Fund me!

Money has been on my mind a lot lately. It is hard not to think about. Need a plan to make money. Need a job to make money. Need someone to give me money! At this point you may think I have a lavish lifestyle or a really bad habitat. Really it is neither, it is part of being an underpaid and overwhelmed graduate student. Graduate school has many challenges but perhaps one of the biggest is how to get funding.

One potential funding path… Image from:

Two things I realized fairly quickly when I started graduate school; you won’t get far without funding and there are many different types of funding. Let’s start with the latter, as the differences between these types of funding are subtle and therefore can be confusing. Here are some of the most common terms associated with funding and what they mean.

Awards- typically given for outstanding work accomplished in your field or on a specific project. Usually have monetary compensation along with prestige of receiving the award.

Grants- money awarded to fund a specific project.

Scholarships- money to help support undergraduate or graduate education. Can support part or all cost of education.

Fellowships- money for any costs a student incurs during their time at the university (e.g. tuition, textbooks, research).

Assistantships- compensation for working at the university or institution (e.g. teaching assistant, research assistant, graduate assistant).

Crowdfunding- seeking funding through individual or group support, usually with a promised outcome for investors.

All of these types of funding can come from a number of sources but generally fall into five categories: institutions/universities, government agencies (federal, state, county, local), private industry, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or in the case of crowdfunding, from individuals. The amount of funding can range from hundreds to millions of dollars depending on the scope of the work and the financial resources of the funding source. Almost all funding comes with obligations and accountable to the funder. Some common examples include presenting or publishing your work, documentation of time, expenses, and progress on research as well as acknowledgement of the sources of funding.

However, finding these funding sources can be a challenge for many reasons. Primarily, where do you go to find funding opportunities? Unfortunately, there is no one source to find all the funding available. Don’t get me wrong; there are great resources at universities as well as websites that are solely designed to help you find grants that fit your research. Personally, many opportunities I have been privy to are from word of mouth from peers and mentors.

Another obstacle is meeting the grant eligibility requirements. Some funds are tailored to the type of research being conducted or can only be used for certain cost associated with the research (e.g. field work, lab work, training, travel, materials and equipment). Most funds are not open to everyone, in some cases you have to be a citizen, while others are tailored for international students. Some are to support people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and others are to promote groups of people that are underrepresented in science. While other grants you need to be a member of the club or society to apply.

These issues coupled with the fact that grants are very competitive and therefore are not easy to get makes it constant struggle for many of us trying to fund our research. In the end it comes down to how well you can sell yourself and your science to those evaluating the proposals. Since there are many filters that dictate eligibility for funding, many times you are constantly reworking your proposal to fit these requirements, often with mixed success.

Finding, submitting, and competing for funding is stressful, especially when proposals are not selected. It boils down to a list of pros and cons. The biggest con is writing a proposal is a huge time suck. Not to mention the stress and self doubt that comes along with it. You take a risk that this time spent will yield a successful bid at a grant. You are hyperaware of all the things you are pushing aside that seem more pressing (namely your research).

However, the benefits usually exceed the negatives, even if you don’t receive funding. I find the process of reading literature and writing the proposal a great time to generate, hone, and synthesize ideas. The process lends itself to getting critical feedback and edits from peers and mentors to improve the proposal. I also see the proposal as a form of scientific outreach, a way of sharing your vision through the proposal. It let’s you explain why your work is cool and relevant. In the end, if funded, it allows you to do the work you envisioned. All of which is critical for scientific growth and progress.

Today, however, there is a disconnect between an overwhelming support from the public to fund science and a decline in the amount of U.S. government support and funding of research. The Pew Research Center released a study about a year ago that gauged people’s views and perceptions on science and society. When asked about the benefits of scientific contributions to society, and the role of government funding and investment in science, more than half of adults surveyed say that science has improved the quality of life and that they support scientific research and funding.


Pew survey, investing in science. Figures from:

However, getting funding through the U.S. government has become increasing harder due to budget cuts (LATimes article, NIH news release, Center for American Progress article). Even government funding of education is on the decline (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities article) as tuition costs increase (CollegeBoard stats here and here and NYTimes article). When considering the eligibility and competitive factors mentioned above in conjunction with reduction in funding it makes it a very tough time to fund research. Especially, for many of us attending universities in the U.S. as government funding was a large and critical source of money.

Thankfully there are opportunities through industry and NGOs, as well as crowdfunding. Crowdfunding in particular has gained a lot of traction because of the decline in funding and the ease at reaching your target audience, especially with the proliferation of crowdfunding websites (the pros and cons of which are considered in this Wired article). Despite declines in monetary resources there are still many options for researchers to find funding. In most cases you have to work a little harder. My strategy has been to apply for many small grants that are less competitive rather than trying to go for only the big grants. I figure my chances are better. For the past two months it seems that all I have been doing is applying to grants. Hopefully, my story will have a happy ending and my efforts will be rewarded.


For an in depth look at the issues in university science funding please check out these articles:

Issues in Science and Technology article

Boston University Research article