On Thursday, September 10, the CIE hosted its annual Writing to Win workshop – a two-part panel and presentation event that assists Stony Brook University students in preparing a competitive application for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF-GRFP). In recognition of this prestigious program and the level of funding it provides, the CIE has since 2002 offered this comprehensive information session to the entire Stony Brook Community. I had the pleasure of serving as this year’s event coordinator, and despite some considerable challenges brought to us by mother nature (in the form of not one, not two, but three flash flood warnings in under one hour), I believe that the workshop attendees walked away that (very rainy) evening with the know-how, the network and the inspiration to apply for this funding opportunity.
The GRFP is one of many independent fellowship opportunities that supports students who are pursuing research-based doctoral degrees. There exists a multitude of funding opportunities that seek to fund talented and passionate graduate students. In fact, the Stony Brook University Research Foundation manages a database that Stony Brook undergraduate and graduate students, staff and faculty can access to search for opportunities and collaborators. For many reasons, it is advantageous for you, as a graduate student, to compete for and obtain independent fellowship support instead of relying solely on the teaching and research assistantships made available through academic departments.
Opportunity begets opportunity
Winning a competitive fellowship comes with prestige, notoriety and acknowledgement of the recipient’s research potential and commitment to doctoral work. Bringing your own awarded fellowship with you to graduate study can be a competitive edge over your peer applicants as it can be seen as evidence of your initiative, drive and determination. The honor that comes with winning an external fellowship can be an important asset on your curriculum vitae or resume, and also has the potential to increase your chances of winning future awards. Additionally, by applying for external fellowships, you are gaining considerable experience building the dynamic skills essential to success in research and the academy. Namely, the ability to communicate your research interests through writing for a specific audience; to develop long term project goals, timelines and budgets; and to develop a research idea, based on a question of inquiry, into a specific, measurable and achievable project.
Protection from dour funding markets and institutional change
Independent funding is seen by principal investigators as an incredible asset, and you should see it as one too! Prospective lab members who bring an independent fellowship, in some cases (depending on your PI’s funding support), release the PI’s research dollars to be used for alternative research purposes, such as additional equipment, materials or team travel. In financial crisis situations, such as lapses in project support or an unrenewed grant, graduate students with independent fellowship support can continue their research and receive funding, often without a teaching obligation to the department, until the financial situation improves. In a worst case scenario, such as your mentor or PI leaving to join another institution, independent fellowships also have the advantage of portability. Often, support can and will travel with you from one institution to another.
Power and freedom in forging your research and financial path
Well, maybe just a little bit of power and freedom. As a graduate student working under the advisement and mentorship of a faculty member, in an academic department within a university, there will always be a level of responsibility you will have to support the work of these three entities. That being said, successfully securing independent funding for your doctoral degree can put you in a position of having more power and control over the timeline and direction of your own dissertation research. Fellowship funding can free you from taking on continued teaching assistantships and give you more time to focus on your writing and research. Some fellowships, like the GRFP, even allow you to decide when and how you wish to distribute your support over the five years of your PhD work. For students who have already received a comprehensive, multi-year financial support package from your department, an external fellowship gives you the ability to leverage institutional funding to structure your five years of financing in a way that best supports your research plans and objectives, while ensuring timely completion of your degree .
In the coming weeks, the CIE will be coordinating additional, first-time-ever workshops to support our scholars’ applications to other independent fellowships, such as the NIH-funded Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) and the Ford Foundation Predoctoral and Dissertation Fellowship programs. It is our hope to provide better support to all of our scholars, across all disciplines, in writing competitive independent fellowship applications. If you have an opportunity you wish to share, let us know!
I would like to personally thank the following Stony Brook faculty and CIE Scholars/Previous NSF-GRFP winners for their outstanding work with Writing to Win:
Faculty: Dr. Anne McElroy (Marine and Atmospheric Sciences), Dr. Miguel Garcia-Diaz (Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology)
Graduate Students: Sarah Bannon (Clinical Psychology), Jesse Brizzi (Computer Science), Ashleigh Lussenden (Neuroscience).