On Monday, December 3rd, Professor Timothy Alborn, Professor Dagmar Herzog, and Professor Michael Rawson shared their experiences and insights as both grant applicants and evaluators for a History Program professional development event entitled “How to Win Grants and Fellowships.” I’ve written a brief recap of the discussion for those who were unable to attend, or for students who wish to supplement their notes from the event.
Professors Alborn and Rawson encouraged doctoral students and new faculty members to apply early and often for funding because rejection is common. Professor Rawson mentioned that only 8% of projects receive funding, which makes coping skills and persistence particularly important for grant-seekers.
Professor Rawson also discussed the need to look at the proposal more as a marketing document with history included (rather than a history document with marketing included), although scholars sometimes feel uncomfortable with the idea of marketing or selling. To communicate the goals and implications of your project to the members of the evaluation committee, it is useful to think about how to “sell” the project to non-specialists in particular. Since the evaluation committee members are not likely to be specialists in your particular field, Professor Alborn recommended citing major works with which scholars are familiar, even if those books do not inform your project as directly as lesser-known articles and monographs. Positioning your project and arguments vis-à-vis a well-known book can help the non-specialists on the evaluation committee understand what makes your work special and groundbreaking.
To increase your chances of receiving funding, Professor Herzog suggested finding and using models of successful grant or fellowship proposals from several different fields to see how others structured their documents, and especially their abstracts. Colleagues, one’s future Dean and college grant office, and the funding agency itself serve as good sources of feedback for proposal drafts prior to submission according to Professor Alborn. Following rejection, agencies can often provide detailed feedback on the assessment of the proposal, which can help with revisions to your standard proposal.
The panel agreed that articulating the “So what?” question of why the research is important serves as the most critical component of the proposal. Since funding committees tend to be composed of scholars from a variety of disciplines, Professor Alborn recommended that historians should not base the value of the project on simply using a new or interesting archive; the non-historians who serve on the committee will want to know how one intends to use the archive and read the sources. Nor does filling a gap in the scholarly literature automatically make the project competitive.
Professor Herzog said that the argument in favor of the project should be passionate and should discuss how the proposed research will change our thinking about big issues. One way to demonstrate your project’s importance is to link your work to questions and conflicts that interest people more generally such as how power works, what justice is, why human beings do what they do, and how change happens. Problems or puzzles can serve as good ways to open your proposal and get readers thinking along with you about how your project will answer important questions. Not only should your proposal address larger issues, but each chapter should also have a surprise, puzzle, or argument that can help make it interesting to the committee, recommended Professor Herzog.
Professor Alborn talked about the proposal as a document demonstrating how your mind works, and not a research prison sentence. The proposal shows how you approach problems and texts, your methodological influences, and how you solve problems—grant committees expect that if you can write a convincing grant proposal, the scholarship they fund based on the proposal will be interesting and well-done, even if the finished project does not match the proposal precisely. In fact, the committee agreed that elements of one’s work should change over the course of research due to immersion in the sources and further thinking about the topic.
Accuracy and professionalism are critical for successful proposals. Professor Rawson emphasized that attention to detail and adhering to the rules of grammar are considered marks of professionalism that strongly influence the decisions of the committee. Professor Alborn highlighted the bibliography as an element of the proposal that committees use to assess the carefulness of the applicant, which is thought to suggest the carefulness and quality of the scholar’s overall work.
We would like to thank Professor Timothy Alborn, Professor Dagmar Herzog, and Professor Michael Rawson for their participation and thoughtful advice.
For more information about how to win grants and fellowships, please see the career advice heading under the professional development menu at the top of this page.