Dissertation funding may be divided into two separate phases: dissertation research and dissertation writing. Typically, a funder will support either research or writing, not both. This page will focus on dissertation research awards; please also visit our page on Dissertation Writing/Completion Awards.
Dissertation research awards are either grants to cover the direct costs of a research project or fellowships to provide a stipend (especially during an extended research trip). Costs covered by a grant may include travel to the field site, collection or purchase of data relevant to the dissertation project, supplies, fees to compensate research subjects, or other research-related expenses. Always consult with individual funders to find out what their awards will support. Dissertation research grants and fellowships can range in support from a few weeks to a year and the financial support can be modest (a few thousand dollars) to lucrative ($30-40k/year), depending on the award program.
While many students will not be able to complete their dissertation research without a grant or fellowship, the benefits of applying for dissertation funding apply to all students regardless of need. Working on a funding application helps young scholars learn to talk about their projects in a clear, concise, and compelling way. Presenting ideas in a proposal may lead researchers to confront and work through challenging issues (such as developing a conceptual framework or methodology) early, enabling the overall dissertation to be more productive. Successful applicants garner resources to support their research, and continue to benefit from their funding success by enhanced competitiveness on the job market.
Dissertation research grants and fellowships may have variable restrictions regarding the student’s status on applying for or receiving funds, especially with respect to having advanced to candidacy. However, since students who have won dissertation funding in the past have typically invested 4-6 months into the application-writing process, and funding for a successful application may not arrive for 9-12 months after the application deadline, we strongly encourage doctoral students to begin thinking about dissertation-level funding while still in the coursework or pre-exam phases of their programs.
Many dissertation funding competitions have deadlines that occur sometime between September and January, though a few programs have deadlines year-round. In order to write competitive applications, we encourage students to begin working on their proposals in the spring before the deadlines, and up to 18 months before they will need funds. This means that you may be writing a funding proposal that will require you to describe your research idea, its significance, and your approach before you have written your proposal for your committee.
There are many dissertation fellowship and grant programs that are highly competitive and therefore extremely prestigious, some with funding rates as low as 2%. In the past, Rutgers students have won some of the most competitive dissertation fellowships and grants, and we encourage our students to apply for these awards.
At the same time, we encourage students to broadly explore their options. Many doctoral students also take advantage of less-well-known or less-competitive small grants offered by professional organizations and societies. You may find that small grants may be sufficient to cover your costs or, when a few are combined, can add up to generous and flexible support. This is especially the case in the humanities where archives or libraries offer modest travel grants to use their collections. These smaller awards can help to defray your research costs, bring recognition to your work, and provide professional development credentials.
When thinking about dissertation funding applications, ask yourself the following questions:
As you begin to explore dissertation funding options, we advise you to consider carefully the mission and goals of the funder. Funders who offer research grants will tend to be most interested in the project you are proposing and how it will intersect with their research interests and agenda. Funders who offer fellowships will tend to be interested in you and your project, and they will want to know how you (through your training and research) intersect with their research interests and agenda.
Why does the funder offer a particular fellowship or grant? Are they interested in a particular theme or activity? Are they interested in supporting students with specialized career goals? Even if the particular fellowship or grant competition is highly competitive, if you match up well with the funder’s interest and goals, you have a much better chance of being successful.
While each application is different, common elements in dissertation-level funding applications include:
Consider participating in one of our Graduate Funding Mentoring Programs, which offer a structured and intensive platform that is ideal to help graduate students develop their applications for competitive, dissertation-level funding. Throughout the calendar year we provide individual meetings to help you select a funder and develop and hone your application materials. Finally, participation in one of our upcoming events may help you through the application process as well.
Once you have selected one or more specific dissertation research awards, be sure to visit the Funder Profiles on the GradFund Knowledgebase to learn more about some of these awards from different perspectives and to view sample applications. To get started on writing your application, visit the Proposal Writing Tools page of the Knowledgebase for workbooks and activities that will help you on your way!