K. Merton observed that scholars who found early success in securing funding were likely to have higher career productivity. Early funding provides vital resources — research assistants, course releases, money for travel — that scholars can use to extend their advantages. Those resources are then turned into the capital of academe: visibility, publications and access to social networks. Like compound interest, the productivity of scholars who achieve funding early in their careers is boosted, and that early advantage opens up subsequent opportunities. Racial disparities in funding thus create a cycle of cumulative disadvantage.

Beyond these reasons, the ability to acquire funding is becoming more important on the job market. Increasingly, departments in the social sciences are looking to hire scholars with a proven record of acquiring funding. Given the well-substantiated racial differences in rates of funding, this is yet another hurdle that scholars of color face — one that sets many of us behind.

Although personal action can never serve as a full substitute for institutional change, some strategies may make receiving funding more likely. In my next essay, I will offer practical advice on how students of color can increase their chances of getting funded and why they should apply for everything.