It’s been a while since I did a ‘how-to’ post. This post isn’t a ‘how-to’ in the sense of my series on applying to PhD programs, though I will try and offer some ways to deal with the inevitable grant proposal season for graduate students. In Canada, the season is generally in the early fall when SSHRC proposals are due.* Canadian humanities academics and grad students have an ambivalent relationship with SSHRC. On the one hand, it is the major external funding source for all sorts of important humanities projects. On the other hand, it is an extremely taxing process to navigate and achieve success in. The advice I have been given over and over again is to make my proposal beyond reproach. This does not just mean that your research question and criteria have to be tight, but the formatting — the all important, finicky formatting — had better be impeccable. See, the major hurdle with funding as important as SSHRC is that everyone applies for it and there is neither time nor funding to give unsuccessful applicants feedback as to why their proposal was not accepted. This means that, in theory, committees could reject a proposal if the margins are off by half a centimeter or there is a comma splice. I have no idea if this actually happens, but why take the risk? Things like this make the process all the more nerve-wracking and, I’m certain, the reality is a lot less horrifying than we imagine.
Whenever I’m doing a SSHRC proposal, I always look at my unsuccessful ones from the past; this list grows each year. I work closely with my supervisory committee to make damn sure that I’m writing clearly and giving the adjudication committee everything they are looking for in a solid proposal. There is a definite rhythm to these proposals and, chances are, someone in your department or, better yet, on your committee has served on a SSHRC adjudication committee and will be able to tell you exactly the kind of things that routinely get funded. I know that this sounds like the game is a bit rigged and I suppose, in a way, it is. I would counter that by saying grants are not just given to anyone who asks for them. They all have specific evaluation criteria and you will be better off in following the directions as closely as possible (near perfectly, actually) and taking the advice from people who have been there and done that. Barring this, most departments host some sort of proposal or SSHRC workshop at the beginning of the academic year to help students develop their ideas and achieve the best outcome. But you didn’t come here to read about the dry process of Canadian grant proposals. You came here because I promised an unvarnished look behind the curtain of my soul-wrenching stress induced by this cruel yearly ritual. Here goes.
I hate writing grant proposals. I personally don’t know anyone who feels otherwise, nor have I heard of anyone who genuinely likes doing it. Sure, everyone likes winning grants, but that should be obvious. It is a fairly uplifting feeling when you get a letter that says “Okay, smart guy, you can have some of our money” no matter how much money that may be. External funding is the lifeblood of academia these days, especially in the humanities. There are a great many people who would otherwise be unable to attend graduate school if it weren’t for external (and internal) awards. This is one good reason why it is so stressful to write proposals. For some, their livelihoods are riding on it.
When I’m writing, I generally try to adapt a proposal from a project description that I’ve written well for another purpose. Usually this involves major cutting but it has the added benefit of helping boil down your work to its elementary particles. I try and follow the advice I give to students when I assign them a task with a severely limited word count: every word has to pull its weight. No extraneous words. This means, among other things, cutting out every instance of the passive voice and limiting non-essential modifiers around verbs. Gerunds are generally space hogs as well. Proposal prose has to be tight and razor sharp, like a haircut from the 1940s. No nonsense. You have to pore over every word like some sort of obsessed postmodern poet, except what you write has to also make sense. Your proposal has to contain just the facts, but it also has to stand out somehow. Careful with those puns! You’re expected to be clever, but not too clever. In short, there are a lot of rules to remember as you strip your beloved project down to its bare bones, the same bones some adjudication committee is going to use to pick their teeth after they’ve feasted on your corpulent sense of self-worth that came with actually completing your proposal (note: if you’ve been in grad school long enough, that corpulence was gone long ago and you’re likely a shadow of your former optimistic self so rejection is deflected off your tough outer shell as you crawl deeper into the recesses of your obscure research).
Where was I? Oh, right, be careful when writing your proposal. The little things are important.
After you’ve written that all important first draft, you should immediately revise it. Well, take a walk first maybe. Or bake muffins. Or spoil Breaking Bad for your friends who haven’t watched the finale yet. Whatever you like to do, the point is the same: get some distance from your first draft. You need that distance because you will likely be doing numerous drafts after that one. 3 – 6 drafts is normal for me, with smaller incremental versions in between full on overhauls (version 2.3, 3.1, etc). In between drafts, you’ll get feedback from various people. This would be where your supervisor and committee come in. I’m lucky that I have a supervisor who is meticulous about going over my work in this genre. It’s in both our interests to be successful at securing grants. I also get feedback from colleagues in other fields and disciplines as well as non-academic folks. However, nothing ever prepares me for the kind of dagger-to-the-heart feeling I get with every round of revisions. Whenever somebody (anybody) questions my flawless prose or rhetoric decisions, innocent as it may be, I feel personally affronted at the audacity of my critics. Then I get to work revising until the next time someone wishes to break what’s left of my heart. This process continues as forces outside of my own brain conspire against my adult life’s work and knock it about, showing me what a welterweight imposter I really am. To be honest, by this point I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the dean of my institution called a press conference to let the world know what a fraud I am and put out a reward for anyone who brings him the entirety of my worthless academic output so that he may dispose of it in a ‘Beatles are bigger than Jesus’ style bonfire in the quad.
Revising, though, is a really vital part of the process and the more often you get feedback from various sources, the better your proposal will get with every round.
Once you and your supervisor(s) are generally happy with the content of your proposal and have made sure it fits within the guidelines, you should go over the formatting again. Many grant proposals will require a bibliography or reference list. While I am doubtful that it ever gets read by adjudication committees, it’s one of those things that you don’t just want to overlook either. You know what that means? It means that you will be listing a bunch of books you haven’t read, have no idea of their contents, but that sound important to your project and/or that people who know better have recommended them. I routinely scour introductions and abstracts and subsequently decide that a text is less than worthwhile for what I am trying to do. Perhaps you will not have the time to do this so you will be dependent on recommendations for what literature your project requires. I’d say take these recommendations and then bibliographiphize the absolute shit out of them for your proposal. Make sure the core texts are there. Gender studies? You’ll generally want some Judith Butler on there. Those are the easy ones. What about that brand new monograph by that obscure academic from a tiny university in Moldova? I’d seek some advice on that one probably (full disclosure: I don’t know where Moldova is). Like your OKCupid profile, you don’t want to put outlandish things in your bibliography. You have to curate it, no matter what you think its effectiveness will be. I have been guilty of padding bibliographies in the past. This is because I was stupid, stupid, stupid and so were many of my ideas about what a good bibliography was supposed to look like. When I go back and look at those now, I imagine the scowls of the extremely intelligent people who glanced over them and their scathing comments on what a bad student I was. “Does this guy really think we don’t all have PhDs or something?” “Seriously, can you believe someone would actually put that text on a bibliography. It’s been thoroughly discredited!” “What an asshole!” “Let’s give his proposal to high school students to revise. At least they would copy and paste something more worthwhile” “We hate Justin O’Hearn and he’s never going to get any funding.”
Review your bibliography and seek advice on what needs to be there if you aren’t sure. It’s as important to your overall application as the proposal itself.
So, those are some of the things I do when I write grant proposals. It’s not an easy process, you’ll feel stressed the entire way through. You’ll send it off and then one day, when you have probably forgotten all about it, you’ll get news one way or the other: you got it or you didn’t. There’s also a third way sometimes: you’ve been waitlisted. I’ve been waitlisted before. It’s an uncertain place to be but it marginally beats a flat out rejection. It’s like rejection light or rejection with/avec Aspartame. At the end, whether you’re successful or not, you will no doubt become more adept at grant proposals. In my experience, however, it does not get better. Maybe folks a little further along in the academic world can say that it does? I have a feeling it doesn’t. The stakes just get higher. Chin up though, tiger.
*If you are currently enrolled in a graduate program, that is. Deadlines vary depending on one’s status as a student. This is neither important nor interesting to you lovely Graduable readers, I would imagine.