by Lenore E. Matthew, MSW, MA, and Megan S. Paceley, Ph.D., MSW
What’s the secret to getting scholarships and other funding? In a sea of ever-qualified applicants vying for scarce dollars and resources, what can social work students do to be competitive?
Lenore Matthew is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois School of Social Work and an international social worker. Megan Paceley is an assistant professor at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare and an LGBTQ youth advocate. As graduate students, we were awarded more than 30 scholarships, fellowships, and grants from various on-campus and external funders. These awards enabled experiences that shaped our careers, including a summer of language study overseas, fieldwork in the U.S. and abroad, and dissertation research subsequently honored by the Society for Social Work Research (SSWR).
In this article, we identify 10 tips that help demystify the funding application process for students of social work at all levels—undergraduate to doctoral. Follow these, and you’re sure to bump up the odds of winning that award!
1. Get familiar with the types of funding.
Before jumping into the application process, first get familiar with the jargon. Your department will love it if you “secure your own funding.” This may mean winning a fellowship, a type of award most often granted to graduate students, which pays a stipend and, depending on the institution, often generates a tuition waiver. This may also mean winning a scholarship. Scholarships are given to both undergraduate and graduate students and sometimes (but not always) are smaller sums than fellowships. Whatever their sum, scholarships add weight to your résumé and CV, and they provide funds to help support academic and research efforts. Some scholarships are merit-based—a scholarship for academic achievement or excellence in teaching, for example—and are not tied to conditions like completing a project. Grants, however, are often awarded for a particular project or activity. Grants range from large sums covering the entire or partial cost of a project, to smaller cost-sharing sums or funds for a specific endeavor (e.g., travel). Grants may be given to students at all levels, depending on the award requirements.
A word to the wise: the various award terms are sometimes used interchangeably, depending on the funder. Whichever type of funding you pursue, make sure you read all instructions and limitations carefully before you apply!
2. Find your niche and position yourself—in and beyond social work.
Once you have a handle on what types of funding opportunities exist, you need to start thinking about how to position yourself. It’s time to define your niche. Think about this as discerning all of the areas and themes to which your work relates, and identifying how your work contributes to them. There are countless ways to position yourself and your work and find your niche:
- Substantively. Does your research focus on child welfare? Health policy? Racial disparities?
- Geographically. Is your focus on Latin America? A specific U.S. state? Cross-regional?
- Related to a specific population. Does your project explore the experience of immigrants? Single mothers? LGBTQ adolescents? Low-income students?
- Based on a personal characteristic. Are you an international student? A female graduate student? A clinician? An undergraduate returning to study after working in the field?
Defining your niche will help you narrow down the sea of awards to those that are most relevant. It will help identify key words to use in database searches and make your review of eligibility criteria more straightforward. Finding your niche also pushes you to think about how your work fits into broader academic and practice areas beyond social work, which opens the door to even more funding opportunities.
3. You’re a social worker—leverage it!
There is something special about social workers. We focus on many of the same issues as our peers from hard and traditional social sciences—poverty, health disparities, education inequalities, and others. But as an intervention-centric profession, social workers aim to not only understand why social inequities happen, but we want to know what can be done to alleviate those problems and the social impact of interventions proposed to address them.
As students applying for various types of funding, we found that leveraging the uniqueness of social work can be quite advantageous. The social work advantage may be highlighted through a variety of techniques: how you form your research question, the policy and practice implications you suggest, or how you design your research methods. Lenore’s research, for example, focuses on labor market inequities, a topic most researched by economists using quantitative modeling. As a mixed-methods researcher focused on the person-in-environment of labor markets, Lenore realized that her approach added something unique to the literature. Funders of interdisciplinary awards in particular have found this contribution promising.
4. Make contacts.
Networking is a critical part of your university experience. This applies to funding, too. Amidst times of institutions tightening the belt on budgets, leveraging your networks to be in-the-know on funding opportunities is evermore important. The challenge is knowing where to start.
The easiest way to begin making contacts and building your funding network is to get on email lists. This will keep you in the loop on upcoming funding opportunities, as well as inform you on upcoming events (such as conferences) where you are likely to meet like-minded students, researchers, and practitioners.
Lucrative contacts for social work students include:
- your own school of social work
- area studies and research centers at your own and other universities
- Social Work Research Network (SWRNet)
- professional organizations, including the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR), the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW)
- interdisciplinary research funding organizations in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. Options are vast and include but are not limited to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), U.S. government agencies (e.g., U.S. Department of Justice), and the Ford Foundation, to name a few.
At a minimum, add yourself to these institutions’ email lists. Research other professional organizations related to your niche and add yourself to those lists, too. If a particularly relevant award or event arises, reach out for more information and go to the event. Funders remember people who are in contact and express their genuine interest.
5. You’re an undergraduate? A first-year grad student? Start applying now!
With a grasp on the world of funding and how you fit into it, you’re now ready to start applying. But at what point in your career should you begin applying for awards? The answer is now!
Ideally, you’ll hit the ground running and submit at least one funding application during your undergraduate years or your first year of graduate school. After that, applying for awards only gets easier. Getting your ideas on paper cogently and cohesively early on helps you begin to define your research and practice agenda. And once your first proposal is complete, you’ll have a skeleton to work from in future applications. Return to this skeleton later on—but plan on tweaking the structure and content as you move forward.
If you’re nearing the end of your studies and haven’t yet applied for any type of award—fret not. There’s no time like the present! Having some experience applying for funding (even if you don’t receive the award) will serve you well before heading onto the job market, be it in academia or practice.
6. Help your recommenders help you.
If you’re applying for a fellowship or scholarship, you’ll most likely need two to five letters of recommendation from faculty or supervisors. Writing a good letter of recommendation can take hours and requires a massive investment of time and effort. To increase the odds of receiving compelling letters, make life easy for your recommenders. Contact them about writing a letter at least a month before the deadline. Send them a PDF and web link of the award description, as well as other materials you deem necessary (e.g., your résumé or CV).
It also helps to give each recommender a few ideas of what you would like them to highlight. Try to diversify the focus of each letter, but make sure the content of all letters is relevant to the award of interest. For example, when Megan applied for scholarships and fellowships related to LGBTQ youth advocacy, she sought letters from dissertation committee members, as well as a community member who supervised her work with LGBTQ youth. This strategy helped both the scholarly and real-world practice contributions of her work shine through—vital details that funding reviewers couldn’t miss.
7. Make a timeline and stick to it.
Thinking ahead is key to developing a compelling funding application. A polished proposal takes time to devise, so start drafting at least a month in advance. To both save time and fine-tune your ideas, leverage work you’ve already done. Use practice proposals written for coursework, or, as you apply for more awards, tweak previous proposals (funded or not).
In addition, make sure to budget enough time to seek feedback from multiple eyes. This should include professors and colleagues from social work and other disciplines. From whomever you request feedback, just remember: help them help you. Ask in advance, and don’t forget to thank them.
8. Think big, but be strategic.
If you’ve invested the time in writing a proposal, why stop at submitting just one application? As a general rule, try to apply for at least three awards with the same proposal in a given year. The worst that can happen is you don’t get an award (you may get valuable feedback and can try again), or you win all awards and have to turn a few down (still good for your CV; note them as “declined”).
If you submit the same proposal for multiple awards, don’t forget to tailor the proposal for each award offer. And don’t submit the same proposal year after year. As you progress through graduate study, your research and practice focus will be refined. Show this off with each new funding cycle.
Although you should think big, you should also be strategic. Perhaps you don’t apply for the $60,000 grant in your undergraduate program or even during year one of your graduate program. But every $150 award is a mark of prestige and accomplishment. Plan on building your CV early on, to position yourself to be more competitive as you move forward. Funders love to give money to people who have already been given it—these applicants are a safe bet for a high return-on-investment.
9. Resources are out there—use them!
In addition to the contacts and mailing lists you’re joining (see Tip #4 above), there are scores of funding resources that students should explore. A few of our favorites include:
- The University of Illinois Graduate College External Fellowships Database. Housed at the University of Illinois but free and open to the public, this is among the most comprehensive databases of scholarships and fellowships for graduate students. https://www.grad.illinois.edu/fellowship/
- Scholarship Search at BigFuture.org. Operated by the College Board, this online hub houses hundreds of scholarships, as well as internships and information on other funding options, such as loans. This site is for undergraduates, as well as high school students planning for college. https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/scholarship-search#!welcome
- GrantForward.com. This fee-for-service database of government, foundation, and private donor grants lists grants for virtually every area of practice and research. If your university subscribes, students may access the database free of charge. Check with your school to see if this service is available. http://Grantforward.com
- The Professor Is In. In her blog and book (both of the same name), academic-turned-consultant Dr. Karen Kelsky shares hundreds of excellent tips to optimize your academic experience and ultimately land a job. Although Kelsky speaks primarily to doctoral students, her tips on writing effective funding applications apply to students at all levels. http://theprofessorisin.com/
10. Follow these must-do’s!
There are some non-negotiables in applying for funding. Make sure to:
- Stay within the word or page limit.
- Make sure you explicitly address the criteria the funder requests and use headers to set off each of these criteria. For a research fellowship, for example, required criteria may include methods, research design, literature review, study significance, and implications.
- Submit all documents requested, such as transcripts and the correct number of letters of recommendation.
- Whenever possible, include a cover lever thanking the committee for reviewing your application, even if a cover letter isn’t required.
And don’t forget—relax and have fun! Fellowships and the like are evidence that you can bring in grant dollars—a critical selling point on the job market today. In addition, securing your own funding provides the flexibility to develop your own research agenda and the autonomy to define your educational experience—invaluable for emerging scholars and practitioners alike.
With a little practice, applying for funding gets easier—even enjoyable! Start applying and, soon enough, you’ll have some extra cash in your pocket to help support yourself and your good-intentioned work.
Now how rewarding is that?
Lenore Matthew, MSW, MA, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois School of Social Work whose research focuses on gender inequalities in global labor markets. Megan Paceley, Ph.D., MSW, is an assistant professor at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare and an alumnus of the University of Illinois School of Social Work. Her research focuses on the well-being of rural LGBTQ youth.
Thank you to Dr. Cindy Buckley for your thoughtful feedback.