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What are granting organizations looking for?

There are numerous fellowship opportunities available and their requirements can vary greatly.

In general, however, granting organizations are looking for the following.

Qualities of the student

Organizations often wish to fund students with the potential to do the highest quality research in whatever area they are focused on. In other words, they are funding you and not necessarily your research. They usually look for students with a logical mind who provide a proposal that is organized, detail-oriented, and exhibits a clear thought process.

Granting organizations also want someone with a strong working knowledge of the fundamental sciences and evidence of prior success and accomplishments including:

  • Research experience
  • Publications
  • Awards/honors/scholarships

Lastly, they want an applicant with a passion for the field and the drive to complete their degree.

Features of the application

Highlight how your research will help fulfill the goals of the granting organization.

  • For example, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship looks for research that not only has intellectual merit, but will also have a broader impact on society.
  • For more examples please see the application tips for specific fellowships section.

The proposed research should have a feasible scope.

  • You should be able to complete the proposed project within a reasonable time-frame congruent with a typical course of study in your field.
  • You should make sure the Institute has the resources available to see the project to completion.

Make sure your research proposal answers most of, if not all, of the catechism questions.

These were famously developed by Princeton Professor George Heilmeier.

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares?
  • If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks and the payoffs?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?


Granting organizations look for recommenders that can give specific examples and can clearly demonstrate they know the applicant, both as a person and as someone with real capabilities as a researcher.