I’ve been helping social science and humanities academics with grant proposals since 2005. Prior to that, I worked for the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) as both a program officer and a policy analyst.
Based on that experience, here are some of the issues that come up repeatedly.
The grant is going to be awarded based on the likely significance of your contribution to knowledge. That means you have to clearly articulate what you expect that contribution to knowledge to be. The fact that you are open to finding something you didn’t expect does not mean that you can’t articulate what you hope to find.
And yet, this is probably the most common problem I see in grant applications. And experience doesn’t seem to be a distinguishing factor. Whether this is your first grant proposal or your 15th, you need to clearly articulate your objectives.
Focus on what you will achieve, not on what you will do.
This is not the place for understatement and hedging. A clear, brief, statement is the best opener.
The point of the literature review, any summary of the real world need for this knowledge, and discussion of your previous research is to explain why this objective is important. It’s not about you and the next logical step for your program.
This is most often a question of balance and the order in which you present information. Always start with the issues most important to the specific audience. Then provide information about the extra things you deliver that distinguish you from your competitors.
The significance of your research is being considered in comparison to other applicants. Provide the information necessary for adjudicators to make those comparisons. This usually means starting at a level of generality higher than you would for a journal article, though you will still provide the most detail about literature directly relevant to your specific objectives.
By the time the adjudicators get to your methodology section they will have already made a decision about the likely significance of your work. At this point, they want to know 3 things:
- Is it feasible?
- Are you likely to achieve your objectives doing it this way?
- Is it rigorous?
Summaries of general methodological principles are irrelevant here. Provide enough detail about what you actually plan to do to enable them to answer those questions.
Vague dissemination plans
A general statement like “I plan to publish articles based on the research in high ranking journals in my field.” is redundant.
The adjudication committee needs to know how many articles you plan to publish, and whether your idea of a “high ranking journal” is the same as theirs. Be specific. You will not be held to these plans but specific plans give the adjudicators confidence in any modifications you make as you go along.
The same applies for dissemination to non-academic audiences. Be specific about the audiences you plan to reach and the methods you plan to use to reach those audiences.
The venues you propose for publication provide further evidence of the likely significance of the outcomes. Remember that significance depends on context and that the objectives and mandate of the funding program are the most relevant context.
It’s hard to see these things yourself
Grant proposals are a particular genre of writing. They aren’t the same as journal articles, lectures, or plain text summaries for policy makers.
Grant proposals require you to focus on the big picture. Your strength as a researcher may be in your attention to details and process rather than this bigger vision of the significance of your work.
Grant proposals are not the place for modesty and understatement. They are also not a place for arrogance. Writing confidently about the importance of your work without being arrogant is difficult.
Grant proposals require you to articulate aspects of your work that are obvious to the peers who read your journal articles, attend the same conferences, etc. It can be difficult to shift your discourse to that level without oversimplifying and condescending.
I can help
My strengths are in vision and process. I help articulate the objectives and clarify what you need to do to explain their significance.
I am also a highly educated non-specialist and read your proposal from the same position as many of the adjudicators.
Contacting me early in the process avoids a lot of stress and unnecessary forays into irrelevant material. We can work out the key issues in discussion and provide a structure for you to fill in the details. I will then review the draft providing further comments to make sure you submit the best proposal possible.
For further details of my grant proposal development services, click here.
You should also make use of all other support available
No one can write the proposal for you. You are the only one with the detailed knowledge of the field to provide much of the necessary information. However, many people can help you present that information appropriately.
Consider me part of your team. Athletes have different people to coach them on different skills. Using the strengths of different people to complement your own strengths is the key to success.
Colleagues will read and comment on your draft proposal. They are invaluable for comments on the discipline specific issues that are likely to come up.
Your university probably provides support through the research office (or maybe the advancement office). The earlier you notify the relevant people about your intention to apply, the more help they can give you. They can’t read minds so be prepared to explain your research goals so they can identify appropriate funding opportunities.
The program officer from the funding organization can answer questions about the specific requirements of the program, eligibility, and so on. Do not hesitate to ask them questions. Talking to potential applicants is part of their job and they want the best pool of applications possible.
The post was first published on April 11, 2011. It has been edited.