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Grants and fellowships: How to find the right opportunities, cope with failure and craft successful applications

By Logeswari Ponnusamy | Sept. 6, 2021  | None  | Proposal writing Career tips

In this blog post, Dr. Ponnusamy Logeswari answers some commonly asked questions on how to craft successful grants and fellowship applications, offering lessons and insights for dealing with rejection, and tips on how to identify realistic and grants and fellowship opportunities that are the right fit for you.

What advice would you give to those looking to make successful grants and fellowships applications?

A well-crafted application that is personalized to reflect who you are, demonstrating why you do what you do, and the impact is key. While a strong academic record is a plus, sending across your story in a simple and personable way (keeping the target audience in mind) is important.

In my experience, the first element of a successful application is persuading “why your research deserves grant money”. Almost all the granting/ fellowships agencies demand novel research that will have a broader impact and that leads to further scope. However, it is not always feasible to have great and highly novel research as several factors (location, institution, and facilities, opportunities to collaborate, funding, research group/ advisor, career stage, access to training, lack of resources for advanced techniques, etc.) influence and impact the quality and output of the research. So, laying out the research proposal as best as you can in terms of its novelty and broader impact (follow SMART) is essential to convince the reviewers.

The second element, equally (or at times even more) important, is the personal statement or statement of purpose or similar document. This is where an applicant can demonstrate who they are as an individual and how their uniqueness blends with their professional strength to create an impactful output. This section even could be scored higher for some of the fellowships that focus on developing potential applicants from underrepresented sections who do not have access to sophisticated research facilities. Analyze your strength and weakness, reflect upon the obstacles and how you overcame them, assess the possibilities, shortcomings, and limitations you face, and narrow down the purpose and goals you strive to achieve. Capture all those fleshed-out reflections and present your journey. Nothing roots for you more than your own journey.  The research that you do may not always exactly reflect or aligns with what you intended or dreamt to do. So, instead of underestimating yourself and the work you do, focus on the positive side and the impact you will be creating. 

How have you dealt with rejection and disappointment when applying for grants and opportunities, and what lessons and insights can you share from your experience?
I have experienced rejection and disappointment several times. To the spectators, only the winning is seen. The path to crafting a successful application doesn’t come overnight.  Given the limited number of opportunities with a competitive pool of applicants, your applications will not always win. You think the application is in great shape but still can be rejected for several unknown reasons. I am serving on several awards committees and have witnessed firsthand that often the score between the unsuccessful to winning application is just by few points.

Some of the factors that could lead to low scoring include non-relevancy to the requirement, inconsistent writing throughout, several typographical errors, superficial proposal, overinterpretation of finding, claiming beyond what data can support, lack of limitations, and impact assessment, lack of support letters or incomplete package, etc. Given the competitiveness and a limited number of grants and fellowships, it is an equal or higher chance to be unsuccessful so I recommend being ready to embrace the outcome and keep on trying.

Rejection leads to disappointment. When it happens, I let myself process the disappointment without blaming/ judging/ questioning myself or other factors, grieve for a day or two and accept it. Then start looking deep into any feedback if received from the committee. Otherwise, re-evaluate the application to note down the weaker areas, plan what would help to improve those, and develop an action plan to get there. Learn from each rejection and improve. The more you write, analyze, learn and implement the learning, the more you get handy on crafting an effective application. 

However, other factors that I witnessed (which I was unaware of as a student) were not penalizing the applicant for something that is genuinely lacked for valid reasons:

  • When the publication record is one of the requirements for a grant, but the candidate is inexperienced and with a great proposal, then the lack of publication is not considered as flawed because the candidate is in the early stages of the program, and the novel proposal demonstrates his/her potential to excel.
  • Similarly, when there is a great proposal from a candidate from a top-ranking institution while an equally competing applicant is from a smaller institution or underdeveloped area, the committee may certainly consider such differences in unbiased scoring and doesn’t penalize the applicant from a smaller institution.

Many young researchers are thinking and planning towards their first PhD or Fellowship proposals. Do you have any tips on how they can identify the right opportunities that are both realistic and eligible for them?

It is important to choose the right type of grants and fellowships that closely align with your personal and professional strengths. Explore and be cognizant of what different ways your background and research can have an impact, be applied, or be interdisciplinary with other fields so you can apply for broader categories of funding. Often, applicants pick the major areas and decide their eligibility. Be creative and think if in anyways can you connect the research areas to their broader/indirect application. This reminds me of my favorite quote by the Nobel Laureate Christiane Nusslein Volhard that “Creativity is combining facts no one else connected before”.

Winning the first grant/ fellowship is a major break as getting here takes time as the CV or personal statement often demands to demonstrate your potential to succeed which is again assessed by the record of grants/ fellowships/ publication or similar achievements. For someone who just starts their first application, it may feel like a mountain ahead of you. Therefore, plan ahead, explore and understand what is expected of a given grant or fellowship, scope and what is needed, timelines, be realistic to assess the fit (eligible but inadequate package materials vs partially eligible but have enough materials, apply now or should wait; should you wait, how to build or develop different areas, etc.). Break down the grant components and address them step by step:

  1. One part will be the research proposal:

    • If you apply for a grant it means you at least should know the basics of what you are going to research, and the hypothesis would already be formulated. If not, discuss with your mentor to seek input on what shall be proposed and what not.

    • Ensure the research proposal being submitted is approved by the mentor as it is intellectual property. Sometimes, the detailed proposal submission may not be approved by your mentor to preserve confidentiality. In such a case, discuss to see how you can strengthen your application with limited description. Once you start building your grant history it would be easier (to some extent) next time.

  2. The second part would be your personal statement: This should be crafted carefully and may include the limitations such as lack of grant history.

  3. The third component would be your reference/ support letters: These letters should highlight the potential of the research, impact, limitations, reason for the lack of applicant’s grant history but how it is being built, etc.

  4. The last piece would be your personalized CV. Address the major sections of the CV with whatever you find fit for the specific grant. Remove not so highly relevant content and highlight the information that would communicate the importance of the research proposal or background. Polish your language as applicable if you are a non-native speaker.

Besides common research grants that the majority of researchers target from their respective research areas, finding out grants/ fellowships that could be unique to your background is useful to increase the chance of winning. Some of such factors could be research (core but very specific research) within; diversity (minority, women empowerment, developing nation, regional development, displaced community grants, etc.), stage of research program (entry-level or experienced, late-stage close to graduation such as thesis completion fellowships, etc.) and competitiveness factor (e.g. some grants may not receive a lot of applications).

About the author: Dr. Ponnusamy is a Veterinary Scientist trained in Toxicology and currently working as a Toxicologist within Veterinary medicine R&D at Zoetis Animal Health, Michigan, USA. Her professional and research background included degrees in Veterinary Medicine, MS (Pharmacology & Toxicology), and PhD (Toxicology). Her previous research experiences included epigenetics of acquired chemoresistance and pediatric oncology summer traineeship focused on epigenetics of Wilms’ tumor. She has garnered several grants, fellowships, and awards from the Society of Toxicology (SOT) and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and at the university level. Dr. Ponnusamy has authored/ co-authored 11 publications/ book chapters and contributes to the toxicology community as a peer- reviewer for several scientific journals including Toxicology Research and Application, Food and Chemical Toxicology, Reproductive Toxicology, etc. In addition, she has dynamically been engaged in science/toxicology outreach and diversity initiatives with several organizations since 2010 and also serves on the Society of Toxicology- Awards Committee and American College of Toxicology (ACT) Outreach committee, and Social Media Subcommittee focused on toxicology education outreach. 

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