Grants or fellowships are great ways to defray the cost of graduate school. Unlike loans, money from grants and fellowships is yours free and clear; it will not add to your debt. And not only do they help you pay for your education—grants and fellowships look good on a résumé and can open doors for future research activity and career prospects. However, as you would expect, competition for these funds can be stiff.
If you're trying to decide which is better, a grant or a fellowship, you should know this: they are basically the same thing. In most cases, the difference is really just the word; each organization and institution chooses what to call their offers of aid. So as you consider these options, it’s best not to get too hung up on the official terminology. There are three main things to think about as you consider applying for grants and fellowships: research to find the best opportunities, prepare yourself and the application, and make a decision about where to focus your research or studies.
Research opportunities based on your interests
First things first: what do you want to do with your time and talents? Before applying for funding, you need to research your options and identify the best for you, based on your field of study and specific interests within that field. What organizations offer grants or fellowships relevant to your studies, and which ones should you go after? There's no real clearinghouse for grants and fellowships, though there are sites that provide information about both of these types of funding.
In general, the best place to start is the schools and individual academic department where you will be studying. They will have information about relevant grants and fellowships. Sometimes this is part of the general financial aid department and sometimes it is a dedicated grants or fellowship office, depending on the school. In addition, federal government entities (like the National Institutes of Health or the Department of Energy) offer grants and fellowships, as do state governments. And many private companies and organizations, such as the Microsoft or the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, offer grants or fellowships for students pursuing particular academic interests.
Related: Choosing the Right Graduate Degree for Your Goals
Thoroughly prepare your applications early
Once you’ve identified a core list of programs to apply for, it takes time to create a thorough application that demonstrates why you are the best candidate for the grant or fellowship. Much like scholarships, grants and fellowships are awarded based on merit and the field of study. The reviewers will be looking for information about a student’s academic achievement and interests, as well as his or her ability to articulate research or study goals and a method to attain the specific objectives spelled out in the funding guidelines—which you should read thoroughly. And more than once. This means you have to start preparing weeks, if not months, before the deadline in order to gather all the information you need. Truly, once you decide to apply for graduate school, you should already be on the lookout for grant and fellowship opportunities. Then, once you are accepted, you should start the application process. Once you know exactly what is expected and required of you in the application, you can invest the time needed to complete it thoughtfully and thoroughly.
What to expect to submit
Each organization has different requirements for grants and fellowships. but all of them expect a lot of information from you and a well-written proposal. Expect to need to submit an official application form, proposal or prospectus, project budget, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and undergraduate and/or graduate transcripts. The good news is that awarding organizations will tell you what they need, and quite often you can find examples of successful proposals to guide you as you create your own application.
Discover and declare your study focus
As part of the process of finding the grants or fellowships you want to apply for, you'll have to determine the focus for the research or studying you want to do. Some people come to graduate school with a specific and narrow focus already in mind. That’s great. But if that’s not you, you’ll have to do some research to determine a focus. For many people, a good place to start is learning about what others in the field have done so you can understand how your research will to the field. It's also important to do a literature review to identify trends in the industry or field. Once you identify the best idea, the one that's the perfect mix of what you want to do and what the foundation or organization wants to fund, it’s time to focus your research on building up the best case for your application. In addition to reading the literature, make sure to talk to your professors and others in the field for guidance.
Related: How Does Financial Aid Differ for Graduate Students?
Because they are competitive and require such rigorous application procedures, grants and fellowships are one of the best ways to fund your graduate studies. Not only do they help you pay for school, they put you on the right path for a strong career once you have your degree in hand.
Our Scholarship Search tool isn’t just for finding scholarships—you can find listings for graduate grants and fellowships too. Get searching!