How to Get Private and Public Grants with Rajshree Agarwal

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Rajshree walks through the process of applying for private and public grants. She started applying for research grants while pursuing her PhD and got used to writing and applying for them. There is a small chance of success and her recommendation is to keep applying even when you don’t get it. With public grants, she recommends you apply when you are part-way through the research process so you can show credibility. The panel of people reviewing your NSF grant are looking to see signs of commitment. If you are looking for ideas for furthering your research- Rajshree’s video will offer incredible guidance.


As far as grant writing and getting grants is concerned, I think I cut my teeth very early, even during my PhD training, in terms of thinking about what resources do I need in order to conduct deep data development. A lot of the data that I collect for the studies that I do are not Candid data sets that I can just simply get that are publicly available. They were data that I had to create and so resources became a very big issue even as a PhD student. What I was fortunate enough to do is start applying for small grants even within the institution, right off the bat. I became very used to writing these grants for smaller institutional grants interuniversity research grants that you would get, for summer grants once I became a professor.

One of the only routines that I learned is that I was never going to write a grant for research that I wasn’t going to do anyway. So the question is not if I get the money then I will really do it. It’s really a question of recollage. How am I going to assemble the resources that I need to in order to do the work that I’m going to do regardless of how I get the money.

The second thing is that also enables me to actually use these grant applications as ways to further my research agenda. It was not work that was going to be wasted that if the application didn’t come trought then I was not going to be able to write a research paper out of it. Many of the things that we need is actually in terms of data purchase, but those are largely modest. They come largely in the in the context of PhD student undergraduate RA time, my own time, that I can dedicate and put aside for it. That’s what social sciences research is really about. It’s not about buying big equipment and big computers and so on. So it was easy for me to think through the grant application process and just embed it within the research enterprise itself.

Then I started to become a little bit more ambitious. Of course, the first several times that I applied for an NSF Grant as an assistant professor. I had zero percent success. In fact, tried, tried, tried again. My first NSF grant did not come for a good 15 years since my first application. So story number one is there is a very small chance of success, but that means that if you don’t apply there is zero percent chance of success, right? But if you reduce the costs of grant application anyway, then it works out.

Now for public foundation grants, such as NSF, one of the suggestions I would have for scholars that are thinking about it is that the grant is being reviewed by a panel of scholars. What they want to do is see signals of whether you can credibly commit or complete the goals of the research that you’re doing. Paradoxically this means that you apply for the grant halfway through the research project, as opposed to the front end of the research project. So you can at least show some preliminary results and an increase your credibility. One of the things that of course I’ve done, because all of my research projects tend to be connected to the earlier research questions that I’m interested in is, I often leverage the foundation grant for completing the other half of this project and then seeding the second application that I would be getting. That’s a strategy that has worked for me as far as public foundation grants have gone.

I make this distinction because applying for an NSF Foundation is a very different process than applying for say a Kauffman Foundation process or a Rockefeller Foundation one. At least when I received my first grants from the Kauffman Foundation, I was grateful for it immensely because they help define not only my own research agenda, but also my students and my junior colleagues. They had a process where they were betting on the scholar and not necessarily on the idea. So in NSF, it’s a double-blinded review. As far as possible, they want to focus on the content of the particular proposal rather than the people that are doing it. Kaufman and the private foundations tend to say we don’t know about whether or not this idea will come to fruition or not, but we want to bet on the person. So with the Kauffman foundation, with the Rockefeller Foundation, it was very important for me to establish right upfront the trust and the credibility that I am going to be able to deliver on high quality research.

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