Every year, hundreds of ambitious grad students apply for AAPG Foundation Grants-in-Aid to help offset the costs of their university research. The funds are used to cover fieldwork, lab work and purchased services such as sample preparation and analysis. Every penny is put to good use.
The AAPG Foundation raised the maximum annual award to $3,000 in 2009; since then the competition for funding has only gotten more intense. In 2011, 82 grants were awarded to an original applicant pool of 414 students – roughly 20 percent of applications received funding.
With such a low acceptance rate, the awardees really work to stand out. Being able to do so takes a combination of a suitable project and a well-written application that displays financial need. (I don’t know about you, but when I was in grad school, financial need was a given!)
With an average award in 2011 of over $2,100, standing out can pay off.
A “Suitable” Project
The AAPG Grants-in-Aid program is intended to “foster research in the geosciences.” Ideally, a fundable project should involve “the search for and development of petroleum and energy-mineral resources, and/or to related environmental geology issues.”
It’s usually easy to relate one’s research to fit the above criteria in a general way. For example, a paleobotanical study of climate change in the Green River basin fits the general criteria, given that the basin is a prolific oil and gas producer.
However, the key to standing out – to being ultimately suitable – lies in making that strong connection to energy.
Denise Cox, AAPG secretary and Grants-in-Aid committee member (and former chair) since 1995, suggests, “Every applicant should do a web search on their research topic with respect to oil and gas or energy minerals.”
Relevancy is a key item that reviewers like to see in an application.
“This is an opportunity to think big,” said committee member and former chair Pete MacKenzie. Show us “the potential impact your work (and our dollars) may have as a contribution to the greater body of science.”
The question every applicant should address is: How does my work fit into the big energy picture?
An outcrop sequence stratigraphic study is suitable, but it becomes ultimately suitable when applied as an analog for predicting subsurface reservoir distribution in similar geologic settings.
Another example: The climate change study described above becomes more suitable when related to the effect of climate change on vertical source rock stacking.
“The GIA funds are for scientific research as it pertains to the energy industry,” Cox said. “Many good research proposals do not score well because the student did not make that connection.
“I can almost always make the tie to the energy industry simply by thinking through petroleum basics,” she added. “Migration, reservoir, trap and seal.”
Why Writing Matters
It’s easy to spot the difference between well-written proposals and a paragraph that has been hastily dashed out and never looked at again – the best-written applications clearly have had a lot of time spent on them.
“Complete sentences, proper spelling, paragraphs that support and close on a topic – these things demonstrate pride in work, which often translates into quality data and meaningful research,” MacKenzie said.
“The biggest mistake (students make) is not sitting down with their adviser and thoroughly discussing the research topic, methods and budget,” Cox added. “A great idea will not get funded if it is apparent the student does not know how to go about the research or has a poorly thought-out budget.”
The online application process, introduced several years ago, has made things mechanically easier for both the applicants and the reviewers. The applicants simply enter their information on a web-based form.
(There is a tendency to treat small text boxes on a computer screen like a Tweet or a Facebook status update – but remember this: The boxes may be small, but there’s no limit on the amount of text that one can use.)
It is recommended that students compose a complete grant proposal outside of the web-based application form. This way, the proposal can be viewed in its entirety, as well as benefit from spell-check.
“It is also vital to have someone proof-read the application,” Cox said.
Current Grants-in-Aid recipient Lauren Fortson, master’s candidate at SUNY-Buffalo, followed a similar approach:
“I copied and pasted many of the essay questions into MS Word, where I was able to complete them as well as send them to my graduate adviser for advice and corrections,” Fortson said. “I did not complete the application ‘in one go’ – it took me several weeks to edit and make corrections as needed.”
Tracy Bank, Fortson’s master’s thesis adviser at SUNY-Buffalo, also uses successful student grants as an instructional tool.
“I recommended that Lauren read the grants written by my previous students so that she had an idea of how to write a proposal,” Bank said. “I want to be absolutely sure that the grant writing is done by them and that they learn a good bit about sentence structure and actually writing statements that really reflect their research agenda.”
Another good piece of advice: “Talk to students who have been awarded grants to get their input … have [them] read your application and suggest changes,” says committee chair David Sivils.
“The biggest mistake students make is not taking advantage of peer review,” MacKenzie added. “If you can’t explain what you are doing to your peers or to another scientist, your application will not be successful.”
Be Thorough – Naturally
The application process is not complicated, but it has a few key components to check and double check.
As with most projects, there is a budget – and over the years the budget worksheet has been trimmed down to a single page.
“Yet it amazes me how often the budget is simply incomplete,” Sivils said.
Following the instructions on the budget worksheet and providing details on budget items can go a long way toward scoring points.
Finally, Sivils is one of many committee members who like to see applications that highlight the student’s contribution to the project.
“Creative and unique student-generated ideas” are relatively rare, he said, but show that the student is more than simply a passive laborer in the process.
Rewarding for Everyone
Though the focus of the Grants-in-Aid program is to offer financial benefits to deserving students, the benefits extend far beyond supporting research – it also provides perks to committee members.
“The GIA committee is one of the most diverse and fun [AAPG] committees on which to serve,” Cox said. “I started my AAPG volunteer work with GIA and now have an extensive global network of friends and geoscientists.”
Participation on the committee allows members to stay current on energy-related research trends. Companies also can “have an inside track on top students and schools for recruiting,” she added. “Every company should have at least one person on the GIA committee.”
Finally, sometimes it just feels good to give back. Many committee members, when they were graduate students, received research grants themselves. Or, as Cox said:
“I love GIA because it gave me a way to honor my family through the AAPG Foundation with the Mruk Family Grant.”
The deadline for the 2012 grant applications is Jan. 31.