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Applying for funding makes me feel like crap


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I'm just finishing the first year of my MSc. in Epidemiology.  A bit heavy for my first post, but I don't currently have anyone to talk to and I just need to get it out there - my supervisor just left today for 2 weeks of vacation.  


I don't know if anyone else has this issue.  Every time I apply for scholarships/grants/etc. and come to a "Why should you be considered for this award" section, I become completely miserable.  I don't know how to justify why I should get funding over other students.  My grad-school course grades are very good, but not perfect; I have co-authored one peer-reviewed publication, and am currently writing another manuscript.  I have 12 abstracts, most from national meetings, and one oral presentation on which I was first author.  I feel I have a good understanding of my research question and how we are approaching it, and my supervisor recently brought up the possibility of doing a PhD, which to me indicates that I must have some idea what I'm doing.  And yet, I haven't been able to get any funding.  Even worse, when I have contacted internal nomination committees, I can't seem to get a response about what is wrong with my application.


The only thing I can think of that might be holding me back is that my undergraduate grades were average at best.  Which SUCKS because that is the one thing I cannot change.  I know I have to apply for funding, but I feel like I just don't know how to make myself appeal to what the committees are looking for, when I know there are plenty of other smarter, more accomplished students in my program (let alone my school), who's projects are way sexier, from a funding standpoint (it seems like everyone wants to fund AIDS, women's health, cancer, diabetes, head injury, etc.)

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Funding is tough to get! I think budgets are very limited mostly so not getting a fellowship/award isn't a sign that your research is not useful or a judgement that you are a bad student! There could be nothing wrong with your application and you still might not get funding just because there isn't enough to go to everyone deserving.


The way I see it, I wouldn't ever compare myself to my peers at any point in my application, so I try not to worry about why my research is more interesting or more useful than someone else's. I just try to focus on presenting myself the best I can and hope that it will meet their standards for funding. When I come to the "why should you be considered for this award" section, I approach it not from a "why is my application better than everyone else's" view, but instead I write it as if I was answering the question "Why should taxpayers/private donor money be used to fund your research?". So, I try to explain my research/myself in these ways:


1. Explain why the research is important/interesting. Most of astronomy has almost no real application to everyday life so I focus on putting my research question in context of the current body of knowledge. Why would other scientists be interested in my results? I try to tell a story that explains what the big picture research question is, what has been done in the past, what is the next step, and how my work will help the community reach this next step. Also it's important to show what is new and different about your approach!


2. Show that the research is something achievable. Sure, it's easy to write vague and idealistic goals that will solve everything one day, but your grad school life is short! Try to show what preliminary work you have already completed to demonstrate that what you are proposing is achievable in 3-4 years. Maybe you have completed a study with a smaller sample and now you want to generalise. Or, there are other studies that use similar methodologies to answer a different problem. 


3. Give prior evidence of your ability. Usually these essays are like SOPs for grad school -- you want to spend some time talking about yourself too. Discuss your previous research experiences. Tell them what you've learned and taken away from each experience. Also don't be shy in telling the committee about what you accomplished in the past. Did your work result in presentations/papers? Did other people use your results? Did your project form the basis for another student or person's project? I think most academics are naturally modest and while you should not exaggerate your impact, be sure to not understate it either! 


I think it's important to not worry about trying to make yourself sound better than the other applicants. You shouldn't even mention them in your application! Just focus everything about you -- your experiences, skills, and accomplishments. The goal of the application is not to sound better than everyone else, but to prove to the committee that you are a good investment of the money that has been entrusted to them! Also remember that all throughout science, at all levels, many many great people and projects will end up unfunded -- not because they are bad, but because there is limited resources!

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Applying for funding sucks. But you have to do it. To get feedback, you might see if there's any sort of grants officer in the graduate school's office or your college office that can review your applications before you send them in and offer feedback. You might also see if there are any successful past applications that you can critically review and/or use as a model for your future applications. Hope this helps!

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When I got my NSF GRFP, I had a 3.42 undergrad college GPA, I think 4-5 conference presentations, and no publications.  It's not really about that, not solely anyway.

Why are you awesome?  Why are you studying for a PhD in the first place?  Because you're passionate about your field and your research question.  Why is that?  That's what you address in your essays.  In my research statement, I think the amount of time I spent actually outlining the method was like 3/4 of a page.  The rest of the time I talked about my research question's importance to the field and to humanity (broader impacts!) and how my specific training and my university's resources would contribute to me developing this research area (intellectual merit!)  My personal essay was dedicated to talking about how much I love science and where my interest in science came from (helping millions of people at the same time! by discovering cool things that we can use to fix social problems) and the various things I have done to advance science, including diversity in science, in my field (judging HS science fairs, volunteering at elementary schools, tutoring test prep courses) and what I wanted to do in the future to increase science uptake (teach statistics, mentor students in research, work at the CDC).

With NRSAs it's a little different - much more emphasis is put on your actual project and whether it's feasible.  But since NRSAs are training grants, they also focus a lot on the training plan.  You have to justify your resources - why is your university the best place for you?  What resources do they have?

I'm in public health too, by the way.

Consider also the possibility that the fact that you're in an MSc program may influence funding.  Most science fellowships that I know of say they will consider MS candidates but the overwhelming majority of recipients are PhD students.


Consider this your initiation into research funding.  You will be rejected from far more grants/fellowships than you will get.  You just have to keep trucking on and reminding yourself why you are AWESOME.  It actually might help to make a list of all of the reasons you are fantastic and look at it from time to time.

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