I am a humanities professor at a middling university in the United States. My department has a poorly funded Ph.D. program, which attracts second-tier students at best. (The good Ph.D. students go to programs that can afford to fund them fully, it seems.)

Each year, I typically have my Ph.D. students apply to all of the relevant major grants (Fulbright, Mellon stuff, etc.) that would fund their dissertation research. None has ever gotten a grant, nor have I ever had a student who I thought had a remote chance of getting one. Their essays are usually poorly written, despite lots of editing help from me. (By poorly written, I mean there are really fundamental writing issues, like incomplete sentences. I point these out to them to the extent possible but I can't write their essays for them, and I don't catch every error they make.) Frankly, I think our Ph.D. students are just not of the caliber that are going to win grant contests where only the top 1 or 2 percent of applicants are funded.

I am wondering if I should continue to have the students apply to these grants each year. On one hand, it feels like a waste of their time (not to mention mine, and the application reviewers') to have them write grant essays for fellowships that they basically have no chance of getting. On the other hand, I can't know for certain that they will never get grants -- strange things happen -- and more importantly, I think that writing the application essays is good for forcing them to think through their dissertation projects. But maybe that time would be better spent doing research so they can finish our program without accumulating massive amounts of debt (because we have poor funding, many of them borrow money to attend -- for which reason I think we should not even admit students if we can't fund them, but that is a separate issue).

For the record, I do strongly encourage my students to apply for smaller-ticket grants -- the kind that pay $500 or $1000 to support a certain type of project, or go to a specific research site, etc. These grants are usually more obscure, more specialized and less competitive, and the students have a better record of getting them. (I also work very hard with them on these smaller grant applications because I know their chances are better.) But when it comes to the big-name, Fulbright-esque grants, the prospects just seem hopelessly dim, and I wonder if the time everyone spends on their applications is worth it.

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    If you don't think these are top students, presumably just your reference letter alone is enough to ensure they will never get the scholarship
    – Jessica B
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 5:36
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    Surely if they can't write effectively, they aren't going to get a Ph.D. anyway? Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 13:45
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    From the sound of it, middling seems like a generous description for this university. But then, maybe the university is fine and its just the department that isn't. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 18:16
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    Why are people who can't write complete sentences even allowed to start a PhD project? That seems like a giant waste of everybody's time. If you can't attract students with a skill level one usually expects from highschool graduates, it might be more productive to focus on doing research yourself.
    – user9482
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 5:21
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    Sorry I do not want to be rude, but if you keep struggling with constantly having all your students under your expectations, isn't it time for yourself to consider changing the university (or completely changing the job)? Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 8:07

9 Answers 9


If what you say about your students' writing skills and their chances of getting a major grant is accurate, I would say that it's a complete waste of everyone's time - theirs, yours, and the reviewers - to have them write such major grant proposals. Forget about using such proposal writing as a vehicle to improve their writing skills. The experience won't benefit them if their current writing skills are really as bad as you say they are. Instead, have them focus on the smaller-ticket grants. If any of them show evidence of more promise and growth after such experiences, then you can direct these more promising students towards targets that are higher up on the grant ladder.

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    +1 but why have them focus on grant-writing at all? The grant funding body isn't going to give them the writing feedback they need. And if they can't even write complete sentences, they need a remedial English class, not practice at writing grant proposals. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 9:52
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    @DavidRicherby I think grant writing is a good way to practice both the form and the function simultaneously. An English class will help with the basic grammatical and syntactical issues, but writing a grant has direct relevance to the PhD students' studies. I took a grant writing course to help prepare for writing my dissertation proposal. Even if the grant isn't funded, there's value in thinking through the research proposal in detail. I agree it sounds like some students might need to focus on their English specifically, but I think practice writing grants should be useful for most. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 12:42
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    @NuclearWang Sure, practice writing grants. But don't waste the time of the grant awarding body by submitting these practice pieces to them for consideration. There's a huge difference between a grant writing course (where one typically writes mock proposals and receives constructive feedback on them) and writing a real proposal, wasting people's time evaluating it and receiving no feedback beyond "Request denied." Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 13:43
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    @DavidRicherby:"but why have them focus on grant-writing at all?" - Well, obviously not for writing feedback. I agree with you there that their time would be better spent in remedial English composition classes. But the students are reportedly sometimes successful in getting the smaller-ticket grants and I assume that they could use the grant money, so I didn't voice any objections to them continuing to try for those grants. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 16:01
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    @SamuelWeir Good point about the smaller grants, yes. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 16:07

It sounds like you have a lot of baggage with this issue that you need to deal with. You need to talk to your students. Make it clear to them how you are willing to help and what you expect of them. As an advisor, it is NOT your job to copy edit their work. They can ask other students, use the univeristy writing center if there is one, or pay someone to copy edit their work. Your job is to help them with the ideas and how to move forward on the project.

When talking about fellowship, explain to them they are long shots, but often a good motivator to get projects in good shape. Then, if they want to spend the time and take a shot, or multiple shots, at a fellowship, then you should support them.

I used to feel that if a student was not good enough to get a job in academia or industry that required their PhD, then getting the PhD, and possibly taking on debt, was not worth it. Over the years I have come to realize that it does not matter what I think. If the student thinks it is worth it, then it is. All I can do is be honest about what the process involves and the likely outcomes.

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    "it is NOT your job to copy edit their work" Might be field-specific, but I strongly disagree here. The job description of a professor includes the training of young scientists, and writing is a major skill that a full scientist should possess - after all, a PhD is traditionally obtained by writing a full book. Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 10:59
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    @lighthousekeeper Helping students learn to write is important and necessary. But actually copy-editing student writing is detrimental to that effort, not helpful.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 22:15
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    @JeffE Indeed, that's an important distinction, thanks for pointing it out (although I believe that copy-editing can actually be helpful, as it can put a spotlight on subtle mistakes). I was adopting the word choice of the answer, which seems to imply that helping students learn to write is not important. Commented Oct 6, 2017 at 6:20

The fundamental problem here is that you have been using the grant funding system for a purpose other than what it was designed for. This system is built on an assumption that grant proposals are submitted (and supported by advisors and mentors) in good faith, with a genuine belief in a realistic chance of getting the grant by participating parties. It is not meant for educating or training grant writers or helping them crystallize their research plans, nor is it a lottery ticket.

To summarize, I'm sorry to say it but I think the way you have been using the system is a form of abuse -- a mild one, and apparently well-intentioned, but still. Please train your students using the means appropriate to achieve that goal, and use grants for their intended purpose only.


I would recommend that you not discourage your students, for two main reasons:

  • The practice of writing will make them better writers in the longer run. You simply can't become a good writer unless you write, write, and write some more.

  • Rejection and failure is a big part of the life of a "knowledge professional," both during their graduate studies and afterward. Sheltering them from processes that lead to bad outcomes will not help them learn to manage with adverse conditions.

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    I dunno. The OP wrote that these students have "really fundamental writing issues, like incomplete sentences". Kind of unrealistic in my view to expect that having them write grant proposals is going to help them improve their writing when it sounds like taking a remedial English composition class would be a better fit to them. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 4:46
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    While usually I'd agree with this advice (and I'd go a step further and recommend to be open of their very slight chances but tell them those failures allow learning how to apply successfully - just like the recommendation to first apply to couple of jobs that you don't want very hard to get to learn how the application process works as preparation for applying for jobs that you really want), if the level of failing is so basic as the question suggests I have to agree with @SamuelWeir that I don't see how this can be an efficient way of improving.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 9:43
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    I can't agree with this advice. Scholarship applications are terrible writing practice: you don't get feedback on your writing from the scholarship board and submitting hopeless applications to them just wastes their time.You'd be pissed off if it turned out that your taxi driver was just a learner trying to get more practice; why do you think it's appropriate for these learner-writers to use the scholarship board for writing practice? Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 9:49
  • Note that I didn't say "encourage." I said "not discourage." While I wouldn't actively encourage students to apply for something if I know they're not qualified, I don't want to discourage them from trying, either.
    – aeismail
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 17:36

If your students don't know something, or haven't developed a skill relevant to their success in your discipline, then it becomes your responsibility to teach them.

Consider creating writing workshops for your students where they learn to work collaboratively to peer review one another's work and provide feedback for improvement. Meet regularly - perhaps even once a week - to work on developing writing skills for research grants.

Your University may also have a writing center that can be used to help supplement writing workshops.


I think that the most direct response to your literal question is that, if you literally cannot support your students' grant/fellowship proposals, it would be at least hypocritical to encourage them to apply, in effect knowing that your letter of recommendation will sabotage their application. That is, whatever the quality of their write-up, they may not suspect that your letter for them will be fatal. So, in short, don't encourage anyone to attempt something when you know that you yourself have pre-judged them and will make them fail.

If we can move beyond that, then, yes, it is good practice to write such things, and to go through the editing/advising for it. "Education", I believe they call it.

For that matter, for NSF graduate fellowships, apparently the total number of fellowships granted in a given subject (e.g., math, physics, chemistry, ...) is, for systemic reasons, proportional to the total number of proposals sent in in that subject. Thus, in such a subject one is doing a service to one's subject by writing proposals...

And, as a bit of unsolicited advice, I'd try to be more hopeful about who/what your students will grow up to be. Immaturity dominates many peoples' behavior for long stretches of time. (Sometimes indefinitely, unfortunately... but let's not go there...)


You need to start this day one, so the students have time to get help with grammar.

First show them examples of excellent grant proposals, so they have a good frame of reference. Maybe even email them copies so they can refer back to them.

Then you need help to try and mitigate the grammar issues.

Have them prepare say 5 pages of it as test. Send them to your universities tutoring centers and/or writing labs. Let the centers know your students are coming, and exactly what you expect from them. Send the centers an example of a properly written grant samples.

Expectation: Every paper should be grammatically correct with proper sentence/paragraph structure.

The key here is the students need to write enough to know whether they will succeed or not, but not put more than a few days effort into it.

Now, you should have paper that at least are grammatically up to snuff.

Then you need to evaluate the technical part of the work to see if they have any hope of success. Then have just the candidates who pass actually do the real work.


Doctoral student here, about a year into my program.

I went to one of these "meh" Canadian schools (small liberal arts university in Southern Alberta - chances are they rank lower than your school) for my BSc & MSc. I had good grades (graduated with Great Distinction) & a lot of research experience, but had to stay in my hometown for other reasons - an immediate family member was diagnosed with a terminal illness during my Bachelor's degree, and it fell on my shoulders to take care of her. I found during my time at this school that the graduate students in my lab (including myself) were treated as though we were mediocre at best. My PI always asked undergraduates to stay for their graduate degree, but once they were locked in, she acted as though if they were any good, they would have gone somewhere "better."

I spent the first year of my MSc applying to grant after grant, all the while not getting anything. My department offered students a yearly stipend of $7 000. I started having to pick up odd jobs outside of science to make ends meet, and started falling behind in my research as a result. I would send my PI grant applications weeks before they were due, and not receive any feedback. I felt as though I was competing with people who had strong mentorship, whereas I had none. About halfway through my first year, I applied to law school - I was ready to leave science. I had only applied to one school, and it was one of the best in the world, but I got in. Suddenly, I thought maybe I did have some potential - and maybe I was just looking in the wrong place to nurture it.

As my first year came to an end, I thought I'd give grant funding one last try. I wanted to stay in science. I turned down my offer to law school, and applied to some PhD programs instead. I also thought I'd shoot as high as I could and applied for a CIHR DFSA to take up a PhD at MIT. I didn't think I had much of a shot, but I also had nothing to lose. I applied for one last major grant for the second year of my MSc as well, but this time I did something differently. When I didn't hear back from my PI, I reached out to other professors in the department and asked for their help. A professor that had nothing to do with my lab or my project took time out of his day to give me feedback.

I received funding to finish my MSc - more than any student in our lab had gotten previously. I also got the CIHR DFSA, and an acceptance to MIT. My PI was surprised, to say the least. I'm sure you're a great PI, and I'm sure your students (at least some of them) have potential. I hope you don't give up on them - there may be a few, like me, who have had to stay in the area for socioeconomic or family reasons. Sure, some students may just not be cut out for research, but a lot of people tend to live up (or down) to the expectations set for them. My old PI would take anyone, because having more students appeared to look good on their CV... but she didn't really help any of us reach our full potential. Every institution has a bell curve - make a habit of taking the students composing the top of yours, and mentor those students. I think you'll be happy with the results.

I agree that department who don't fund their graduate students tend to have poor graduate programs and poor graduate students (literally & figuratively) - but there have got to be some diamonds in the rough, wherever you are. Find those and I think you won't have trouble getting them funded.


Maybe you should first answer yourself the following questions:

  • Aren't you suppose to write a recommendation letter? Can you do it with your clear conscience?

  • Would you feel it fair if your incompetent students by some chance passed through the grant process instead of those who really deserve it?

  • Is PhD some kind of a "basic human right", or rather a certificate about an exceptional knowledge and skill? Do you really want to depreciate the title? <sarcasm>Isn't it enough that nowadays each taxi driver has some kind of university degree?</sarcasm>

  • Do you want later to have to filter out the articles of those low quality students from the stuff you go through in your future research?

  • Is your responsibility science, education and guarding of scientific quality, or are you a social worker?

  • Wouldn't you serve the students better if you gave them realistic feedback, so they would not lose time and would not be frustrated by being unsuccessful in what does not suit them?

  • And a personal question: It seems that you are very frustrated by the current situation. If you keep struggling with constantly having all your students under your expectations, isn't it time for yourself to consider changing the university? :)

  • Wow, such disagreement (-7 so far)! I am surprised how leftist the StackExchange Academia community is! I would appreciate if each downvoter can leave here a short comment why you downvoted my answer - will you find any rational reason why you can argue that my answer is wrong, or does it just hurt your social feeling? Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 12:07

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