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How do you know if you're on the right path?

Aug 11, 2022

Hi, colleagues:

Writing grants can be lonely. You’re in your own head. You’re making decisions about how to invest your time. How do you know if you’re on the right path? 

It helps to hear from people who’ve gone before you. That’s why I’m delighted to share an interview with Dr. Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana. Dr. Rucks-Ahidiana is an Assistant Professor at the University of Albany and a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader. She’s also the founder of Practical PhD, a “transparent source for all things PhD.” Here’s how she’s navigated grant writing.


How did you get started with grant writing?

Fellowships are helpful for understanding my trajectory with grants. I applied to fellowships before I even got into a PhD program. I had no idea what I was doing. I learned a lot in my first few years in grad school, because there was a lot of support and community around applying for NSF fellowships, Ford Foundation funding, Soros, and other predoctoral fellowship options. I didn't secure any pre-doctoral fellowships from outside the university, but having that experience and getting feedback on those applications helped with my applications for dissertation funding. Before I graduated, I secured an AAUW fellowship and was an alternate for the Ford Foundation Dissertation Completion fellowship. Since then, I have received the Emerging Poverty Scholars Fellowship from the Institute for Poverty Research, a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, and the Mellon Emerging Faculty Leaders Award from the Institute for Citizens and Scholars.


What was your biggest challenge as you learned how to write grants?

Every application is a little different. You can build off of the same application, but a funder will ask for a diversity statement, or a personal essay, or want certain headers. The peculiarities of each application make it a challenge. Especially if you are applying for more than one. I definitely recommend applying to as many funding sources as you're eligible for. From my experience, you have to throw a lot at the wall to get something to stick. I recently secured a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader award. That was one of four applications I submitted to try to get funding for this summer. That one came through, but there are also three that didn’t. You don't know what's going to stick.


How did you feel as you were learning grant writing?

It was overwhelming to figure out where to find funding. After graduate school, I knew there was National Science Foundation funding. I knew it was highly competitive. I went to a grant writing workshop before I started my tenure track position. My big takeaway was I needed to get smaller grants under my belt to show I’m getting funding and being acknowledged for my work. But it’s a hunting game. You have to do some investigative work. I often look at the CVs of scholars who are doing similar research to me. I go to the grants section. Where have they gotten money from? The only problem is sometimes pots of money disappear, but it’s a good place to start. Twitter is great as well, because folks announce when they've won funding. I often click on the link to see more information about the funding program. Is this something I could save for the future? Or is it outside of my areas of research? Some funding comes under different names. Sometimes it’s an “award” with a pot of money, sometimes a “fellowship,” sometimes a “grant.” I have a bookmark folder for funding including grants, scholar in residence programs, and things like that.


What changed for you after submitting your first grant?

Grants let me focus on the job market my final year of graduate school. I would have stayed in graduate school another year or two otherwise. Once I landed a job, I was able to focus on the dissertation and getting that wrapped up. It was also a change in my CV. None of the departments I interviewed in required a grant to get tenure. But it certainly did come up in my job interviews. People said, “Oh, you've gotten funding.” To them it was a sign that I could get more funding and bring grants to their departments. There is prestige for the university that comes with getting funding. So it’s something folks like to see at all levels of administration. They like to see folks that are landing pots of money in some form, so I think it did open up some opportunities.


I’m grateful to Dr. Rucks-Ahidiana for sharing her journey. You can find her on Twitter, where she regularly posts strategies for succeeding in graduate school and the academy. And stay tuned for part two of this interview, where Dr. Rucks-Ahidiana shares her top three tips for securing funding. 

Thank you for reading and believing that scholars deserve support for incredible ideas.


Let’s connect! Twitter and the Newsletter.

P.S. As mentioned in my interview with Dr. Michelle Meyer, credit for this question structure goes to Donald Miller’s book, Building a Storybrand. Storytelling is essential for grant writing. Storytelling is how you connect with reviewers and convince them that your grant matters. 

P.P.S. Hope you are getting time outside! It’s beach season here in New England. We are trying to take advantage of it whenever we can.

[Photo of a New England beach.]