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Home » Discover Rackham » ‘Tis the Season – Musings on Grant-Writing

‘Tis the season: writing 300-word summaries of our research and pestering our professors for references, all in the hopes of getting a grant for the next academic year. I know that for more senior students – and professors with stacks of reference requests! – it can be a time of weariness. It remains to be seen how my applications fare, but as someone newly ABD and applying for major research grants for the first time, I feel I have already got something out of the process, even if no monetary gains materialize in the end. Luckily, I know some people who work for grant-giving organizations as well as professors who have experience with both applying for and evaluating applications for funding. Here are some tips of theirs that I have found particularly useful.

Cut the fluff. For me, the single biggest gain from the process thus far has been how it has clarified my thinking about my research. Certain applications strictly limit space – the shortest summary I was asked for was twenty words! – and none of them appreciate fluff. Some organizations receive thousands, even tens of thousands of applications, and the reviewers by the end have little tolerance for “ground-breaking research on the negotiation of identity through mortuary practices through multivariate analysis.” They want to see the moving parts: what are the variables, what are the mortuary practices, and how exactly do I intend to link them to identity. Some applications specifically asked for a list of research questions moving from data to interpretation and broader implications, which I found to be a very helpful exercise and used for my other applications as well. Instead of wanting to know how identity is expressed in the mortuary record, I want to know how specific objects like drinking vessels or swords correlate with aspects of identity like gender or socio-economic class; I want to know when and where these objects co-occur; I want to know if this means certain aspects of identity co-occur or if some are overshadowed by others; I want to know what this can tell us about society and groups in Archaic and Classical Macedon; finally, I want to know if this calls into question certain assumptions we have made about grave goods and social complexity (92 words!).

Put your best foot forward but be realistic. In this age of grade-inflation, it can be tempting to use words like “unique” and “revolutionary” to try to drive home just how much you deserve to get the grant. So it was with some trepidation that I received this piece of advice from the executive of a major funding body: “No one wants to hear you yammer on about how world-class your research is. Stick to the facts.” Now, instead of using hyperbolic words, I always try to back up my claims. Looking at northern Greek mortuary customs is important because of X, Y, and Z. I am particularly qualified to carry out this research because of X, Y, Z. Pointing out the implications of your research and where it falls within the broader field is a better way of convincing the reviewers than platitudes. Is your topic understudied? If so, why, and what can be gained from “filling in the gap?” Is it a useful building block for further future development or practical applications, or is it a synthesis building on previous study? Why does it matter?

Have a plan. This closely ties to the two previous points, but is worth mentioning because developing a concrete plan forces you to go over your research step by step and evaluate whether it’s realistic. It also shows the reviewer that you are serious about finishing your project – a common concern.

Know your audience. Many funding bodies these days have detailed websites with a lot of information. Faculty or fellow students might also be able to give you tips, and looking at the profiles of previous years’ grantees is often very informative. Customizing your application can seem like a drag, but it’s worth it. When I applied for a Fulbright, it turned out that my having a good response to “What kind of an ambassador will you make for your country?” was more important than the details of my research. (Thankfully I was prepared for this, having attended information sessions and having requested a private meeting with the program coordinator beforehand.) Other organizations might be concerned with the ethics of your research (something that might not be an obvious point for those in the Humanities – in my case, showing an awareness of how the study of ancient Macedon is connected to contemporary political debates in the Balkans has proven a bonus). Yet others are very field-specific and will expect you to use pertinent jargon and go into the finer details of your data, methods, and theoretical frameworks.

Select your references carefully. Not all references are created equal. You obviously want to get references from people who are familiar with and favorable to you and your work. There are other considerations as well, however. Some faculty might be previous grantees or former board members for an organization; others might do research that you know aligns very well with a specific grant, thus making it likely their opinion will be considered especially valuable; some faculty might be able to speak better to a specific aspect such as your fieldwork performance or ability to apply a certain methodology. When I applied for a fellowship to spend a year in Athens doing a combination of academic study and field trips, I asked for a reference from a professor with a long history of involvement in the program, a professor familiar with my fieldwork performance in Greece, and a professor running a project under the auspices of the program.

Edit, edit, edit. This one seems like a given, but I’ve been told by reviewers that the easiest cut to make is applications that are sloppily written or lack a coherent, clear structure – and that these applications exist in quite some numbers. If you struggle with writing, there are resources such as the Sweetland Center. I found that the structure I used for my prospectus worked quite well for most grant applications (albeit in shortened form). For the prospectus itself, I found googling examples useful since my program doesn’t provide specific guidelines. Even though a completely different field from mine, I found instructions and examples by Philosophy departments particularly helpful and clear, and tweaked them to suit my purposes. (See here, here, and here for a few examples.) Having a clear structure helped trim the fat, ensure my main point was clearly made at the outset, and provided a rubric that flowed coherently from data to method to interpretation.

Try, try, try again. I’m telling this to myself as much as to you. Over the years, I have been repeatedly told I would probably not get various grants because they are so competitive. Sometimes this has proven to be true; other times, it hasn’t. An eternal optimist, I take comfort in the odds stacked against applicants in two different ways. Firstly, it means that failing to get a grant does not mean my research is terrible, but just that five out of 17,000 applications were better than mine. That’s still not too bad, right? Secondly, experience shows that rumored competitiveness is enough to repel a big portion of potential applicants: memorably, I once applied for an exchange program that was “impossible” to get into, and turned out to be among three successful candidates out of a pool of ten applicants. So let us all stiffen our upper lips and take heart in Winston Churchill’s words: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Monemvasia, southern Greece.

So worth the application process. Monemvasia, southern Greece.