Fueling Career Success: Leveraging Grant Funding for Professional Development

Diverse research team collaborating on a grant-funded project to advance scientific discovery and career growth.

Grants are commonly thought of as a source of funding for research projects, so you may not think of them as an appropriate tool for funding your own professional growth. But grant funding can frequently serve as a powerful catalyst for career development and professional growth in the scientific community. 

Whether you’re an early-career researcher seeking to establish your independence or a seasoned scientist looking to expand your horizons, grant funding is a way to access opportunities that will help you develop your skills and meet your career goals. 

In this article, we’ll explore how grant funding can support career development at all stages, discuss the various ways in which grant funding can be used to fuel professional growth, provide tips for strategically aligning grant proposals with career objectives, and share examples that illustrate what grant-funded career development initiatives look like

Leveraging Grant Funding for Career Development

Career development opportunities can feel out of reach. When you’re starting out, you may feel inexperienced or ineligible. When you’re further along, you may feel pressed for time and pulled in many directions.

In addition to funding research projects, grants are available to cover expenses for important travel and training opportunities—and even provide salary support. It makes a big difference when you don’t have to pay the overhead for conducting research, attending conferences, and receiving specialized training. You shouldn’t need to have generational wealth in order to expand your professional networks and gain visibility in your field.

Grants can give you the space you need to do your work. They impact career trajectories and enhance professional growth. By being intentional about grant funding, scientists can access valuable resources, gain essential skills and experiences, and position themselves for success in their chosen fields.

Some fields really are impossible to break into without significant support. Dr. Daniel Swain, who studies atmospheric rivers and regional weather patterns, utilized grant funding from institutions like the NSF and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to advance his research into extreme weather events and their connection to climate change. Not exactly the kind of thing you can DIY.

Ways to Advance Career Goals with Grant Funding

You’ve got the smarts, you know where you want to go, and you’re ready to do the hard work to get there. 

Grant funding provides the cashflow you’ll need to advance career goals and objectives. Here are three common approaches to using funding from grants to level up your career as a researcher.

Travel grants provide opportunities to present research findings at conferences, network with peers, and explore new collaborations. Don’t miss out on chances to learn and network just because airfare and hotel costs add up. 

Training grants support advanced education, specialized training, and skill development, enhancing researchers’ expertise and competitiveness in their respective fields. Professional certifications and additional skills can give you a leg up next time you apply for a research position.

Salary support from grants allows researchers to devote more time and energy to their research endeavors, fostering productivity and innovation. The work of early career researchers can be under-valued, but that shouldn’t mean you get paid like an intern.

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe used several of these strategies. In order to reach her career goal of being a visible thought leader bridging the gap between science and public understanding, she utilized funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other organizations. Now she has a platform from which to emphasize the importance of clear communication in climate science (and a book on the way!)

When setting out to identify grant opportunities, it can help to run a targeted search—which helpfully limits the possible funding sources you choose from to the ones that are suited to your needs. Consider starting in one of these subgroups:

  1. NSF Early-Career Grants: These grants provide financial support and mentorship for early-career scientists, helping them establish their research independence and build a strong professional network.
  2. Ford Foundation Fellowships: These fellowships offer financial support and professional development opportunities for BIPOC researchers, enabling them to pursue innovative research projects and enhance their career prospects.
  3. LGBTQ+ Research Grants: Industry grants designed to support research addressing LGBTQ+ health disparities and social issues, helping researchers gain visibility and make significant contributions to their fields.
Scientists conducting field research supported by a grant, contributing to impactful health interventions and career progression.

Strategic Alignment of Grant Proposals with Career Objectives

First things first: know where you’re trying to go. When preparing grant proposals, find places where your research and career objectives overlap with available funding opportunities. Consider how each grant could realistically bring you closer to your long-term career goals, whether it’s building a competitive CV, establishing research independence, or expanding professional networks.

Think of applying for grants like applying for jobs. You don’t react to job announcements by beginning to train in that job field so that you can qualify for the job. Rather, you complete your studies and then watch for the jobs that align with your skills. In the same way, don’t react to grant announcements by trying to become qualified to win it—wait for the grant for which you’re already the best candidate.

Then when you’ve found a good match, tailor your proposals to highlight your unique strengths, expertise, and contributions to the scientific community, demonstrating your potential for future success. Illustrate yourself as someone who has clear goals and real promise of achieving them. By strategically aligning grant proposals with career objectives, researchers can increase their chances of securing funding and advancing their careers.

Take Dr. Kim Fortun for example. A professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and co-principal investigator of the CLIMATE Justice initiative, Fortun has been laser-focused about pursuing opportunities that advance her ability to study a highly-specific interdisciplinary niche, which includes “[the] ways racism intersects with pollution, producing environmental injustice.” One of her major initiatives was funded by a $7.5 million NSF grant, and focuses on integrating environmental justice and community engagement into Earth system science research–and aims to train diverse populations in climate science and foster a culturally competent approach to climate research.

Absent that kind of intentionality and focus, your grant application risks feeling like a desperate and shallow cash-grab.

Consider following this rough sequence, which can help you strategically align grant proposals with your career objectives:

  • Identify Relevant Grants: Use professional networks, conferences, and online platforms to find grants that align with your research interests and career stage.
  • Tailor Proposals: Customize your grant proposals to emphasize your unique strengths and contributions to the scientific community.
  • Leverage Support: Seek feedback from mentors, colleagues, or a grant writing consultant to refine your proposals and increase your chances of success.


Grant funding plays a vital role in fueling career success and professional development for scientists at all stages of their careers. By leveraging grant funding strategically, scientists can access resources, opportunities, and experiences that enhance their expertise, visibility, and impact in the scientific community. 

Whether you’re a graduate student embarking on your research journey or a seasoned researcher seeking new challenges, grant funding offers a pathway to career advancement and fulfillment. Embrace the opportunities that grant funding presents and chart a course towards a successful and rewarding career in science that actually compensates you for what you’re worth.