Finding Your Way Through a Forest of Funding

 January 18, 2023

On a cloudy May afternoon, I walked into Horní Planá, Czechia, the birthplace of the Austrian author Adalbert Stifter. My arrival marked the midway point of a five-day hike through a region that serves as the setting for so many of Stifter’s stories—a fitting excursion for someone writing a dissertation on walking! This walk was made possible by the James B. Duke International Research Travel Fellowship, which allowed me to spend the 2021-2022 academic year in Germany as a guest student in the German Department at the University of Konstanz. This fellowship allowed me to augment my research with an aspect of lived experience. But my time abroad wasn’t only spent walking. I was also able to connect with scholars in Germany, hone my language skills, and access German libraries and primary source documents. Of equal importance was the time to make substantial progress on my dissertation, free from other teaching or service obligations.

This opportunity, however, was a long time in the making. There are countless funding sources available to graduate students at Duke and beyond that can support your studies and research, but figuring out which ones are applicable to you and writing a successful application take time and planning. My fellowship application was funded, but it was not always easy. I first wrote countless drafts and dealt with my fair share of rejection. While the process is never easy, and certainly never ends (I’m still writing fellowship applications!), there are many helpful tips and resources that can help as you identify and apply for fellowships and scholarships yourself. In what follows, I’ll share the most important resources and advice that I used in order to make a fellowship plan, identify funding sources, write my applications, and make the most of the experience.

Making a Plan

The first step is to articulate your goals and priorites. Ask yourself the following questions to narrow down your search and identify the sorts of fellowships you should be looking at:

  • Do you need funding to cover tuition or living expenses during your time at Duke? 
  • Are you hoping to conduct research off-campus? 
  • Do you need research funding in order to acquire materials and equipment or access to lab space? 
  • Are you looking for a dissertation fellowship so that you can devote yourself full-time to writing? 
  • Do you want to do an internship in order to both earn money during your studies and develop professional skills for your future career?

Depending on your needs and goals, different types of fellowships and scholarships are going to be relevant to you. It’s also important to consider timing. If you need to travel abroad in order to conduct research, when will such a trip fit into your course of study? Will a two-month trip over the summer get you the time you need in a crucial archive? If you need to spend an entire year abroad, at what point in the research process is it going to be most beneficial for you to be on fellowship? As always, talking to a trusted faculty mentor can be helpful in making a long-term funding plan. Your DGS can also be a helpful resource for learning what fellowships students in your program often apply to and receive, and what the best timelines for doing so are.

Foggy path
When it comes to finding and applying for funding, sometimes the path ahead is steep, rocky, and unclear. This is when pathfinding skills and resources are essential. 

Finding Funding

Once you have an idea of why you are seeking funding, it’s time to start exploring your options. Duke offers a variety of tools to find funding. Take a look at the following resources:

Funding Opportunities from The Graduate School

This tool allows you to search through all of the funding opportunities offered by The Graduate School. At the bottom of the page you will also find links to other helpful funding resources.

Finding Funding Workshops

Duke offers regular workshops on how best to find funding, which will go into greater detail on how to use many of these tools. Sign up early because they tend to fill up fast!

NCS Scholarships Directory

The Nationally Competitive Scholarships (NCS) team at the Office of University Scholars and Fellows supports students who are applying for Fulbright, CLS, or DAAD grants. This directory lists all of the fellowships they work with. NCS also offers a brief overview of the fellowships relevant to graduate students.


As a Duke student, you have access to PIVOT, which maintains a database of grants, fellowships, and other funding information from public and private, domestic and international sources.

Duke Research Funding Database

The Office of Research & Innovation provides an extensive, on-line database of funding opportunities. Use the advanced search function to find fellowships relevant to you.

Funding and Graduate Student Opportunities

The Graduate School maintains a list of funding and other opportunities from other units at Duke and from other institutions. You can sign up for email updates to receive the latest information about new opportunities.

Supplemental Summer Funding for Ph.D. Students

This list of resources highlights summer funding opportunities for Duke Ph.D. Students, including internships, teaching and mentoring opportunities, and research assistantships.

In addition to these general resources, there are a variety of discipline specific resources to explore. Some departments, such as Chemistry or German Studies, maintain a list of relevant funding opportunities for their graduate students. It’s also worth checking with professional organizations in your field to see if they have similar resources, such as this database maintained by the Modern Language Association (MLA). Many professional organizations also offer scholarships and fellowships of their own!

Remember that many of these fellowships are highly competitive. The goal is not to find the one, perfect fellowship for you, but to identify a variety of options. While it only makes sense to apply to fellowships and scholarships that you actually qualify for, the more applications you submit, the higher the likelihood of success! 

Preparing Your Application

After you’ve identified fellowships and other sources of funding that make sense for you and your graduate career, it’s time to start preparing your applications. Many require you to obtain letters of recommendation from your professors or others who can speak to your qualities as a person and a scholar. It’s good to approach potential letter writers at least 6 to 8 weeks in advance of your due dates so that they can write the strongest possible letters. You should also begin drafting your proposal and other materials early. Grant and fellowship proposals are a difficult genre and nobody executes them well the first time around. Plan on writing several drafts and getting as much feedback from as many different readers as possible. When preparing and revising your application materials, there are a number of resources you can take advantage of:

  • The Graduate School partners with the TWP Writing Studio to periodically offer a workshop series where you can get structured feedback on fellowship and grant applications for humanities and social sciences disciplines.
  • As one of the many writing resources offered by The Graduate School, students in all disciplines can schedule individual consultations at the TWP Writing Studio to talk through your ideas, receive feedback on your application materials, and structure a productive writing process. Students in engineering disciplines can also make appointments with the Pratt Graduate Communications and Intercultural Communications team.
  • If you are thinking about applying to Fulbright, CLS, or DAAD, you can set up an appointment with an NCS advisor or attend one of their weekly drop-in advising sessions, Fellowships@4.
  • Many fellowship programs offer their own info sessions, such as those offered by NSF-GRFP every August and September. These events are a great way to get an idea of what the people reviewing your application will be looking for. 
  • The Graduate School hosts an annual information session in October about its internal fellowships open to Duke Ph.D. students.
  • Duke’s Office of Campus Research Development has a number of toolkits designed to help students who are applying to NSF or NIH grants. Scroll to the bottom of this page for the toolkits most relevant to graduate students. 
  • If the writing process gets too isolating, and it often can, the Graduate Writing Lab provides a space to write in community with the option of some help with goal setting and brief point-of-need input from a writing consultant. 

Making the Most of It

Hooray, your application was successful! Now what? Just like the application process, making the most of your fellowship term takes time and planning. If you’ll be off campus, you’ll need to secure housing and get connected with the relevant archives, labs, or other institutions. It’s also a good idea to make a clear plan for what you will accomplish while you’re being funded. Time goes fast and you want to make sure you can achieve everything you set out to. But making the most of your fellowship is about more than just the money and your research. Winning a fellowship is an important distinction as an academic, signaling to others that you are a respected scholar doing important research. Many fellowships also serve as gateways to academic communities. These connections include not only your fellow researchers, but also other grantees. As a winner of a prestigious fellowship, you enter into an elite community of alumni that can be an important network for life. But even if you don’t get a fellowship when you first apply, applying itself can be a valuable experience. I’ve found that writing fellowship applications and grant proposals (lots and lots of them, each with multiple drafts) has helped me better articulate my research to a wide audience, a skill that I carry with me even when my proposal isn’t selected.


Nathan Drapela
Nathan Drapela

Ph.D. candidate, German Studies

Nathan is a Ph.D. candidate in German Studies and the Graduate Student Affairs Intern in The Graduate School for 2022-23. He has published articles on Johann Wilhelm Ritter, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Hermann Hesse, and is currently completing a dissertation on walking in nineteenth- and twentieth-century narrative prose. Outside of research, you can find Nathan backpacking or exploring North Carolina on his bike.