The Importance of Preparation in Grant Writing for PhDs

By Ahjah M. Johnson and Enyu Zhou

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many doctoral programs have faced a dilemma between investing in extracurricular programming and maintaining sustainable budgets. Recent data show that, relative to other skills and attributes, grant writing is a skill that many PhD alumni across fields wish they had had acquired (Mitic & Okahana, 2021). Opportunities, such as grant writing experience, assist with curricular and co-curricular experiences by providing opportunities for additional fund- ing and increasing competence for the workforce (Nerad, 2015). Training in grant writing is beneficial to the education of the PhD as well. According to Conn et al. (2016), grant writing allows PhDs to enhance research intentionality, project articulation, and overall writing skills. Using survey data from the Council of Graduate Schools’ (CGS) PhD Career Pathway project, this brief provides insight to how PhD graduates view grant writing professional development opportunities.

Key Findings


Usefulness of Grant Writing. Within each broad PhD field of study, most PhD alumni found professional development in grant writing to be useful. Across fields of study and all job sectors, except for industry, the majority of PhDs report- ed that preparation in grant writing was useful (Figure 1). Figure 1 displays the percentage of participants by job type and discipline who indicated that grant writing skills were or were not useful in their current position.

Timing for Grant Writing Preparation. Survey results show that the percentage of PhDs with Engineering, Math, & Computer Science (41%) and Physical & Earth Science (36%) degree fields preferred grant writing preparation to occur during the latter stages of the program (e.g., dissertation process). The remaining fields indicated that this preparation should occur during the midpoint of their degree field (e.g. candidacy and comprehensive exams). Doctoral fellowships and research grant opportunities are typically available for PhD candidates. This interest in grant writing in the middle and later stages of the PhD coincides with students’ eligibility to apply for grants and fellowships to fund doctoral studies as well as independent and group research. In addition, by midpoint, PhDs have solidified their research topic. Furthermore, securing funding for research enhances a PhD’s opportunity to secure employment in a competitive job market (Figure 2).

Barriers for Participation. Survey participants selected barriers that precluded them from participating in grant writing professional development opportunities during their degree program. Barriers included “Not Offered or Unaware,” “Competing Priorities,” “Timing,” “Monetary Cost” and “Lack of Interest”. Results were similar across all degree fields. “Not Offered or Unaware” had the highest percentage, at 71%, as one of the barriers to pursing grant writing. The remaining percentages include 15% for “Competing Priorities,” 6% for “Timing,” 1% for “Monetary Cost,” and 6% for “Lack of Interest.”

Postdoc Preparation for Communication and Grant Writing. Many PhDs choose to further their knowledge and experience in research and writing through postdoctoral work. Participants who had had postdoc experiences were asked how well their postdoctoral experiences prepared them in selected attributes and knowledge on a 5-point scale (1=Poorly to 5=extremely well). Across all fields of study, previous postdocs indicated that they were less prepared for grant writing through their postdoc experiences than they were in skills such as written and oral communication. Specifically, of the communication skills presented, survey respondents with postdoctoral experiences indicated that they felt more prepared by their experiences for written communication skills and small group/interpersonal communication skills than they did for grant writing (Figure 3).