Wasting away again in Grantlandia…

…searching for my lost book by Bernard.  Ya, that title needs to be read with the underlying melody of a certain Jimmy Buffet song, which is always good to hear when you are mired in the depths of the purgatory that is academic grant writing.  That’s where I happen to be trapped at present.  Please feel free to send me a postcard, or say hi if you happen to be down here too.  If you know the way out, at least leave some bread crumbs to mark the path.  Seriously.

Moving on to the heart of the matter: I am in that special stage of graduate school where I spend the majority of my time attempting to create the perfect little document that will help me get that BIG, IMPORTANT GRANT so that I can actually go into the field and move on with my research.  For some reason that perfect little document remains elusive.  It is more than likely my own fault, rather than some macro-structural issue. There is definitely a learning curve when it comes to making appeals to that complex funding machine that few people truly understand.  When it comes to getting that BIG, IMPORTANT GRANT, I happen to be zero for two at this point.  So if this were a baseball game, I would be in literal and metaphorical trouble.  But, I could always get inspiration from one of the all-time great hitters like Rod Carew, and pull off a clutch ninth inning hit.  That means money.  End of metaphor.

Anyway, I happen to find grant writing incredibly excruciating on numerous levels.  From what I hear around the halls of academia, I am definitely not alone.  On the flip side, I can’t imagine having to spend hours and hours reading one grant after another about the “complexities” or “nuances” of this or that particular social conundrum.  Imagine that!  The whole grant writing process is filled with real people–and that’s a good thing to keep in mind.  Let’s not dehumanize the process, folks.  We’re all just people, trying to find our way in this world.  Insert moody, yet pensive background music that makes us rethink our life priorities.

Enough pensiveness.  Let’s talk about the trials and travails of grant writing.  I’ll start, with some thoughts, questions, and observations that I have learned along the way.  Then hopefully some of your will chime in and give me your two or three cents about the matter.  Keep in mind the fact that I am not currently a grant writing MASTER, and realize that I am in the middle of working through all of this out too.  I may never figure it out!  If you are in the same fix, read along and join in.  If you are not quite at this stage and terrified of the whole process, read along and join in.  If you are in fact a grant writing master, read along and join in.  If you are currently sitting on piles of grant money that you don’t know what do to with…WHAT??!  HOW?!?  Just kidding.  Please read along, everyone, and let’s see if we can make that special place known as Grantlandia just a bit sunnier–or at least less horrifyingly stressful.

(in no particular order of importance)

  1. Style.  I am finding the question of style to be a little difficult at times.  As you can see, I tend to be a little on the narrative side, but there just isn’t a lot of space to GET NARRATIVE.  So word choices need the Hemingway method, which is all about getting straight to the point.  Hemingway is probably too wordy, but you get the point.  Be concise.

  2. Style, part II: On the other end of the spectrum, there is what I call the “citation dumping” issue.  This is where you make a claim and then proceed to fill the next six lines with citations, like this: (Anderson 1977, 2009, 2011a, 20011b, 2012; Parsons 1919; Boas 1899; Kroeber 1945; Mead 1921; Farmer 2004; Malinowski 1928; Davis 1990; 2002; Low 2005, 2009..and so on).  When is it enough?  When is it going completely overboard?  Does it depend on the actual grant in question?  Does it depend on the point being raised?  For me, this particular stylistic move is particularly unreadable, but I understand that it has a certain utility.  I’d be interested to see what some others have to say about this.

  3. Preparation.  I read an essay by Michael Watts about writing grants called “The Holy Grail: In Pursuit of the PhD Proposal.”  Here is what he had to say: “One of the great curiosities of academia is that the art of writing a research proposal–arguably one of the most difficult and demanding tasks confronting any research student–is so weakly institutionalized.”  The essay is online here, along with some other great resources for proposal writing (thanks, UC Berkeley, for putting that online).  Considering the difficulty and importance of this process, it seems like grant writing should be more integrated into the whole grad school process.  Right?  So why isn’t this the case?  Or is it actually the case, just not everywhere?  Inquiring minds would like to know.

  4. Eye strain.  It’s a good idea to look away from your computer screen every 20-30 minutes, at least for about 20 seconds.  This decreases the need to utilize this stuff.

  5. Reality check: So what happens when students don’t get these grants?  Then what?  Should they sit around for years on end waiting until they do get one, or find some other way to get themselves into the field?  When is it time to either change the field site or the topic?  This is a big question, and a huge problem in the overall political economy of grad school these days.  If the money isn’t there–or the research just isn’t appealing to funding institutions–what should a grad student do?

  6. The F-Word.  No, not that f-word.  I am talking about Foucault, and more generally about some of the issues with relying too heavily on THE BIG THINKERS THAT EVERYONE CITES YEAR AFTER YEAR.  I learned this lesson the hard way the first time around, and then got some strategic advice about using THE BIG THINKERS.  Use them wisely, and concisely.  Also, keep in mind the fact that reviewers come from different theoretical camps: don’t beat them over the head with your favorite BIG THINKER, because it might work against you.  This was some of the best advice I received: If the reviewer is already on board with your particular theoretical camp, then it doesn’t take much to let them know where you stand.  The strategy comes into play when you learn how to put just enough so that it works on all fronts.  I am still working on this, by the way.

  7. Harry Wolcott said this: “For the most part, the research that gets attended to is research on topics that attracts money and status, political factors beyond the control researchers themselves.” (In The Art of Fieldwork, 2005: 135).  Do you agree or disagree with this statement?  Does it all come down to politics?  A bigger issue to keep in mind.

  8. Remember the massive economic crisis of 2008?  Ya, that’s not over yet.  So this means that funding is pretty constrained these days.  Which makes it all the more imperative to really think about your budget.  You don’t want to be dismissed outright because you asked for 19 grand when you only really needed about three.  Be realistic.

  9. Follow the grant directions closely.  Don’t get disqualified on a technicality.  Make sure that you actually answer the questions that the proposal guidelines ask, or that you have all of the required sections where they should be.

  10. Question: What’s the difference between a grant proposal and the actual research on the ground?  What happens when all of those theories and methodological frameworks–written up for a grant competition to sound innovative and appealing–run into the messy realities of actual fieldwork?  This leads to another question: Is grant writing really a good way to conceptualize an actual research plan?  Is there a difference between creating a research plan and writing a competitive grant proposal?  Should there be a difference?

  11. Rejection.  Look, don’t take it personally, and be sure to really look at what the reviewers said–even if you disagree with them.  You’re going to face the same process again, and will need to defend your stance.  Oftentimes, you get some pretty good ideas/feedback from those reviews,a and it can help you as you learn to navigate these kinds of processes.  Learn from the experience, and keep going forward.

  12. If at all possible, find some time to take a break every now and again.  Grants matter, yes.  And they are incredibly stressful to prepare.  But, taking a short break can do wonders for mental clarity and creativity.  Go outside, look at some trees, stare at the ocean for a while–whatever.  It helps.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

8 thoughts on “Wasting away again in Grantlandia…

  1. That’s a lot of questions, Ryan! Let’s see if I have any advice, having survived the grad student grant process (1 for 1 on NSF, 1 for 4 on Wenner-Gren).

    #1 and 2, on style – Everything I’ve read, even WG grants, seem quite technical (not narrative). Being concise means thinking out what you want to do, how you’re going to do it, why it’s important, and where you’ll publish it. Outline. Fill in that outline. Highlight certain phrases or headings with bold or italics so that weary readers don’t lose sight of your points. Oh, and avoid the laundry list of references. If necessary, cite the original instance of the theory, e.g., and the most recent applications that are relevant to your research (bonus points if published in top-tier journals).

    #3 – Some schools do have grant-prep courses. At UNC, we had a class specifically for doing archaeological research, and the end goal was more or less an NSF DDIG proposal. I’ve modified this for even my undergrads in upper-level courses: produce a short grant proposal (hypotheses, data sources, importance, budget, etc.) in the style of NSF. If your school doesn’t have courses in this, your writing support center might.

    #5 – If your research idea is truly terrible, your advisor and/or PhD committee should tell you it’s unfundable. Otherwise, there are loads of small granting organizations out there. It might not be enough to do DNA analysis on 100 ancient skeletons, but it might be enough to get you a plane ticket to somewhere you can meet collaborators and figure out more about your project. If your university has any pre-dissertation money available, apply early and use it. Preliminary data and a commitment to research questions looks good on future grant applications.

    #8 – Yes. If you were a grant reader, would you rather give 4 people $6k or one person $24k? If that one person is doing amazing work, perhaps you choose that. But I’d rather give more people a shot with less money.

    #10 – My NSF proposal and eventual dissertation were focused on answering different but related questions. It came down to what the data were telling me, the story that wanted to come out. I suspect it’s the same with ethnographies – you start out with one question that then morphs in write-up. Grant reviewers, I think, know this. So my theory is that it’s important to pitch a project that has a structure (hypotheses, data sources, etc.) but that has potential to be interesting in more than one way. I’d rather give money to someone who is looking at a new (sub)population, for example, than to someone who wants to apply, say, Foucault to a population that’s already been studied. The new data source will undoubtedly yield interesting results even if the original question isn’t answered, but a project that’s overly focused could fail without much being produced. (If that makes sense.)

    Anyway, my approach to grant-writing is almost to start backward. I ask myself what the eventual product will be – because, after all, NSF and WG are concerned with products, with articles, which will have acknowledgments of their financial support. I think about where I’m going to publish it – in my case, in a series of peer-reviewed articles to several journals that each cater to a slightly different audience. So, I wanted to study migration to Rome – for that, I needed isotope data, a chemist collaborator, samples, and money. When I applied to the NSF, I showed solid evidence that I had found the first three, so all they had to consider was whether to give me money. I think that at least half of the success of a particular grant proposal is whether or not you can convince someone that the project is doable, that you’ve done enough planning and advance data collection to make it feasible. The other half may be whether or not you can make it stand out in terms of research questions, theory, etc.

    Final suggestion: read other people’s successful (and unsuccessful) grant applications. UNC collects successful proposals in a library database, and I’ve used it for everything I’ve applied for. I’ve also shared my unsuccessful Wenner-Gren proposals–plus comments–with other anthropologists so they can see where I went wrong. Some people may not want to share their proposals with you, but many will be happy to do so.

  2. Other thoughts that may be obvious but deserve a mention:

    (1) Try to get copies of recently funded proposals for each of the grants to which you’re applying. They really help you figure out the ‘winning formula’ for each grant.

    (2) Have others read and comment on your proposal drafts, including professors and other students- I have found grant writing groups enormously helpful.

  3. I am talking about Foucault, and more generally about some of the issues with relying too heavily on THE BIG THINKERS THAT EVERYONE CITES YEAR AFTER YEAR.

    Of all the late 80s/early 90s guys to remain in the must cite, why Foucault rather than Gramsci or Lacan? I understand why those two aren’t everyone’s cup, but why do so many people think Foucault is the Melissa Joan Hart of social science? But I guess I’m ranting here rather than saying anything substantive.

  4. @Kristina:

    You’re right: I did ask a lot of questions here. Thanks for all of the insightful responses and answers. I was hoping that this post could turn into a discussion that could be helpful for anyone who is going through this process, and you have definitely added a ton. Your ideas about starting backwards–and thinking about the final publications etc–is particularly interesting. Also I like the idea of reading both successful AND unsuccessful proposals. Thanks for your comment.

    @Amy C:

    Ya, the idea of writing groups is a really good one. If nothing else it helps establish a deadline each week (or whenever you meet), and it *always* helps to have another set of eyes check things out!

    @Mark: thanks for the links. I was looking around for more sources like that. I am going to go check those out now. Maybe I should compile all these kinds of sources and add them to an update on the post or something…


    “Of all the late 80s/early 90s guys to remain in the must cite, why Foucault rather than Gramsci or Lacan?”

    Hehe. Well, Foucault was just my lead in, but all kinds of names can be substituted. Foucault was just my lead in for the point.

    But, I will admit, I’d take Foucault over Lacan any day. That’s just me. I blame my undergrad education (UCSC)!

  5. How not to get funded by Wenner-Gren (at least in archaeology).

    Having just read a large number of W-G dissertation proposals over the past 2 years as a reviewer, I have some good advice on how not to get funded. All of these are based on actual examples, proposals I would like to forget.

    (1) Talk a lot about high-level social theory, but don’t bother to link it with your actual proposed activities.

    (2) For method and theory, mostly cite sources that your advisor cited in his/her youth.

    (3) Have a really great research question with only vague notions on how to operationalize your concepts.

    (4) Describe a big project (multiple researchers, multi-year plan), of which your work is one component, but don’t make it clear how your little dissertation project fits in.

    (5) Have good control of the relevant regional literature, but don’t bother to cite any sources on your methods and theories.

    (6) Devote your whole background section to theory, leaving no room for anything else.

    (7) Talk about a bunch of theory and make it clear that you don’t understand it.

    (8) Don’t talk about theory at all in your background section.

    (9) Describe a project so big that it would take ten times the allowable maximum grant (and several years) to complete.

    (10) Don’t bother including information about the preliminary work you have already done, or its relevance to the proposed research.

    (11) Talk a lot about high-level social theory, but don’t bother to link it with your actual proposed activities.

    Yes, I know, #11 is the same as #1. As many as 25% of the proposals I read had a serious problem with this. I am able to suspend my innate prejudices against social theory when reviewing proposals, IF such theory is relevant and explicitly linked to the research design and activities. But all too often it is not, and those proposals get low rankings.

  6. Sorry I’m late to the party. I’ve been looking everywhere for some notes I took during a meeting with Dick Fox in his last year as President of Wenner Gren. I can’t find it anywhere in my Word doc archive so it must be hand written and God knows where in the attic. I do remember though his major point on what distinguishes the grant winners from applications that get tossed…

    You must show that the data you propose to collect can answer the research questions that you’ve asked.

    Great ideas are great, but you need to show that there is a straight line from the work you will do on the ground and all the high theory you throw up in the lit review. Again, I wish I had more particulars to share from that meeting, but this was the gist of it.

  7. Hej Ryan,

    thanks for the your post, feels always got to know, that it is not just you self, who thinks, that the whole procedure is very scary 🙂
    I always try to tell some friend about the content of my proposal, and if I need more than two minutes for it, I may have not thought it through good enough. That helps me a little, but it is of course just the first step. So I am very thankful for all the good advices, which were given in your post and all the comments.

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