Return to grantlandia

Back in 2011 I wrote a post here called “Wasting away again in grantlandia.” That one was written when I was right smack in the middle of the joys of grant writing. I think by that point I had revised my proposal about 1000 times and my eyes were just about to go on strike. My brain was having a hard time with basic sentences. I was fried. Ah, those were the days.

Now that I’m on the other side of the grant writing process, I want to take the time to revisit the whole subject a bit. Not because I’m some sort of self-proclaimed expert or guru on grant writing—far from it. I just want to talk about some of the things that I learned about revisions, rejections, reviewer comments, and some other fun grant-related goodies. So let’s get started.

1. Reviewers. They don’t agree. So get used to it and don’t let it drive you crazy. In my case, I had a lot of rejections, which meant I read a LOT of reviewer comments. This can be pretty depressing. To put things bluntly, the level of disagreement across various reviewers was truly striking — and often pretty maddening. I had no idea I would get so many different reactions. One of the main issues was that reviewers would often disagree on very deep philosophical and theoretical lines. For example, in one of my early proposals I cited theorist X. Well, one of the reviewers completely excoriated me for putting theorist X in there, saying that his work was irrelevant and passe. Ok. So in the second attempt I removed all references to Mr. X. Guess what? One of the reviewers from round two gave me a long lecture about the fact that I really need to read and cite said theorist X! Talk about impossible. At some point you have to just decide where you stand on certain things and go forward. Otherwise you will get stuck in an endless, impossible chase trying to satisfy everyone who reads your proposal. Don’t.

2. Work in groups, share ideas with friends, get some other eyes on your work. This helps, tremendously. I also think it helps break down all the competitive madness that surrounds the grant thing.

3. Remember that getting grant X, Y, or Z is not, in reality, the only reason for existence. Don’t lose perspective. It’s easy to do. Remember to eat, shower, and live life. Go for walks. They are good for ideas…and for thinking of creative ways to cite about 30 key theorists in five lines.

4. Rejection: it sucks. It sucks so bad I mentioned it in the old post as well. You’re going to hear a lot of comforting words about this subject, but none of it really helps. Getting that letter or email with a rejection is a big pile of suck. But rejection is indeed really, really common. It’s part of the whole thing. Let rejection suck for a little while, then decide to move on. If things aren’t working out, look in other directions and find other avenues. Don’t let rejection affect your sense of who you are and what you want to do. Really.

5. Tread carefully when it comes to changing core aspects of your project. Look, it’s a good idea to make revisions according to the suggestions you get from reviewers. But watch out. You might run into a situation in which reviewers are telling you they just don’t like what you’re doing. At that point it might be tempting to make radical changes to the research you want to do, in order to try to win that particular grant. Now, that could be a good idea. Or it could be a very bad idea. There are times when it makes sense to change, and there are times when the truth may be that the grant you are trying to get just isn’t right for the kind of work you want to do. Think about this one very deeply.

6. Learn about how different grants want you to manage the grant money itself. Some want *everything* documented on receipts. Some do not allow equipment purchases. Some give you the money and a lot of autonomy. These details make a big difference once you get your fieldwork going.

7. Related to the above point, find out asap how the grant money gets distributed. Is it deposited directly into your account? Do they send you a check? Or does everything work on a reimbursement basis? Again, these might seem like minor details…until you get to a place where you can’t use credit cards and you certainly can’t get regular mail.

8. Connect the different parts of your proposal. Make sure your research questions tie in with your methods, theoretical references, etc. Link it all together. Don’t expect reviewers to see the connections. Spell them out.

9. Have a plan B. I really think this is an important issue. A lot of people spend years trying to write write write and finally get some big grant to fund a massive research project in some far away place. That’s fine and all, but it doesn’t always work out. At some point I think we need to have a backup plan in place if the funding just isn’t coming through. If you can’t get money to fund your research in southern Chile or Iceland, go local! Seriously. Why wait around forever? Have another project in mind if your international project isn’t panning out right now. Why not? The point of graduate school is to finish.

10. Don’t be shy—or delicate. Ask people for advice. Ask them to read your proposal. Take comments and criticism like they are water and you’ve been wandering in Death Valley for 6 days. Soak it up.

11. If your department doesn’t have a dedicated course on grant writing, get them to consider it. Since grad students spend so much time working on these things, it makes sense to have a dedicated process for learning how to write them. Writing a grant is not some inherent talent. You learn how to do it. Grad programs need to remember this.

12. Find examples of funded proposals online. See what works. Pay attention to the style and organization. Keep in mind the fact that times change. Get inspired, but find your own voice, your own way.

13. Pay close attention to the amount of time you put into writing a grant versus the amount of money you are asking for. Calculate your hourly rate and get back to me. Think about what you put in, and what you really get out. Is it worth it? I don’t think we talk about this enough.

14. Sit in a decent chair while you have to tread through grantlandia for hours on end. Your back and neck will last longer.

15. Remember what grants are for. They are meant to give you enough funds to do the research you need to do. That’s the point. Don’t fetishize over the whole grant process. Grants aren’t meant to be CV adornments. Try not to get too worked up about the prestige culture thing that goes along with certain grants. Lots of people make a big deal about getting a grant from that BIG FUNDING SOURCE. Avoid this as much as possible. Find grants that work—large or small, prestigious or not—and get your work done.

Ok, that’s all I have for now. Add your 2 cents in the comments below.


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.