Katharine Petrich, Doctoral Candidate, Northeastern University
One of the most challenging aspects of academic study is paying for it – namely, the convincing of other people to throw money at your great research design. Like many aspects of the PhD process, finding and writing grants to support research is an essential but untaught skill. There is an odd assumption among many in the academic community that grant writing, an entire profession outside of the Ivory Tower, can be acquired through osmosis. It can’t – it’s a critical, learned skill. Learning how to do it early and well can make a world of difference in how successful your work can be.
Like getting a job, the first grant is always the hardest; people are much more willing to back someone or a project that has already been “signed off” on by someone else. To that end, I highly recommend looking “in house” for your first grants. Individual departments, campus research centers, university leadership departments all have financial resources that are available to you as a grad student, and have several advantages to regional or national grants.
First, there’s generally less competition – only the other qualifying students who know that this pot of money exists. Second, internal grants are easier to get information about (what exactly is the committee looking for? who’s on the selection committee? What’s are their personal pet projects and peeves?). Selection committees are dying to give this money away to students like you – your research raises the profile of the university, leads to better job placement outcomes which affects rank, and helps them pitch donors to contribute to the university.
Thirdly, if you get rejected, it’s much easier and more realistic to get feedback on your application if you aren’t successful. And finally, these internal grants work very well as building blocks to larger or more competitive grants because you’ve already been “vetted” by another grant. You can find these internal grants a few ways: word of mouth from your fellow classmates, department listservs, and university wide clearinghouses (check your career center – often they’re collocated).
“But wait!” you say. “I need $5,000 to embed in the wilds of Borneo, and this grant is only $500!” Well, the good news is, grants stack – you can apply several grants to the same project, and often it makes the process easier because you already have a workable grant template. There’s no rule that says you can only use one funding source per program. The complicating factor may be that you now have to write several assessments at the end of your projects to show how you used the money. It also might require strategic financing – one grant covers airfare but not food, another might cover the purchase of technology or interview transcription. Just from a logistical headache point of view, if you have several grants, it may make more sense to match the dollar amount with the expense. So if your flight is $500, use up a whole single grant on that rather than splitting your $1000 grant between the flight and your transcriptions because it simplifies the reimbursement process.
So the idea of grants is good, and you’re convinced that you should look into internal sources of funding, but how do you write a grant? There are lots of resources online, and often your university will have a grant writing workshop or two that will help you learn how (this is a great place to learn about grants too!) I personally like the template Dr. Karen Kelsky develops in her book The Professor Is In. She offers a shortened version on her website (her book is definitely worth checking out from the library or buying on Amazon). One of the most important elements is figuring out how to pitch your work beyond your limited project – you most certainly are speaking to a wider audience, but it can be hard to know how to do this.
For example, one year I went up for a grant for the study of violence that I thought I was perfect for and got rejected.Because it said it was for violence, I pitched a hard security project, when in actuality they wanted a peace studies project. That feedback let me reframe the same project, using different language, and get the grant the next year!
The best advice I can give on grant writing to apply often, edit heavily, and be creative about framing your project – there are lots of ways your work fits into different boxes. Kill the jargon in your pitch – remember, especially for in-house grants, it’s almost assured the reviewing committee won’t be in your subfield. So often we use language as a way of signaling to peers that we belong in our field (especially as young scholars) in a way that makes it impenetrable for non-specialists. When you’re asking for money, this style of writing is an application killer.
Use tools like the Hemingway Editor to streamline your diction. Finally, make sure to read and reread the instructions or call to make sure you’ve shown how your project does a great job of fulfilling all of the grant’s requirements! Don’t be too discouraged if it takes you many applications – each grant gets easier as you build a file of cover letters, design statements, and the like. Professional grant writers expect a 30 to 40 percent success rate when pitching new projects or new funders – if you get 1 or 2 grants, you’re doing very well!