The advantages of applying for awards and scholarships are obvious: having your work recognized, setting your resumé apart, allowing you to travel for research and/or conferences, and sometimes providing a little extra cash. However, actually completing these applications can be tiresome and time-consuming; is it really worth the effort? Working on these applications is a great exercise in science communication and advocating for yourself! Plus, generating this kind of material over time gives you a body of work to pull from when working on job/graduate school applications. Even if you’re not winning every award you apply for, you can learn a lot about yourself in the process.
That said, women and underrepresented minorities in STEM receive little-to-no formal training on professional development, science communication, or even basic resumé writing. An additional, unspoken challenge of applying for awards: admitting that you are not only good at something but deserving of recognition for it. As graduate students, under-represented minorities, and women in STEM this seems to require an overwhelming – if not unappealing – amount of confidence, especially if you don’t get much external validation from your advisor or supervisor. Imposter syndrome and feelings of doubt quickly come to the surface when we have to advocate for ourselves.
An additional, unspoken challenge of applying for awards: admitting that you are not only good at something but deserving of recognition for it.
So how do you strike a balance of writing a thoughtful but confident application? There is no easy answer, no listicle I can write for you with six easy steps; there is only practice. If you get nothing else from this article, let it be this: the more you write, the better you will get. Here I’ve collected a few bits of advice that have helped me the most, and I think will help you, too. But the real work is up to you – consider this a pep talk rather than a how-to!
First things first: apply for everything. Any professional organization award, department award, travel grant, extracurricular grant – big or small, widely recognized or not. This was a great piece of advice I received before I even started graduate school. The application process alone is worthwhile: it gets your name out, gives you lots of practice selling yourself, and increases your probability of getting an award eventually. Don’t limit yourself to the awards that sound best suited to you or wait until you’re further in your program or until you’ve published a paper; that’s you deciding you’re not qualified for something. Leave that to the awards’ committees!
If at first you don’t succeed… try and try and try again. I’m not exaggerating — I applied for the same scholarship for three years in a row until I received it. There’s something to be said for being persistent (or you know, stubborn). Persistence shows commitment, passion, and an ability to get things done. And we’re back again to practice – being persistent is also an exercise in practicing. Even though it’s hard to face the rejection, trust me I know, you might as well learn to deal with it here and now for something small. In the grand scheme of things, awards and scholarships, and even many grants, aren’t going to make or break your career. Developing this resilience in the face of rejection will only help you, especially in scientific careers that are full of rejection.
Tailor your CV/resume for each application: consider carefully what each award might be looking for. If you’re applying for a field-specific scholarship, highlight your papers, outreach, or technical skills that are most relevant to your field. Showcase your relevant degrees or publications and highlight experiences that show your passion for that field. If you are applying for something you don’t have as much experience with, use your cover letter or statement of interest to demonstrate how you have applied your knowledge to projects in the past. Take some time to carefully consider what you’ve gotten out of past jobs, research projects, or experiences – it doesn’t have to be the obvious thing. If you’ve mentored students in the lab, you not only have mentoring experience, but project management and leadership experience, too. Know who your audience is and what they’re looking for, then translate your skills, knowledge, and experience so that they understand you’re the best candidate!
Another fantastic way to boost your application is by using outside organizations to help with award nominations. For example, AWIS’s STEM to Market program is an accelerator for entrepreneurs that works alongside applicants to prepare their applications so they don’t have to nominate themselves. “Frequently you *can’t* nominate yourself, so getting some independent party to do it makes a difference” says Erin Kelley, who has seen many successful nominations during her time at AWIS, which often lead to other awards and opportunities. Professional organizations would be a great place to look for such programs, as well as accelerators like STEM to Market or chapters of entrepreneurial support organizations.
The most important advice in writing successful applications, no matter what, is get feedback. Ideally from multiple people, who know about the things you’ve accomplished and who regularly advocate for you. A best friend or significant other is a great place to start, a friend who knows you but could serve as an outside perspective on your accomplishments, or a supervisor (probably one of the people writing your letters of recommendation – which will probably help them write a great one, too!). I once sent a draft for a scholarship to my advisor, who pointed out that I’d failed to mention any of the awards or grants that I’d won previously! It’s easy to get lost in your own message and story, so having a supportive outside perspective is crucial.
Though certainly not an easy process, applying for awards really comes down to developing resilience through practice. Seek out advice and support as much as you can, and don’t be afraid to be persistent. The more you try, the more likely you are to succeed! Best of luck!