Stop Making Excuses and Start Applying for Graduate Grants, Scholarships, and Fellowships


In this post, I strip you of the BS excuses you’re using to avoid applying for grants, scholarships, and fellowships to help you pay for graduate school. Then I share some ideas and resources for where to identify funding that’s a good fit for you. This is part 2 of the series Make Money in Graduate School.

Last week, I wrote about embracing your options for making money during graduate school. I outlined broad categories of options, including finding funding from your institution, applying your academic skills outside of the university, and doing something totally unrelated to keep up connections to the non-academic world. Over the next few weeks, I’ll dig deeper into each of those options. First, let’s start with grants, scholarships, fellowships–the free money.

But before we talk about where you’ll find those funds, let’s address the excuses you may be using to justify why you don’t think you should apply for scholarship or grant funding. Yes, you. I’m not blaming. I know these excuses because I used them too. These kinds of excuses are abundant because they’re easy. They act as convenient little lies we can tell ourselves so we don’t need to feel guilty or lazy for not applying. Let’s go over three of the most common excuses I’ve heard, and used:

1. People like me don’t get grants or scholarships.

Maybe it’s your ethnicity, your name, your family’s income, your chosen field of study, your age, or some crazy combination of things you’ve decided matter like the fact that you’re from Indiana and like to eat kumquats in the rain. I don’t know what it is, but chances are, you have biases about who you think does and doesn’t get grant or scholarship money, and you are using those biases to rule yourself out before you even try.

Many people  believe that only students of color, or low-income students, get grant or scholarship money. You know what? I mentor low-income students of color about applying to college, and they have these same anxieties. Anyone can believe that there isn’t money out there for people like them. This is fear-based thinking and it’s easy to fall prey to.

In reality there are many different types of grants and scholarships out there and they are set aside for many different kinds of people. And some aren’t set aside for specific kinds of people at all, but are just waiting for someone awesome who only needs to apply and make a good case for why they are awesome. Are you awesome? Then you can probably get something. You just have to try.

2. Grant and scholarship money is too competitive for me.

You think you can’t get scholarship and grant money because your grades aren’t good enough, your hobbies aren’t weird enough, or your story isn’t dramatic enough. Maybe you think it’s because you accidentally killed off the tadpole you got in your freshman biology class and someone must be keeping track of these things. You think only super perfect people get scholarships and you missed the mark on that ages ago. That’s nonsense.

Sure, some applications have criteria based on an applicant’s GPA or test scores. But there’s a huge spread, and almost everyone is eligible for something. Start believing that you are smart and capable. You’re in a graduate program, so give yourself some credit. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t doing some things right. And you’re here on this blog investing time into learning about your funding options. See how smart you are? Now go. Apply!

3. All of the good grants and scholarships have already been given out to other people.

I am currently working as a postdoc researcher on a large federal grant exploring innovations in the college access space. One of our project partners for this grant is the California Student Aid Commission, or CSAC. Each year, CSAC gives out gobs of money to California students to attend college. Okay, gobs probably isn’t the technical term for it, but you get the idea. Now here’s something interesting I recently learned. Each year, there’s also a lot of money that has been promised to students, but then isn’t given out because no one eligible applies.

What?! There’s free money that goes to no one because no one bothers to ask for it? Apparently we collectively aspire to pile up our student loan debt so high that we’ll still be paying on it when we cash our first social security checks.

If there is money set aside for people but never goes to anyone because no one applies, then maybe, just maybe, the wildly superior people that you think you’re competing with for money are more in your head than the real world. You don’t know until you apply. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t get awarded anything on the first shot and you have your application materials already drafted for the next thing you apply for.

Stop making excuses, believe there is money out there for the taking and that it can go to you if you only put in the effort to find it and apply for it. Stop right now and commit to submitting 3 applications.

I am going to submit three applications for scholarships or grants.

Ready? The next step is where you put in the work to find the money that’s out there waiting for you.

Where is the money?

Funding options are based on many different criteria. Some funds are field-specific, meaning they are specifically for scientists, future lawyers and teachers, humanists, or entomologists looking for evidence of past bug life on Mars. Okay, I made that last one up. But the point is, there is money out there for people in all fields and disciplines.

There are also diversity funds based on the applicant’s race, gender identity, religion, and other criteria. Other grants and scholarships are state or city-specific depending on where you live or go to school. The criteria are numerous, so do your homework to find out what you’re eligible for.

In a great post titled “How I won $100,000+ in college scholarships,” personal finance blogger and author of I Will Teach You To be Rich, Ramit Sethi shares a quote about applying for scholarships that’s relevant for us here:

“Just like with personal finances, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room — you just have to get started.”

Sethi is absolutely right here. So let’s get started…

1. Ask your advisor, other faculty in your department, and your fellow graduate student colleagues.

The people in your immediate social network may be your best resource for finding funding opportunities in your field. These are also the people who you may be asking for letters of recommendation when you apply, so make sure they know you are being awesome by exercising your agency and actively looking for opportunities.

2. Set up an appointment in your university’s financial aid office.

Most likely, there’s an office in your university staffed with people eagerly waiting for people like you to walk in and ask for help with finding resources. Your university’s financial aid department can be a great resource for finding what to apply to, and for getting some help with the application process.

3. Do some online research.

There are sites all over the web where you can find information about funding opportunities. I list a few of these below, but please know that these are by no means comprehensive. Your best bet is to develop your own search criteria and to do your own resarch. You’re web savvy. You got this. You’re the expert on you, and you set your own path. Set forth and find yourself some money to do the awesome work that you do.

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3 Comments, RSS

  1. Pingback/Trackback

    September 4, 2016 @ 3:28 am Reply

  2. Froogal Stoodent October 15, 2016 @ 10:48 pm

    Great post–you’re very right that you have to get started if you want to compete for these grants!

    Please note that the awards for a single grad student tend to be pretty small, and some are usable only for research expenses. (I found this out through my personal experience with the topic). That shouldn’t stop anyone from looking, though, nor from applying (particularly if your research requires money to run)!

    • Frugal PhD October 15, 2016 @ 11:04 pm

      Great point, Froogal Stoodent. My dissertation research some travel and software purchases, so I was happy to have some help covering the costs. But it’s absolutely right that many fellowships and other awards tend to have specific stipulations about how the awards are spent. It’s always best to apply for awards that fit your needs at the time.

      Thanks for weighing in!

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