Tanya Golash-Boza

Professor at University of California at Merced

Getting That First Grant

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Image: "Money Cash" by Jericho (via Wikimedia Commons)

Few things are more important to a graduate student’s career, and more anxiety-producing, than applying for that first grant. A little information, however, can make the process much smoother. I was one of the panelists at a grantwriting workshop for graduate students earlier this academic year at the American Studies Association meeting and I’d like to share some gems from that panel with you.

While many application deadlines have passed for this year, it’s important that you start planning now for next year’s deadlines. This post is a summary of the best starter tips provided at the meeting and will, I hope, offer basic guidance and food for thought. The panel was convened by Kritika Agarwal and included Maile Arvin, Monica Martinez, and myself.

Step 1: Figuring Out Where to Apply

First you have to identify what you need. Do you need a grant – which will provide you with cash to do research? Or do you need a fellowship – which will pay your salary as you focus on writing?

Graduate students can use grant funding for a variety of expenses, including visiting archives, paying research participants, transcribing interviews, and completing fieldwork. Fellowships, in contrast, are primarily used to subsidize the time you spend writing your dissertation. The idea is that you can be writing instead of having to teach to support yourself.

Of course most students already know about the large grant agencies that offer funding to graduate students (the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, etc.). However, many students aren’t aware of the plethora of small and midsized agencies and foundations that award grants specific to your field of study.

If you are at a doctoral university, it most likely has an office on campus where you can get assistance with finding funding. Many times, that office will work with you to come up with a list of grants and fellowships for which you can apply. Many universities also have online databases that you can search to look for funding opportunities. Kritika made the very practical suggestion that you look at the CVs of people in your field to find out which grants and fellowships they have been awarded. Don’t be afraid to ask around in your department, Maile said, to find out what opportunities other students have sought out.

It is important to complete a comprehensive search for your grant and fellowship options. Sometimes there are societies and archives you may not have heard of that offer funding. For example, did you know that the German Historical Institute offers fellowships in African-American history? Or that L’Oreal USA offers fellowships for women in science?

Once you have your list of places to target, you can develop a timeline for applications based on their various deadlines. Plan far in advance – up to a year before the application deadlines.

Step 2: How to Prepare the Proposal

Think of your proposal as an argument for why reviewers should recommend your project for funding. Most well-formulated proposals will have the following six components:

  1. An opening that draws attention. It can take the form of an anecdote, a powerful statistic, or a compelling question.
  2. A concise statement that explains your project. The reviewer should know exactly what your research is about within 30 seconds of picking up your proposal.
  3. A review of what is already known about your topic. You need to make a case for why your research is necessary. That requires showing that you have done your background research and demonstrating how your study is novel.
  4. An explanation of how current literature leads to your research questions. Don’t just say: “No one has ever examined Polynesian birthing practices in this village.” Instead, draw from the current literature on Polynesia and birthing practices to make a case for how that literature leads up to your research questions.
  5. A description of how you plan to answer your questions. Now that you have set up your topic, explain exactly what your methodology will be and why it is the best approach for this project.
  6. A timeline for completion. A successful grant proposal is compelling, creative, and feasible. You must show that you have thought through your whole project and that you have a reasonable timeline for completion. Reviewers will find it hard to believe, for example, that you will write the last four chapters of your dissertation in a one-week residential fellowship.

Competitive applications are crystal clear and jargon-free. They also render in clear language how a project is related to the goals and missions of the funding agency. They are convincing in terms of the need for this particular project as well as its feasibility. They make a clear contribution to research. Finally, they are aesthetically pleasing in terms of the page layout, margins, font, and headings.

If you know someone who has won the grant or fellowship you are seeking, ask to read their original proposal. That will give you a good sense of what a successful application looks like.

Step 3: How to Prepare for Submission

Never submit a proposal without having at least one person look it over. Ideally, get feedback from several people -- from your peers, from your adviser, from the grant office on campus, and from friends who are not in your field.

Besides editing the content of the proposal, review your application to make sure that you have followed the agency’s submission directions exactly. Have someone with a sharp eye read your proposal to make absolutely sure that there are no stylistic, grammatical, or typographical errors.

Once you submit the proposal, celebrate a bit. And then start planning for your research. Having a clear and concise research statement and a timeline for moving forward will help you to actually move your research forward, regardless of whether or not you win this specific grant or fellowship. In addition, you can repurpose your research statement for other grant and fellowship applications. You also are likely to be able to revise the statement and put parts of it in your dissertation – particularly in the introduction.

It is always fantastic when you are awarded a grant or a fellowship. But it is also important to keep in mind that the only way to get a rejection is to put your work out there. Every rejection is a signal that you are stretching your boundaries. It also means that you are one less rejection away from reaching your goals.

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