When Carley Kratz ventured to southern Mexico as an undergraduate to study the effects of ants and honeydew on coffee bean crops, the experience helped her lay the foundation she needed to win the graduate school fellowship of her dreams.
Specifically, the research expedition enabled her to coauthor a paper that got published in Environmental Entomology, one of several publications distributed by the Entomological Society of America.
Financial aid experts say being published early in one's academic career is one of the most important things you can do to gain a competitive edge in your quest for a fellowship and other forms of financial assistance.
[Learn how to get more money from your graduate school.]
"Mention being published as an undergraduate, because people who have been published as an undergraduate are seen as having a lot of promise as a future researcher," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of finaid.org and fastweb.com.
Strong support for that idea can be found in the fact that Kratz, a 24-year-old Ph.D. student in forest science at Michigan Technological University, won the U.S. Department of Energy's highly sought-after Office of Science Graduate Fellowship. The fellowship includes a $35,000 living stipend, up to $10,500 toward tuition, and a research stipend of $5,000.
Kratz won the fellowship for the 2010-2011 school year, had it renewed for the current school year, and hopes to get it renewed again this coming school year for a third year (the maximum allowed under the fellowship) to bring the total value of the fellowship to more than $150,000.
[Read about how the search for grad money is half the battle.]
Echoing Kantrowitz's advice, Kratz says students searching for ways to pay for graduate school should strive to get published early and often.
"The important thing is to start writing and keep writing," Kratz says. "The more you focus on your research ideas and fine tune them, the better your chances are."
Kratz's knack for research —rooted in soil experiments and spurred by her interest in climate change—illustrates just one of many things that experts identify as essential for securing funds to finance the graduate school experience.
Their advice holds true as well for international students, such as Fulbright Scholar Taile Yvonne Leswifi, 29, a Ph.D. student from South Africa who is studying environmental engineering, also at Michigan Tech.
"I've been doing research since I was an undergraduate," Leswifi says when asked what helped her win a Fulbright scholarship.
Leswifi, who is focusing on hydrogen production with plans to return to her native South Africa to teach at Tshwane University of Technology, says if you can show that research is your passion, your chances of getting funding are higher. But she said that passion has to be tempered with practicality.
"The research proposal has to be something feasible, something that you know can be done," Leswifi says.
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Graduate School center.