The dreaded F-word

FUNDING. What else did you think I meant?

Finances are possibly one of the biggest concerns for a student, whether undergraduate or postgraduate.  Fees must be paid, research costs have to be met and often times we are unable to do it on our personal account (I get anxious just thinking about it). The #FeesMustFall movement has sparked many debates surrounding the cost of tertiary education, there are many opposing views but there is something we can, and should all agree on, there is a funding crisis – amidst a national and local financial crisis.

Student-Dept_t580When I was an undergraduate, I was ill-prepared for university, not in the sense of my academic skills but the associated administrative skills that accompanied it. I did not know about funding calls and applications, how to fill them out, what they meant and if I qualified. When preparing our matriculants for university we have to ensure that we prepare them for the full ride, warts and all. Part of this preparation includes bridging the knowledge gap and ensuring that students are aware of all possible funding sources and other vital support systems.

Before you even begin grant searching and writing, it is important to ask yourself what type of support you are looking for, you do not want to spend hours of your time writing a grant application for a program that does not fit your needs. You can think of it as one of those flow chart quizzes in your favourite magazine, someone asks you a question and based on your answer, you can proceed to the next relevant question.

Some important questions to ask yourself before searching for funding are:

  • What type of degree do I intend on pursuing (if you are starting/ completing an undergraduate degree)?
  • Do I intend on studying full time or part time?
  • Do I require research support or financial support for living expenses while completing my degree?
  • Do I want to apply for a more generalised grant? Or one that is specifically tailored to my field?
  • When would I need the funding? This one is important, grant calls open and close months in advance, you need to know when you would ideally like to be funded so that you can start applications in a timely fashion.

Once you have an idea of what you’re generally looking for, it’s time to start searching for appropriate grants! Here are a few links to local and international grant opportunities.

  • The National Research Foundation (NRF): Funding calls are posted regularly, the NRF funds a variety of research programs and grants for students at different stages of their careers. Be sure to check the NRF deadlines as well as the internal deadlines for various institutions (these could differ). In my experience, calls close quite early in the year so go check out the page after reading this! (Also, your funding flow chart will really come in handy here!)
    • The National Research Foundation Centres of Excellence: Under the DST-NRF banner there are also 15 Centres of Excellence that span a variety of fields and offer financial support among other things! The link to each Centre is provided on the NRF website and you can learn more about the Centre that best suits your academic trajectory
  • The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS):  NSFAS offers financial assistance to students who would otherwise be unable to afford it, applications typically open in the second half of the year.
  • Bursaries South Africa: This website is AMAZING and provides a comprehensive list of government and private bursaries. These are applicable for undergraduates and postgraduates.
  • Scholarship Positions: Another great website for finding local and international funding, search “South Africa” or browse the extensive collection of international opportunities.
  • University Financial Aid: Most South African universities have a page on their website dedicated to keeping students informed about available funding. Check out your university page for more information or Google their financial aid. Don’t be shy to call enrolment and ask for guidance.

Now that you’ve found a grant that fits your needs, get cracking on the writing! If you’re tired of reading at this point, check out the Nature Careers podcast, “The Working Scientist” by Julie Gould which is packed with a ton of grant information. If you’re still with me then read on for a few of my personal tips!

  • Keep track of your deadlines. Make notes and reminders and schedule them so that you are not panicked the day before submission. I find that I work better if I can see the deadline, so it’s written on calendars and in diaries and on my phone. Here is a great (free) online short course on Udemy to teach you how to manage your time!  These are important applications and often take a while to compose.
  • Read the funding guidelines thoroughly. I am guilty of this, in a rush to start writing I often start without reading through this very important document. Please do not do this to yourself, most times it creates more work for you as you must go back and revise or reformat! It is important to abide by the guidelines, who would review an application if the applicant hasn’t even bothered to do it correctly?
  • Don’t procrastinate! I know, again I am guilty of this, and all it ever gave me was anxiety and a loss of sleep. Try to finish your application in a timely manner! If you need a few tips on procrastination cures, check out an earlier post by my fellow blogger Joyful Mdhluli.
  • Be concise– adding a ton of jargon or trying to meet the word limit by waffling on is not a good idea. Get to the point, summarise and be clear. This requires some thinking and a lot of reworking. Sometimes it is difficult to pen down all your thoughts and plans on the first go, this is why multiple drafts help. It is always good to look at it with fresh eyes when possible!
  • Ask someone to review it, someone you trust or who you think could provide good feedback. I find that it is even better when it is someone from outside of your field of research, this is a true test of how understandable and clear your application is. This feedback can help refine before you hit submit!
  • Apply again, even if you are rejected. Rejection is difficult, knowing you invested so much time and effort in an application only to have it turned down is crushing. Do not be discouraged though, apply again even if it means changing your approach or formatting the application. You won’t get every grant you apply for, but you also won’t get any grants you don’t apply for!
  • Apply to multiple sources. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Apply to as many potential funders as possible (if you fit the criteria!).

imagesThis is by no means an answer to the crisis facing tertiary education but can provide a few people with an opportunity. We must continue to communicate and engage with policymakers in order to ensure that students get a chance to pursue their dreams without a cap and gown that come attached to a lifetime of debt.

What is at the Centre of Excellence?

In 2004, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) with the National Research Foundation (NRF) established the first seven Centres of Excellence (CoE). These Centres, based on the successful CoE models implemented overseas, were adopted to build on existing capacity and resources but also aimed to bring researchers together to collaborate across disciplines and institutions to drive science excellence.

I joined the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI)–the host institution of the Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology (CTHB)–in 2008 when I started my Honours degree. At the beginning on my Honours, I didn’t quite understand what the Centre of Excellence was or why it even existed. How “excellent” was this programme? Was there a need for tree health research in South Africa? I was really only concerned about doing well and learning as much as I could so that I would be a better candidate for a Master’s. But my eyes have opened up since then.

Between my classes and research project, I was encouraged to get more involved in the CoE’s activities by volunteering to be a mentor for the undergraduate mentorship programme, working in the Diagnostic Clinic (which services both the CTHB and TPCP), attending workshops run by Dr Marin Coetzee, who conducts some of his research in the CoE, and so on. The CTHB–true to the purpose of the Centres–made more room for excellence; more postgraduates could complete their studies through FABI, more essential equipment could be bought, research could include other sectors and not threaten industry-specific funding, opportunities through workshops and collaboration started to grow, leveraging funding and excellence became more important, etc. The CTHB – a virtual centre run through FABI – became a critical part of FABI and because of that, the CTHB absorbed some of its excellence, built on it and delivered its own excellence.

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The TPCP began at the University of the Free State before moving to the University of Pretoria, where it became the founding programme for FABI. The TPCP helped start a number of other research programmes that are run out of FABI.  The CTHB started at FABI in 2004 and has linked a number of institutions to FABI and the University of Pretoria. 

I experienced how research can truly grow and have international reach. As the CoE’s research net widened, we started to identify more and more problems of concern to plant health in South Africa—many of them brought on by climate change and globalization. Because of the limited capacity in the country, back in 2004 to deal with pest and diseases that were arriving from other parts of the world, the importance of national and international collaborations and knowledge exchange became a priority. These close connections–that are still being built and expanded today–have led to growth in South Africa’s capacity; not just around FABI but at all the institutions linked to the CTHB. In 14 years, the CoE has produced 786 publications, 125 students, and really changed the ways in which we understand diseases of our native plants.

As a student associated with a CoE, I have had better opportunities for funding, wonderful teaching, mentorship, collaboration, and international exposure. Like those that have come before me, I plan to contribute to the science excellence in the country and grow more excellent people. No matter what happens to these Centres in future, as funding continues to dry up, we need to remember to keep excellence at the centre of anything we do—for us, for our country and for the world.