What are granting organizations looking for?

There are countless fellowship opportunities available and their requirements can vary greatly. In general, it is important that applications highlight how your research will help fulfill the goals of the granting organization. For example, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship looks for research that not only has intellectual merit, but will have a broader impact on society (for more examples please see the Application Tips for Specific Fellowships section). Granting organizations are looking to fund students with the potential to do the highest quality research in whatever area they are focused on. In other words, they are funding you and not necessarily your research. They therefore look for students with a logical mind and who provide a proposal that is organized, pays attention to detail, and exhibits a clear thought process. The research has to be of a do-able scope that can be completed within a reasonable timeframe congruent with a typical course of study in your field and you need to be sure the institute has the resources available to see your research to completion. In summary, you should be sure your research answers most if not all of Princeton Professor George Heilmeier’s famous catechism questions listed below:

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares?
  • If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks and the payoffs?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?

Granting organizations also often want someone with a strong working knowledge of the fundamental sciences and evidence of prior success and accomplishments such as research experience, publications, and awards/ honors/ scholarships. They are also looking for applications with recommenders that can give specific examples and can clearly demonstrate they know the applicant both as a person and as someone with real capabilities as a researcher. Lastly, they want an applicant with a passion for the field and the drive to complete their degree.