Tips for Your Next Grant Proposal

Photo:  iStock

Photo: iStock


Let's be real. As a grad student, you need money! Bills promptly arrive every month, and you gotta eat. But on top of all of that, you probably need some extra cash to carry out your research projects—especially if your research requires you to travel, like mine. When I first realized that I wanted to conduct research in South Africa for my dissertation, I quickly became a student of the fellowship/grant writing game, learning different tricks of the trade. Here are 5 things you should keep in mind for your next research grant proposal.


Oh, yeah. If you're a STEM student, my bad. This might primarily benefit those in the Humanities and Social Sciences, but I'll have something for you soon. 


One: Point to the big Picture.

With grant proposals, you generally want to give your readers a snapshot of your larger research project. Think. If you were writing an abstract, how would you describe your project? You'd probably state the problem that you're trying to solve, why we (as readers) should care about the problem, and how you're going to solve for it (your methods).


However, one key difference between writing abstracts and grant proposals is that you don't want to state your conclusions. Because if you already have all of the answers, why would you need money for research? At that point, you should just be writing the thesis/dissertation.


To avoid this, you might want to offer a hypothesis, or say what you're expecting to find: "I hypothesize that ..." or "My preliminary findings suggest that ..."


Two: Flex a lil bit.

I believe that there is a time and place for everything, modesty included. That said, you shouldn't be modest about your skills and/or your previous research experiences in grant proposals. Grant committees want to know that you'll put their money to good use. But the only way they can make this determination, aside from reading your recommendation letters, is how you describe your research project and how you describe yourself.


So if anything, you need to flex to convince the grant committee that you can actually do what you said you're going to do. If you already know a lot of information about your topic, concisely demonstrate that. (But say what else you still want to figure out.) If you have already carried out a research project, concisely reference that. (But focus on the skills that you've gained from that experience.)


Three: Say why you need the $$$.

"I need you to fund my research because I'm broke." Man, if only it was that easy! Unfortunately, that won't fly with grant proposals.


You need to let the grant committee know why you need their money to go conduct interviews in New York, or—in my case—why you need to travel to South Africa to carry out your research. Another way of thinking about this is, why can't you just use the libraries and resources at (or near) your home institution?


In my case, I wanted to analyze archival materials that weren't yet digitized, or made available online, and I wanted to interview South African locals. So I had to go to South Africa to do the work that I wanted to do.


But either way, say why you need the funding: "With the support of the ___ [name the grant], I will build on my previous research by ..."


And then make your case, detailing what it will enhance your work: "___ is important for my project, because it will allow me to ..." 


Four: Describe what you'll be doing on Tuesday morning at 11:00am.

Yeah, this sounds a lil weird—invasive, even. But I actually learned this trick from a grant writing workshop. In your grant proposal, you'll likely be asked to describe what you'll be doing "in the field." In other words, you just got all of this money to go conduct research, what are you actually going to be doing?


One way to nail this part of the proposal is to be very detailed, so detailed that they'd have an idea of what you're doing on a Tuesday morning at 11:00am.


Now, you ain't gotta lie and say that you're going to be in analyzing historical materials in the archive from 9:00am to 7:30pm because 1) the archives actually open at 10:00am and close around 4:00pm and 2) 


But, what you can do is include a weekly "schedule" that details what you'll be doing every day of the week. That'll give the grant committee a better sense of how you're spending their money. If you're going to include "rest," don't make it consecutive days. You're trying to get your research trip approved, not your vacation.


Five: Let them know why you're Built for this.

After you flex a lil bit, say why you need the money, and let the committee know how you'll be spending their money, you need to reiterate that you can do the work. Even if you don't believe it, you need to let them know that you're built for this. Point to different classes that you've taken, and describe how they've impacted your thinking: "My ___ [your discipline] coursework has prepared me to successfully carry out this research project. For example, my coursework has allowed me to situate my analysis of __ within a larger scholarly conversation around ..."


Let them know who you have worked with, and say what skills you've gained: "In an effort to improve as an ethnographer, I took an interview methods seminar with sociologist Dr. ___. This class taught me how to conceptualize, plan, and execute an interview-based research project. For my final assignment, I conducted and transcribed two interviews with ____ about __. "


That said, it's also a good idea to let them know that you're still working to develop other skills: "To learn how to contextualize my case studies, I am working as a research assistant for historian Dr. ___. Through compiling his bibliography, and analyzing primary documents, I hope to improve as an interdisciplinary scholar and further my understanding of ___. "


Other things to keep in mind.

  • Start early. Give your professors plenty of time to write your recommendation letters for the grant. I try to give my letter writers a 6-8 week notice before the grant is actually due. But you still might want to send a follow-up email, just in case.

  • Follow the instructions. It sounds so simple, I know. But be sure to pay attention to the rules. Some may ask you 3 questions in one prompt, and others may have a word limit. I even came across one (Ford. cough.) that asked for double spaced, PDF documents, with 1 inch margins. Bruh.

  • Avoid academic jargon, if you can. In your grant applications, you want your writing to be as "clear" as possible because some, if not all, of the readers may not be in your particular field/discipline. If you absolutely need to use a particular phrase or concept, quickly define it for your readers.

  • Get a second opinion. Have someone else re-read your application to make sure that everything sounds good.

  • Meet the deadline. Do this, and then go celebrate! You've worked hard to get to this point. Live a little.

  • But remember, failure is a part of the game. If you don't get the grant, charge it to the game. It happens. But know that all is not lost. Through applying for grants, you'll have a template for the next one and a stronger grasp on your research project. Still a win....maybe?


About the Author

Bennie is a third-year PhD student at Northwestern University, where he is studying African American Studies. He created Just Tryna' Graduate to help Black students get to & through graduate school. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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