Dr. Funding, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Grant Writing

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Robin Bernstein as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Robin is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. She works on how growth and development is shaped, both across generations and among species, in humans and nonhuman primates, and is currently conducting research in rural Gambia. Her recent publications include articles in the American Journal of Primatology and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.)

As an anthropologist with a field site on another continent and a laboratory that needs a full-time technician to operate properly, I am dependent on continuous external funding to keep things going. There was a time when I resented this, and felt utterly exhausted and desperate in the context of the endless application-rejection cycles, waiting on the edge of my seat to find out whether I could continue my projects uninterrupted, keep my employees employed, and offer any resources to my students.

I will admit that ‘scientific writing’ has never come naturally or easily to me. There is a certain structure and sequence that is expected and required, and for some reason I have always found it difficult to wedge my thoughts into the mold that is necessary for positive peer review and publication. As with anything one considers somewhat unpleasant, I generally avoid it until it can be put off no longer. But what good is scientific research if you can’t communicate it effectively to an audience of your peers? I have always found it easier to communicate with a wider audience, where I can focus on the ideas, the broader background, and the potential of any results that might otherwise be doomed to insignificance by a p-value of >0.05.

And this, I have realized, is why I rather like grant writing. I understand that many of my colleagues see this process as a necessary evil (perhaps the way I see writing papers?), one that is stymied by not knowing what a given panel on a given cycle will find worthwhile (somewhat like that notorious third reviewer of manuscripts). It is often discussed as a fishing expedition in the dark, putting significant amounts of time and energy into trying to convince people that your ideas are important enough to merit being awarded money to explore them. But, perhaps perversely, this is the very reason that it appeals to me.

When writing a manuscript, I am trying to convince reviewers that my results are worthwhile, important, and of value to the field in a broad sense (no easy task, even with p-values <0.05). When writing a grant proposal, I aim to convince reviewers that my ideas are worthwhile, important, and relevant. This is liberating – it keeps me in a frame of mind where I am constantly looking forward. While in many cases I do include results from previous research as pilot data (p-values and all), or justification for what I’m proposing, these don’t take center stage. Instead, I become deeply involved with the challenge of convincing that anonymous panel (or perhaps just a person or two) that my project is one worth investing in, within a page limit and specific format. I take delight in condensing a page of text that would put me over length into a creative and informative figure to take its place. Reading and re-reading drafts of a proposal serves to reaffirm my excitement for the work, and that enthusiasm becomes incorporated into the proposal with each revision. It is possible that I am an anomaly in taking pleasure in this process. But perhaps it is just that it allows me to tap into the optimism, enthusiasm, and excitement that led me to choose a career in research in the first place. I can unreservedly dream about what could be, rather than fret about what has come to pass – I can live in a future of my own making while I am writing a grant proposal. When the submission gong sounds and the proposal is out of my hands – then the stress begins.

With that, then, I offer a few thoughts on the grant-writing process. This is not a how-to; those sorts of guides abound on the intertubes, can be very specific or broad, and more or less effective. Instead, these are some lessons I have learned in the time since I submitted my very first proposal, and may be of some use to someone out there.

Know thy funding agency

This may seem obvious, but if the aims of your proposal do not clearly speak to the overarching goals and priorities of the organization with the money, it will be hard to get that organization to see how funding you makes sense. Familiarize yourself with the organization’s mission statement, with their target areas and goals (these can change frequently). Think of ways that what you are proposing to do can speak to these, and be sure to clearly articulate it.

Background

When contextualizing a research question, one frequently runs into the problem of how to tame the ‘introduction’ or ‘literature review’ section. This is the place to show reviewers that you have a thorough and current understanding of research in the area where you are proposing to do your work. Write too much, and your original thoughts and ideas are outweighed by the work that’s been done before you. Write too little, and you run the risk of being seen as too selective. I’ve often found it helpful to, in initial drafts, skip the ‘introduction’ section altogether and instead challenge myself to incorporate specific and succinct literature reviews as part of my ‘research question’ section. This ensures that the background that I present is directly relevant to, and highlights, my own original thoughts and proposal ideas. Then, it’s easy enough to copy and paste into another section.

Nice to know vs. Need to know

This piggybacks on the prior section on background, but also holds relevance for your proposal at large. In today’s funding climate, it is often not enough to propose to do something because there is a gap in the literature, or because a re-analysis of a previously proposed idea is now possible with new samples or technology. Why do we need to know the results of your research? This ‘need to know’ is sometimes required in a clearly articulated section of a proposal (such as ‘Broader Impacts’ for a NSF proposal). Keeping the question “why do we need to know this” instead of “why would it be nice to know this” in the forefront of your mind while writing will help you craft a compelling narrative.

Clarity, clarity, clarity

Sometimes you will luck out and get a true expert in your domain to review your proposal. Most often, you will have one or two reviewers who are familiar your area of research, with the remainder competent non-experts. These non-expert reviewers do not delight in sorting through your writing to decipher your meaning from nuanced and flowery prose. They want to know what you want to do, how you plan to do it, why it’s important, and how much money you need. Don’t make your reviewers go on a treasure hunt: put all these nuggets up front, make them clear, and ensure continuity throughout. Bold, italicize, underline – don’t be afraid to use these actions to draw the reader’s eye to key points. Use white space to delineate mental pauses between sections. Handholding and being overly simplistic is not necessary, but writing as a clear, succinct, and thorough tour guide is helpful.

Never give up…ever

I think one common theme tying grant writing together with manuscript writing is that the work is never ‘done’ done. There is always room to improve, to expand, to reorganize, and to match your product to that inaccessible archetype of perfection that we all carry in our heads. In both cases – grant and manuscript writing – there is the ‘x-factor’ of the outsider’s perspective. Even if you obsess over every last detail in a proposal and feel supremely confident that it is the best thing you’ve ever written, it is no guarantee of funding. In fact, you can probably count on not being funded on your first submission. If you can keep this in mind, it may make it easier to let go of the idea of perfection and view the first submission as an opportunity to make room for the reviewer’s perspective in what you’ve written. Cinching your proposal so tightly that there is no flexibility in organization or content will make revisions painful at best. I’ve lost track of the number of grant, fellowship, and program proposals that I have submitted over the past 10 years in order to arrive at the handful that have been awarded. What I have held onto is the thrill of the pursuit. Viewed through this lens, grant writing becomes less about reaching for that gold ring, and more about reconnecting with the passion that drives us. Renewing that on a regular basis is worthwhile, even if the end result doesn’t come with a dollar sign in front of it.

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

4 thoughts on “Dr. Funding, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Grant Writing

  1. Thank you EA! Best of luck to you and/or anyone else for this round of submissions. Not tossing my hat in the ring this time around :)

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