Spare your Wallet, Win the Travel Award

By Kristin Whitehair, Kansas State University, Resident Librarian

Given the current state of many libraries' budgets, professional development funds are often limited. However, there are options for funding other than digging into your own savings account. Many local, state, national, and international organizations offer awards to attend or participate in professional development opportunities. Vendors can also be a source of supplemental professional development funds. Some awards offer financial support to attend a specific conference. For example, ACRL offers scholarships to attend the National ACRL Conference. Other scholarships are offered by organizations to support attendance and/or participation at a number of events. These more flexible awards are often referred to as continuing education or professional development grants. Available awards are usually listed on organization or vendor websites and are often publicized on listservs. A list of all awards available through ALA, including various ALA divisions, offices, and round tables is available at

The first step is to identify an award. Ensure that you meet all requirements for the award. For example, the Shirley Olofson Memorial Award requires that applicants be a member of NMRT. Applications from non-members are disqualified. However, in this instance there is a link on the application form to join NMRT. This is one example where it is possible to meet an award requirement by simply joining an organization.

Before beginning an application, research the award. Criteria utilized for evaluating the awards are often listed. Professional development awards generally require an essay as part of the application. Background information about the award can help in crafting an essay. If the award is sponsored by or in remembrance of an individual, researching the individual's career and professional philosophy can provide valuable insight into how applications may be evaluated. Additionally, information about past winners of the award demonstrates the type of experience the review committee aims to promote. Reflections from prior recipients of the award may be available on the award's website or in publications by the sponsoring organization.

Check for length limits, both maximum and minimum, before you start. Not meeting the specified limits may disqualify your application. Attachments with information not requested for the award may be ignored or disqualify the application, especially if they cause the application to exceed the maximum length.

Be sure to address all required criteria. The oversight of skipping even one of the criteria can harm an application that otherwise would be highly competitive. Answer each of the criteria with relevant information including examples from your experience when possible. Strive for a succinct essay. At times, striking a balance between sufficient information and pithiness can be difficult. The goal is to include enough detail in your essay so that the reader understands why and how your discussion points apply to the award.

Typos and errors in grammar can prevent an application strong in all other areas from receiving the award. To catch these errors, review the application yourself. However, being overly familiar with the application may cause some errors to be overlooked. Another option is having a co-worker review it. Since they have not reread the application a number of times, they may catch errors the author may not notice. In addition to catching errors, the reviewer can also offer feedback to strengthen the content of your application.

Beyond merely addressing criteria listed for the award, an effective essay demonstrates the potential impact the award could have. The four main areas where the award can have an impact are on you in your current position, your career, your current institution, and the overall library profession. Examples of how past professional development opportunities have a positive impact in one or more of these areas will make your essay more persuasive and help it to stand out. If you have not had the opportunity to attend a professional development event before, describe the potential effect it could have. Additionally, some awards are specifically targeted at new professionals seeking to attend their first conference.

Explain why this particular award is so important. Identifying a specific pre-conference or program track and discussing how it will be particularly beneficial also strengthens your application. This demonstrates that you have researched the offerings and have thoroughly thought about how to make the most of this potential opportunity.

Some awards may include financial need as criteria for evaluation. Give detailed information such as the exact travel budget you are allotted by your current position. Also, discuss any restrictions placed on your travel budget. For example, perhaps the funds can only be used for conference registration and not for transportation and lodging. Vague descriptions of financial need allow the reader to create their own interpretation of your situation, accurate or not. A "limited travel budget" can mean many different things to different people. One effective way to illustrate your financial need is to include estimated costs compared to the amount of funding available.

Having covered what strong applications include, there are also topics that can detract from an application. Do not include personal information irrelevant to the award. Topics of personal information that should be avoided include:

  • Family (spouse, significant other, children, pets etc.)
  • Weight/Height
  • Race, ethnicity, and religion
  • Health
  • Entertainment preferences (movies, television, music, etc.)
  • Political beliefs
  • Social activities not related to the award or your professional position.

If there is a length limit for the application, discussing these topics wastes valuable space that could be better used to strengthen the application, and they are generally unrelated to the criteria used to evaluate applications. The goal of many of these awards it to promote professional development, and personal information such as this may be judged as unprofessional. Lastly, avoid straying to irrelevant topics such as personal vacation plans you would like to pursue in addition to the professional development activity at the destination of the event.

Should one application be unsuccessful, continue applying for other awards or for the same award the following year. Consider seeking feedback from the evaluation committee or a member of the committee. Their constructive criticism can help you create a successful application the following year. Additionally, awards are usually aimed at specific audiences and perhaps another award is better suited toward your interests and strengths. Search for awards that are aimed at you. Applicant pools at times are quite large, and, while many applicants may be outstanding, only a limited number of awards are available.

Financial assistance can play a key role in assisting with the financial burden of professional development. Investing time and energy into identifying awards and drafting a competitive application can reap rewards and spare your wallet. Good luck!