Grand Applications

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

February 05, 2012

The other day, I went to open my document of grant deadlines, only to realize that I'd mistakenly titled it "Grand Applications." I do not feel grand about my grant and fellowship applications; I rather dislike them.

I once sat in my adviser's office and told her that I felt like a fraud whenever I started on an application. She looked at me and said, "You really need to think of grant writing as creative writing."

And so I turned to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice while looking for inspiration. I entertain a sort of half-hearted respect for grant applications, akin to Mr. Bennet's attitude toward Mrs. Bennet's nerves: "I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least."

I facetiously think of the applications as old friends that I see over and over as I revise each one to fit within a particular institution's scope. I can't say that I feel fondness for applications that invite me to sell myself and my project whilst I ask for money in five pages or less. But I will admit that grant writing is an art that all graduate students need to hone, because the need for external funding does indeed hover like one's constant companion.

All graduate students have to apply for grants. Even if you are lucky enough to have financial aid from your department, you should have at least a few grants on your CV to prove that you've received outside support for your work. Many other graduate students are not guaranteed money from their departments, and grant writing is not a choice, but a necessity.

The most important rule of grant writing is that you must apply. Make a calendar of deadlines with the requirements for each fellowship, and then apply, and apply, and apply again.

In my third year of graduate school, I applied for 15 external grants and fellowships and won four. Having fingers in many pies is important because if you go after enough grants you will usually win one, and grants beget grants. No one wants to depend on a single benefactor—you'd end up like Mr. Collins, and where would that leave you? Reliant on Lady Catherine de Bourgh, that's where.

Grant committees will feel more confident about awarding you money if other institutions have already done so. Although that rule of grant writing may seem unfair if you have won no grants, take heart in the fact that internal grants from your department or university are usually a bit easier to win, and having even one of them on your CV looks better to foundations and government agencies than listing no grants at all. Start applying for institutional support in your second or even first year.

The best general advice that my adviser gave me regarding the grant-application process was that you need to introduce yourself and your project by the end of the first page—whether it's a single-spaced, double-spaced, or 1.5-spaced application. If you haven't made your point by the time readers have to flip the page, you've lost them. In this case it's best not to channel Jane Austen's writing style.

It also helps to know your audience. That stipulation is obvious advice for a grant geared toward research at an archive or library, but perhaps less so for alternative academic avenues of grant support.

I once applied for a fellowship at a historic house museum run by a group of Very Nice But Old Fashioned Ladies. In response to the question that asked what research I intended to pursue if awarded the fellowship, I wrote that I was keenly interested in doing research on prostitution in the 19th century. I found out just what a poor strategy that was the following year, when I reapplied for and won the fellowship after proposing a different project. At the museum, an employee related how the Old Fashioned Ladies had a bad habit of polishing the museum's antique silver pieces. Some people are unlikely to be interested in having you pursue the history of 19th-century whoredom in the name of their museum.

On a more comforting note, you don't have to know exactly what you're going to find on the research trail, and here is where thinking about grant writing as creative writing has been good advice indeed. A grant committee does not expect you to describe a dissertation that you have written; it expects you to talk about the one that you will write. You are allowed to guess, imagine, and make broad claims.

If you think grandly enough about what you'll find, your excitement about your project will come through.

People say it helps to have a sexy dissertation topic, but one of the pitfalls of writing in a relatively new subfield is that grant committees won't be convinced that their archives will have the documents that you need. Since I study food, I've encountered that problem before, and have found two ways of working around it. One is by going to the archive for a short research trip before you apply for money. You can spend a weekend skimming through collections so you have a better idea of the library's holdings. Having received that advice myself, I know it can be frustrating; a graduate student is usually applying for money because he or she does not have the money to make it to the library otherwise.

The second, more workable solution is that many archives have microfilmed some collections. If you can find a copy of their microfilm in your college library, or have it sent to you via interlibrary loan, you can make the argument that you've seen some of their holdings and do, in fact, know that they are relevant to your research.

Keep in mind that winning grants to write the dissertation should be one of your highest priorities. At the beginning of my third year, I decided to spend two months ignoring my reading lists for comprehensive exams and instead worked on grant applications. I knew that grant deadlines passed only twice a year (for most historians, those times are November/December, and then February/March). Organize your time to get your applications out on schedule.

The other good news is that even though grant deadlines pass, they reappear again the next year. That means that if you get rejected, you can reassess your application, and if you still think you're a good candidate, you can apply again.

When I was at a seminar one day, I met a director of research who pulled me aside and, without my asking, talked to me about the weaknesses of my failed grant application. It was deeply embarrassing at the time—I may even have resented it and drowned my sorrows in copious amounts of cheese at the post-seminar reception. But then I thanked him, went home, and re-examined my application.

Likewise, when the person sending you a rejection offers to discuss your application, accept that offer—even if it makes you uncomfortable. Pride did not serve Mr. Darcy well, and you shouldn't let it bother you, either.

If you are still unsure what a good application looks like, you have a few options. You need to read a lot of other grant applications before you send your own out into the world. Organize a grant-writing workshop with fellow graduate students so that other people can edit your work. You'll get a sense of what sounds good and where you can improve your writing. One extra pair of eyes is helpful, but you'll really know whether or not to change something if a handful of people make the same suggestion.

You may also have the opportunity to sit on one of your university's selection committees for grants; the year after I won my first university grant, I was asked to serve on one such panel. Being able to see how an interdisciplinary committee selected grant winners was an invaluable experience. My committee picked students whose applications had no jargon, and who had proposed projects they could accomplish within the allotted time frames and budget limits. Since we had so many applications to read, it was particularly helpful when one made its case using the shortest amount of space possible.

Sitting on the selection committee also allowed me to see how money gets distributed. Since it was a year of tight budgets, few people got the amount they asked for. You should always ask for the maximum amount of money offered, just on the off-chance that the committee has to cut everyone's budget. Better to receive too much than too little.

Many foundations publish the names of their fellowship recipients. Scan those lists and see if there's anyone you know, or anyone with a project similar to yours. It's worth e-mailing them to see if they are willing to share their successful application with you. Just like any grant-selection committee, the worst thing they can say is no.

So make like a 19th-century heroine and go after the money. Just like Elizabeth Bennet, you, too, have the chance to become the fortunate recipient of ten thousand pounds a year.

Rachel Herrmann is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin, and a fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.