Writing a successful grant proposal

grad student

Fellowships, grants, and scholarships are the essential lifeblood of academia. In addition to helping achieve your immediate goal of securing funding for your thesis or dissertation, they enhance your – and your project’s – scholarly credibility in the eyes of the wider academic community.

However, major awards offered by prestigious institutions like Fulbright, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) are extremely competitive. These groups receive thousands of applications each year and only a handful of those ever make it past the preliminary selection round, let alone result in an award offer. Even smaller organizations such as the Central European History Society or the Smith Richardson Foundation, for example, attract dozens of applicants for a relatively limited number of grants or fellowships.

Unfortunately, there is no “winning formula” for grant writing or fellowship applications; the entire process is more of an art than a science. Still, there are a number of steps you can take to ensure that you’re putting the strongest proposal possible forward and increase the likelihood that your project will be selected for an award.

Understand the process

Before even beginning to write your proposal, it’s useful to think about grant writing in terms of a process of scale; it’s easier to win bigger, more prestigious fellowships after you’ve won a few smaller awards. This is because most of the larger organizations like Fulbright take into consideration a project’s track record when making their decisions. An application demonstrating prior support is less of a “shot in the dark” for them. It is possible to only submit an application to a group like the SSRC and win a grant without a history of past project success, but you’re essentially asking the selection committee to judge it based solely on its merits without any academic endorsement (with the exception of your advisor and whomever else is providing a letter of recommendation, of course).

This process of scale does nevertheless create something of a conundrum for graduate students, especially early in their careers – how do you have success at grant application writing without the record of success many of these organizations are looking for?

The answer is relatively straightforward: start small. In the beginning, you should be applying for any scholarship, grant, or fellowship offered by your department applicable to your project. Competition for these awards is also going to be significantly less intense in comparison to larger, more highly contested awards, meaning you’ll have a greater chance of success even before you’ve put finger to keyboard (or pen to paper if you’re old school). The committee reviewing your proposal also likely will be comprised of people you know and who are also at least generally familiar with your work. From there, you can expand to applying for fellowships and grants at your home institution. In the broader process of scale, this is the easiest way to build your CV and, importantly, indicate to outside institutions your proposal has support and scholars in your department and at your college or university support of your project.

Once you (hopefully) have won a few of these departmental and university-level grants, you’ll have enough of a track record to begin considering applications for small and medium outside institutions and having reasonable expectations of success. From there, after (again, hopefully) winning a few awards from these non-university affiliated programs and organizations, you’ll be much better positioned to make it through the first round for the major grants and fellowships, significantly increasing your odds of being offered an award from one of the various preeminent institutions you’re asking to support your research.

Following this process of scale is not a hard and fast rule, but it is worth considering as you prepare to write your proposal and are thinking about which organizations you’ll be applying to. It’s certainly not the only way to build a track record of success, but it is one of the faster methods. The entire system can work in reverse as well. If you need to make a quick research trip, you’re much better off applying for a smaller grant than a larger one. Your academic “pedigree” will carry greater weight and increase your chances of getting the funding you need at critical moments in your scholarly career.

Know your audience

Writing a successful grant proposal requires that you know your audience. There are two main “audiences” you need to consider.

The first are the individuals, organizations, and institutions offering the grants and fellowships. These groups all have their own specific goals and agendas in mind and are providing awards with the expectation that your work is going to, in some way, advance their broader mission. Therefore, it’s important to write with the aim of articulating those expectations. For example, Fulbright’s mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding and both parts of your application essay (the Statement of Grant Purpose and the Personal Statement) should reflect this institutional priority. The connections you make to an organization’s goals don’t need to be overly explicit – in fact, they shouldn’t be – to be effective, but it should nevertheless be clear that your project is advancing the institution’s interests (even if you feel your thesis or dissertation has very little to do with them).

The second “audience” you want to consider as you prepare to write are the people who will actually be reading your proposal. Generally, institutions try to recruit reviewers with some background in your general field, though this is never a guarantee. At best, you can expect the person reading your proposal will be learned and familiar with your discipline in the broadest sense (think historian, political scientist, biologist, etc.), but they almost certainly will not be a specialist or have intimate knowledge of the specific issues your project explores. Keep them in consideration as you prepare to write and think about ways you can connect with them – emphasizing a particularly illustrative and compelling aspect of your research, for instance – in way that drives interest in the proposal and makes the case that your project is fresh and vital.

Constructing the proposal

One of the challenges in writing successful grant proposals is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to go about it. What might work in one application cycle might not the next time around. There are myriad factors, intangibles, and variables that can affect an application’s success, from the personal preferences of an individual reviewer to a particularly strong applicant pool. Sometimes, it’s just luck of the draw (unfortunately, that is a reality).

However, in general, the best proposals – the ones that win awards more often than not – are clear, concise, and compelling. They have a logical flow and organization that both explains the project and makes the case for why this particular thesis or dissertation deserves to be funded. This does not need to be (and, again, shouldn’t) direct or explicit. Rather, what reviewers are looking for in a proposal is a demonstration that this project will help realize some hitherto unrealized knowledge about a given topic and a strong, convincing argument as to why that unrealized knowledge is significant to the broader discipline or field of study. How you go about achieving this dual objective is both a matter of personal preference and dictated by the constraints imposed by the application guidelines. A five page essay simply affords much greater freedom of exposition than one limited to a thousand words. Still, both types of proposals need to accomplish the same thing.

The best proposals are also highly accessible to the reviewers and the selection committee. In terms of writing style, think The New York Times book review section – you can (and should) convey your ideas in an elevated manner, but it should not be so opaque and impenetrable that even other scholars or members of the academy have difficulty following them. A general rule of thumb to ensure that you’re not alienating your audience is to avoid using any discipline specific jargon, explain nuanced concepts or ideas clearly, and keep your proposal positive and focused on your research and contributions.

As you’re constructing your proposal, also keep in mind that the essay, in addition to conveying all the pertinent information about your project, is a reflection of your scholarly persona. It should demonstrate that you’re articulate, creative, trustworthy, serious, and engaged. Because graduate students generally lack long academic pedigrees, it’s useful to avoid using harsh language when dealing with the work of others, even though you might believe (or have empirical evidence supporting your claim) it to be wrong. A little humility – or at least a lack of hubris – goes a long way.

Write, edit, repeat

Rarely will a grant proposal be perfect on the initial draft. In order to craft a successful application, you’re going to have to go through multiple edits and revisions. As you’re going through this process, always think about different ways you can economize your thoughts and streamline them for your audience. This is also a great opportunity to try out different ways of organizing the proposal. Depending upon the space available, it might be better to begin with a short vignette than a direct statement of thesis, for example. The discussion of existing literature could be more effective at the end than in the first few paragraphs.

In the editing process, getting as much feedback, early and often, will strengthen your proposal immensely as well. Some ideas or concepts you thought were perfectly clear – you know the material intimately, after all – might not appear that way to an objective reviewer. They will also likely catch a couple of the typos, grammatical mistakes, or awkward sentence constructions you’ll inevitably miss because you’ve worked so closely with the document for so long and you’re simply overlooking them.

Other tips

There are a few other common pitfalls that can sink an otherwise excellent grant proposal that are incredibly easy to avoid.

Most importantly, follow the formatting guidelines to the letter. If the application instructions ask for 12 point font, Times New Roman, use that; if it requires 1 inch margins, don’t use .9 to squeeze in a few extra words; if there is a word limit, do not under any circumstances exceed it. This is the easiest way for a reviewer or selection committee to reject your proposal, as it demonstrates to them that you can’t follow basic instructions. Think about it from their perspective – if you can’t use the right font, how can you be trusted with thousands of dollars?

Starting on the proposal too late can be just as damaging as not following directions. It doesn’t afford you the proper time for editing and revisions and, from a reviewers perspective, that it was rushed will be readily apparent. Allow yourself at least six to eight weeks ahead of the deadline, and more if you can, to ensure that you’re putting the best vision of your project forward.

Another common pitfall is that graduate students sometimes “can’t see the forest for the trees.” After working on a project for so long, it’s natural to sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. Unfortunately, when it comes to grant writing, this is exactly what reviewers and selection committees are looking for in a successful application. The unrealized knowledge you’ve discovered doesn’t need to necessarily be the next seminal work that is going to alter the trajectory of your discipline, but you should still be able to explain to the average academic professional why your dissertation is important to your overall field of study in a way that is easily understandable.

Conclusion

Success at grant writing is less about following a “winning formula” than it is understanding the various expectations of reviewers and selection committees. No matter the project, if you proposal does’t articulate what they’re looking for, it’s dead on arrival. However, if you keep your audience in mind throughout the process, you’ll increase the likelihood your thesis or dissertation gets noticed and place yourself in a position to succeed.

[Photo by Flickr user Shane Lin, used under CC licensing]

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Geoff Krempa

Geoff Krempa

Geoff is a current PhD student in History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He has previously completed an MA and BA in History from Eastern Michigan University. Geoff is an experienced teaching assistant and has won a variety of honors and scholarships as a graduate student.

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