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A behind the scenes look at the graduate experience at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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  • The Art of Proposal Writing: Proposal as Roadmap

    In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the proposal as a genre — the story of your journey into uncharted intellectual territory, driven by a vision of your contribution to your discipline and beyond. Your reviewers are excited! They want to help you complete your journey! But, they want some details. The proposal is the roadmap you provide.

    There is no right or wrong way to structure a proposal. There may be disciplinary norms or funder guidelines, which is why it is essential to look at successful proposals in your discipline and read the program solicitation carefully. 

    Regardless of the structure, there are some commonalities in proposals across all disciplines and funders. Here are some tips for putting together a good roadmap for the reviewers:


    Give the reviewer a general sense of where your journey is taking you and how you plan to get there. One approach is to construct the opening of your proposal narrative as a mini-proposal in which you state the broader issue you are addressing, introduce your central question or hypothesis, and lay out your overall approach and anticipated outcome. Keep in mind that the introduction is not the place to dive down into the details.


    Establish why your question or topic is important. Perhaps you have identified a gap in our current understanding, are pursuing a promising avenue of inquiry, or are offering a new interpretation of evidence. To lay this out, give the reader a selective overview of research in your field upon which you intend to build. You might highlight recent advances or address any controversies, and discuss preliminary research you have carried out.

    By the end of the Background section, your reader should understand why your proposed project is a logical next step in a succession of advances in research. Those advances represent the intellectual road trip you’re on with other people in your field.

    Research Plan 

    Now we’re moving into uncharted territory! It is time to lay out how you intend to carry out your project, leading the reader from general to specific. Outline the type of data you will collect and the methodology you will use to analyze it. A primary research question might break down into several smaller ones, or you might be pursuing multiple independent aims, each with its own plan for data collection and method of analysis.


    How can you give the funder confidence in your ability to complete the journey? Identify the lab, center, or institute where you will carry out the work, and list your advisor, mentors, or hosts. If you’ll need special equipment or materials, clearly state that they will be at your disposal. If you’ll require access to field sites, subjects, or informants, explain what arrangements you have made. There a many permutations, but they all carry the same message: you will have resources you need and the guidance to use them effectively.

    Pitfalls and Contingency Plans

    What’s a road trip without a flat tire? Do you have a jack and a spare tire in your car? You don’t need to discuss routinely employed methodologies or techniques. However, you do need show that you’ve had the foresight anticipated major problems that might derail your project, and that you’ve given thought to some alternatives. Your advisor and other experienced researchers can help you with that.

    Anticipated Outcomes

    At the end of your journey, what do you expect to have accomplished? What new knowledge or understanding will you be able to share upon successful completion of your project? In the Background section, you cited other people’s work. This section lays out at a high level why other people might cite you on their own intellectual journeys at some other point in time.

    Fit with the Funder’s Mission

    Remember, reviewers are working on behalf of the funder, and want to understand how your project will advance the funder’s mission. Here is a great place to return to your vision and to your understanding of the target audience. Funders may have multiple goals in mind (“support basic science in order to improve cancer treatment”). Be sure to address each one in your narrative.


    At the end of your journey, will there be a travelogue? In order for the work to have an impact, others need to know about it, so tell the reviewer how you intend to share your results. Be specific about the conferences and journals to which you plan to submit. Some funders have additional requirements (e.g., presentation at a Society’s annual meeting), so don’t forget to mention that you’ll fulfill them!

    Sections Specific to the Funder

    So far, I’ve discussed commonalities across research proposals.  In some cases, you may need to add a section tailored to particular guidelines. “Include a timeline” is pretty obvious, but sometimes instructions are quite general. A funder may say that a proposed project must be “original” or “interdisciplinary.” While there may be no requirement to have a section entitled, “Originality” or “Interdisciplinarity,” having one could help the reviewer find this information.

    Every road trip requires a planning and communication. Work together with your advisor and committee members to put together a clear roadmap. Get the reviewers on board, and help them envision your journey from start to finish.

    This post is part of a series on the Art of Proposal Writing to help student compete for and win external fellowships. Search our Fellowship Finder database to look for funding opportunities and be sure to visit our website to find additional resources for graduate students and postdocs.


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    Karen Ruhleder joined the Graduate College in 2014. As Assistant Director of External Fellowships, she presents proposal writing workshops for graduate students and postdocs in STEM fields and individually advises graduate students applying for grants and fellowships across all disciplines. She also helps manage the Fellowship Finder database. Ruhleder earned a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Information and Computer Science and a B.A. in German Language and Literature from the University of California at Irvine. Karen reviews for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship competition. 

  • Where Are They Now? Michael Santana

    Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".

    Michael Santana was the recipient of a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship from 2013 - 2016. Through its Fellowship Programs, the Ford Foundation seeks to increase the diversity of the nation’s college and university faculties by increasing their ethnic and racial diversity, to maximize the educational benefits of diversity, and to increase the number of professors who can and will use diversity as a resource for enriching the education of all students. Michael graduated from Illinois in 2016 with a PhD in Mathematics. Now, he is an Assistant Professor (tenure-track) in the Department of Mathematics at Grand Valley State University, which is located in Allendale, MI. In this capacity, he is a teacher, mentor, and advisor to the students at the university and an active member of his department, college, university, and the mathematics community.

    What was the transition from graduate school to a career as a professor like for you? What surprised you about it? What was challenging?

    That’s a good question, because I was originally going to say “not much”, but then the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I learned in my first year. One of the major challenges is prepping for classes you’ve never taught before, but that’s totally expected.  Something that surprised me was how I felt like a bit of an outsider at the start. That is not to say that I didn’t feel welcome, because I did and I was. It’s just that things start fast during the fall semester, and there were lots of acronyms/names that I didn’t know, faces I didn’t remember/recognize (we have 30+ tenure-track faculty here), policies that I never heard of, etc.  So at times I felt like I didn’t belong. However, with the help of a great first-year faculty group, two great department mentors, encouraging colleagues and more, I realized that I was needlessly beating myself up for not being a seasoned, tenured professor that knows everything in my first year. So now, while I still don’t know all the ropes, I definitely feel like I belong and am appreciated in this department, college, and university.

    What is the most interesting or rewarding aspect of your job?

    Hands down, it’s being involved with the students. I especially love having students in office hours.  It’s where I really get to work with students one-on-one, challenge them individually, make them learn from one another (I’ve had 8 students in my office at one time, with groups working on a giant whiteboard), and even explain to them how the things we’re doing fit in the larger context of math as a whole. I go for more than just the “aha” moment, I go for the “mind-blown” moment when students start to ask “why in the world is that true?” That to me is what being a mathematician (but it certainly applies to other fields) is all about, and I feel so blessed to be able to share this with my students.

    What has been the most valuable skill you gained from graduate school? 

    The most valuable skill I learned was more of a lesson than a skill. It was knowing that research/scholarship has ebbs and flows to it. Sometimes things are great, and you don’t have enough time to write up all the results you’ve gotten. Other times you spend hours, days, weeks, months, (maybe years?) working on something that ultimately hits a dead end. You even come back to the problem later, make a little more progress, but hit another wall. I’ll never forget what my advisor (Alexandr Kostochka) told me when I apologized to him after trying several different problems over several months to no avail. He said “Don’t worry. This is my life. I try, and I fail.” I’ve carried this saying with me, and it was only a few months later when a completely different problem came around and I got the last result for my dissertation. So even now while my own research program is going well, and I don’t have time to work on all the ideas I have, I know that it won’t always be like this, and I know that when that time comes I just need to keep trying and keep failing to get through it.

    Why did you decide to apply for the Ford Fellowship? How did the Ford Fellowship affect your experiences as a graduate student? And how has the Ford Fellowship impacted your career path since you graduated?

    I entered grad school with a wife and two kids, and then I left grad school with a wife (the same one thankfully! She’s the one who really deserves the credit for all this!) and four kids. Being able to have a fellowship where I didn’t need to be constantly teaching and earn some more money was absolutely crucial to my family life. Rather than spending time at home prepping for classes/grading, studying, and doing research, I could go home and just study and do research! It doesn’t sound like much, but it was huge for us. My wife even made the comment that as time went on, they saw more and more of me. As for after graduation, it’s been nice to have a community that I can always go back to and ask for help/advice.

    What do you wish you had known when you started out in your current position?

    You don’t have to do everything, and you’re not expected to! While I said no to a couple of things, I still said yes to too many. There is definitely a benefit to being part of a larger, active department where people actually volunteer to do things and there’s almost always someone who wants to do the things you don’t want to do. I get to do the things that I enjoy and be a part of the things that I want to. I’m sure that at some point in time I’ll be on some committee that I don’t really enjoy, but it’s temporary, and if that’s the worst that my job gets, I should consider myself lucky.  

    What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?

    Learn time management! Plan things out in advance! Make a calendar! Make a To-Do List! It won’t always work, but in general, it will save you so much stress and trouble in the end.  99% of the time when I’m home, I’m not working anymore; my work and grading is done in the office at school. If that means I get up at 5 AM every morning to be in the office at 6, it’s totally worth it, because then I can come home at 2 PM, take the kids to the zoo, get ice cream, and help with dinner. Learning to manage your time will make your overall life, health, and well-being so much better!


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    This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. This interview was conducted by Derek Attig. Derek is Assistant Director for Student Outreach in Graduate College Career Development. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles. 

  • Sloan UCEM at Illinois Helps Underrepresented Students Pursue Advanced Degrees and Career Paths

    “Illinois is committed to the goal of achieving diversity and excellence,” says Dr. Ellen Wang Althaus, director of Sloan University Center of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM). 

    The Sloan UCEM at Illinois is one of the eight centers in the country funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. With a one-million-dollar, three-year grant, the Illinois UCEM was created to broaden participation and provide support for underrepresented minority graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. It provides activities designed to support students toward doctorate completion, such as professional development opportunities, mentoring, research opportunities, workshops, and seminars. 

    Outstanding candidates are nominated by Sloan-participating programs - eleven in the College of Engineering and seven in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It has successfully recruited 25 Sloan scholars across eight departments during its first and second year, and is on track to enroll more than 25 additional scholars in its third year. 


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    Althaus is passionate about efforts to recruit, retain and advance historically underrepresented minority groups in higher education. Throughout her career, Althaus has demonstrated a strong commitment to student development and supporting her students in achieving their educational and career goals. She became involved in the challenge to increase the representation of women in STEM when she proposed and launched the Women in Chemistry Program in 2006. In addition to serving as the director of the Sloan UCEM at Illinois, Althaus is also the director of graduate diversity in the department of Chemistry. 

    “Sloan Scholars are amazing students who have the potential to become leaders in their field and potentially mentors for other minority students in the future,” says Althaus. "The most rewarding aspect of being director of the Sloan UCEM at Illinois is to get to know my students on a personal level and see them grow. I love that I have the opportunity of maintaining close, ongoing relationships with my students because it provides me with the ability to learn about their goals, their aspirations and to encourage them in their journey.” 


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    One of these Sloan Scholars is Pedro David Bello-Maldonado, a doctoral student in Computer Science. Originally from the capital of Colombia, Bogotá, Bello-Maldonado made it his life goal at an early age to obtain a PhD in Computer Science in order to land his dream job in scientific computing at one of the fifteen national laboratories in the country. 

    Bello-Maldonado’s academic career has not been an easy one. He started his educational experience setting out to pursue a bachelors in Mechatronics, an interdisciplinary segment of engineering combining electrical engineering, computer engineering, and mechanical engineering, back home in Colombia. However, his senior year, his family relocated to the United States causing complications in the completion of his degree. He transferred to a university that did not offer a degree in Mechatronics, which would have backtracked him two years. So instead, he changed his course of study and set out to pursue a bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering. After completing both degrees, he ran into another obstacle: acceptance into a master’s program in computer science. In his first attempt, he faced rejection from his top prospects. However, Bello-Maldonado remained optimistic and took the year to gain professional experience. He was accepted into the computer science program at the University of Illinois the following year in 2014. He earned his master’s degree in computer science in 2016. 

    Now, Bello-Maldonado spends his time engaging in scientific computations. When describing what he does to his family, Bello-Maldonado describes it as, “solving math with computers.” In his field, he studies computational fluid dynamics, specifically simulating fluids using physical systems. To visualize what it is he does, Bello-Maldonado says, “Picture the airflow moving through a vehicle. I research different mathematical and computational methods to make the simulations in these cars faster and more accurate, which results in faster and more efficient dynamics in these cars. I do this using super computers. Using a super computer to calculate these simulations usually takes days or weeks; using a regular computer or laptop you find at home would take years.” Bello-Maldonado’s career goal has remained constant, to work at one of the fifteen national research laboratories in the United States as a research scientist or senior scientist. 

    For Bello-Maldonado, achieving a doctoral degree at the University of Illinois in one of the top computer science programs across the country would be problematic without the support from the Sloan UCEM. “Without being part of this community, I would not have realized the importance and need to provide support for underrepresented minority doctoral students in STEM fields.”  

    One of the unique functions of the Sloan UCEM at Illinois is the professional development services it offers to its scholars. Sloan UCEM Scholars are required to attend the Institute on Teaching and Mentoring twice in their graduate career, where students have the opportunity to promote their research, establish new collaborations, and network with professionals in their field. According to Althaus, the conference is sponsored by the Compact for Faculty Diversity and is the largest gathering of doctoral minority scholars in the nation with over 1100 scholars in attendance at the four-day conference. The Sloan Foundation subsidizes all travel and registration expenses to assist Sloan Scholars in their professional development efforts. 

    In an interview with Bello-Maldonado, he spoke on his first experience at this conference: “It was a big experience. During my time at the conference, I had the pleasure of meeting doctoral scholars coming from similar, diverse backgrounds as myself. And to realize they are all rooting for my success, it was something special. I was so inspired after hearing many of the inspirational stories from some of the scholars in attendance, many of whom have had to experience difficult lives. It is motivational to listen to them speak on how they managed to come from nothing to earning a PhD. Now, they are doing what they love and becoming leaders in their field. It is an experience I will never forget.” 


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    Aleczandria Skye Tiffany, a Sloan UCEM Scholar and doctoral student in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, works in the Harley Lab developing biomaterials to regenerate bone in large-scale defects. She also relays excitement in attending the Institute for Teaching and Mentoring this upcoming fall: “Attending the Institute for Teaching and Mentoring will give me the opportunity to learn from the professional experiences of other people of color in STEM and provide a road map of skills that I need to enter the academic sector, my current career goal.” Tiffany’s research focuses on growth factor incorporation to improve cellular responses during bone healing. Researchers in her industry have accomplished this on a smaller scale, but Aleczandria is determined to explore multiple methods of incorporation, retention of factors through the fabrication process, and the release of factors over time. 

    Another vital aspect the Sloan UCEM is what it calls “tri-pronged mentoring.” Tri-pronged mentoring provides scholars with resources for all aspects of their academic journey including a peer mentor within their department, a research mentor, and a Sloan academic advisor. Peer mentors are typically advanced graduate students who help new Sloan scholars become familiar with department culture as well as strategies and resources for success. Bello-Maldonado says he appreciates the many sources of mentorship because it holds him accountable and also acts as a support system for him. He says he has a close relationship with his peer mentor who helps him with course selection and better understanding the inner-workings of the department. “I really enjoy the informal relationship we have built as a result of meeting through the Sloan UCEM at Illinois tri-pronged mentorship program. We often meet informally to enjoy a day at the museum.” 

    Sloan also provides scholars with monthly professional development workshops and informational workshops. These workshops feature guest speakers to support Sloan cholars in developing knowledge and skills in a wide array of topics including presenting, communicating effectively, and managing money. During Sloan orientation, scholars learn about program expectations and requirements and also receive guidance on how to successfully manage scholarship funds. 

    The Sloan Showcase, an event during the Community of Scholars Visit, where scholars present a short research talk pitched toward a general audience, was also noteworthy. Scholars prepared for the Sloan Showcase by participating in a Research Live workshop and by giving a practice talk to other Sloan cohorts. 

    Bello-Maldonado found the Sloan Showcase motivating. “Communication is not my strong suit so this task is particularly valuable to me because it helps me hone in on skills I lack. It is challenging to present your research to multiple audiences in under three minutes because there are people who have no idea what it is you do. I am a very competitive person so I treat this workshop as a competition with myself and the other participating scholars. This workshop, and other workshops, do an exceptional job at helping scholars brand themselves, which is critical to their future success.” 

    As a student strongly committed to the development of his research, Bello-Maldonado says it is hard to ask for help. As a computer scientist, he has always been accustomed to working independently. However, being part of Sloan UCEM at Illinois has changed that through the creation of a collaborative and strong support system that always reminds him there are people there to help him succeed. 

    Tiffany agrees that Sloan affords a strong support system: “Sloan makes me feel welcomed and comfortable at this institution, and this has kept me emotionally competent in order to excel in my coursework. It can be very intimidating to see so few people of color in your department and institution, and at times I find myself searching for a sense of belonging. Sloan reminds me that I do belong here and it allows me to interact with other driven people of color. It’s an empowering and supportive environment.” 

    For more information about Sloan UCEM at Illinois, see: 

    For more information about the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, see: