Brainstorm: If you haven't already, jot down what you'd like to research or study in the next 12 months and outline some attainable goals for that work. Identify what kind of support you need: Do you need money to travel to a museum or archive? Do you need support while you write your dissertation? Do you need funding to conduct an extended research trip? Think about what fields your research covers and write those down, too. Think about how much funding you'd need to achieve your goals (you'll need to do this later for budgetary reasons anyway).
Search Databases/Listings: Search the GSAS listing of major fellowships for graduate students (which is not exhaustive of all that's out there, but rather a general guide to get you started). Then search at least three databases for other opportunities. Bookmark the foundations or specific funding opportunities that are of interest to you.
Read Book Acknowledgements: Look in the acknowledgements of books that have been written on your topic. See if the author received funding from an institution that may also support your work.
Network: Networking has obvious career advantages. And, it can also help you find grants. Use any professional meeting or conference as an opportunity to uncover funding opportunities. Talk to your advisor, colleagues, and your professors — find out where they have received or applied for funding.
Select: Once you have a list of agencies, foundations, and other institutions that might support your work, select 1–3 fellowships that you are eligible to apply for now and a few others that you might apply for further down the line. Be sure you understand what and whom the funder and the program support so that you can prepare to argue why your proposal should get funded.
Begin your application at least 6 weeks before the application deadline. Remember, you not only need time to write the application, but also: your referees typically prefer at least 3 weeks notice to write their recommendations; your advisor and/or colleagues need time to critique your proposal; and depending on the grant, the Office of Research Administration may need to review your proposal several days before the deadline and also submit it for you.
Before you begin writing, think about how you your proposal will persuade readers of the following four statements, which should help provide a greater context for your proposal: (1) The work is original and important — perhaps advancing research that's already begun; (2) The work will help meet the broader goals and objectives of the funder or program; (3) The grantseeker is uniquely qualified to conduct this work; (4) The methods are sound, and the costs are appropriate.
Read the solicitation or announcement very carefully. Determine how your proposal will meet each of the program's objectives or review criteria.
Carefully read and follow the directions. It seems simple, but if you break the rules for margins, font sizes, page limits, submission, etc., it is easy for funders to say "no" on those grounds alone.
Write the proposal so that academics from other fields can understand it. Write plainly, avoid jargon, and overly dense material.
Use headings, figures, and white space to help make your proposal easier to follow and understand.
Put your main idea or conclusion up front, then expound. Don't make your readers read through all sorts of background, introductory information before getting to the main purpose of your proposal.
Reviewers are usually tired and overworked. Write a stimulating, intriguing proposal that will be sure to captivate their attention.
Remember, a proposal is not an academic article. Write a persuasive document and keep an interdisciplinary audience of reviewers in mind at all times.