You probably feel pressure to apply for external funding for your research. Your Dean, Head of Department, or just vague cultural norms about what is required to get tenure these days may be weighing heavily on your mind.
I’ve been helping social science and humanities academics with grant applications, individually and through their research offices since 2005. My perspective may be counter-intuitive but I think the worst reason to apply for a grant is to please someone else. Even if that someone else is a tenure committee.
If you don’t think you need a grant to achieve your research goals, you are going to have a hell of a time convincing an adjudication committee that you do.
The grant is not the goal
You became an academic to do research (inter alia). The grant is a means to doing the scholarly work that makes your heart sing.
Grants are awarded in a competitive process that rewards excellence in research.
This means that your goal and the funder’s goal are aligned: do excellent research. The goal is to make a significant contribution to the advancement of knowledge. (Whose knowledge is another question. I’ll come back to that in another post.)
The grant provides you with the resources to do more research, to make that contribution sooner, to make contributions you couldn’t make without those resources.
Clarity, Focus, Goals
This is what is required to write a good grant proposal.
- What do you want to achieve?
- Why is it important?
- How will you do it?
- How will you make sure you have an impact?
Articulating these things also enables you make more effective use of your research time. In fact, I recommend that you begin with a longer term plan and then select one aspect of your program of research for a particular grant application.
There will be other aspects of your program that you can work on without the resources a grant would provide, and you can just be getting on with those while you wait for funding. You should never be in a position where you can’t do your scholarly work because you haven’t got a grant (yet).
Making a longer term plan may also help you see aspects of your work that might be fundable by other organizations. Or that would be done better in collaboration. Or that would make excellent projects for Masters students.
A good grant proposal helps you do better work
Going through the process of writing a strong grant proposal helps you prioritize your research work and get more done. It helps you make decisions about which opportunities to say yes to, as well as which to say no to. And it helps you create opportunities.
I once gave a talk about grants at a university I had visited the previous year. At the end, I invited questions and one woman stood up to address her assembled colleagues. She gave me a ringing endorsement:
She told them that I had helped her with her grant proposal. Despite the fact that she had been unsuccessful, her research was going so much better. She had a better sense of what she was doing, where she wanted to go, and what she needed to do to get there.
Articulating what you want to achieve and why it is important reminds you why you got into this business in the first place. You rediscover your enthusiasm for your research.
You don’t want to wait until a grant deadline is looming to start thinking about your proposal. Start thinking about it now and you’ll only have to worry about how to present it for a particular competition when the grant deadline is announced.
Don’t get too wedded to your plans
As Dwight Eisenhower reportedly said “Plans are useless but planning is everything.”
In research, as in life, things do not always go to plan.
- You might get less money than you asked for.
- You might encounter difficulties recruiting participants.
- You might find something in the archive that excites you even more than what you went in looking for.
You can and will adjust your plans. You will still do excellent research (that makes your heart sing).
I can help
You probably have a really good idea about what you want to do. This is work you have been doing for a while. It excites you. Its importance is obvious to you.
Grant applications and research planning are mostly about vision and process. Explaining the importance of your work to others. Choosing among all the potential directions you could take your work to focus on those directions with the most significant potential impact. This can be frustrating.
I’m really good at this kind of big picture thinking. I can ask you questions that help you clarify what the vision is and how the pieces fit together so that you can focus on doing the research.
I don’t do last minute. We both do better work if we give ourselves enough time to really think about the issues and absorb what we’ve read before responding. Ask for help before you are so frustrated you want to throw something.
Want to find out more? sign up for my advanced notice list and I’ll let you know more details, prices and so on, as they are available.