This post is for three main groups of people, primarily in history but also in other humanities (and possibly social science) disciplines: MA students applying for PhD funding (in the UK where a PhD is all about research from the word go); newly-fledged or nearly-there PhDs applying for post-doctoral fellowships; and, to a lesser extent, novice faculty applying for small to medium-sized research grants for individual researchers as opposed to large group projects (for such things as paying for the expenses of a key research trip or research leave).
That is to say, it’s about the part of an application, after all the preliminaries (important though they are!), where you have to set out the research project you want the money for, where you really have to sell both yourself as the researcher and the research.
It may be useful to some others applying for grants of various kinds, or situations where you have to persuade decision-makers (say, publishers) to accept your research ideas even if there isn’t actually any money in it. But it is a specialist interest: it’s really aimed at the strange obsessives like me who want to pursue academic careers (so if you’re already thoroughly disillusioned with academia, I don’t recommend it).
What makes a successful grant proposal? I’ve written a few, including something that looked quite like this, and I’m still not really sure (especially as pretty much the same proposal was unsuccessful in several other competitions). But I can try, based on that experience. (I also got both my MA and my PhD funded by the AHRB, by the way.)
It simply does not matter how good your ideas are if you can’t convince the committees in charge of those pots of money, through your writing, that it’s better than the X per cent of applications that will go in the bin. It’s about good ideas and research but it’s also about persuasion and strategy. Like it or not, you’re taking part in a competition. It’s what Jacob Kraicer calls The Art of Grantsmanship. He’s talking about science, but this is, I think, just as true of history and other humanities or social science fields:
…the difference between success and failure often results, not just from the quality of the science, but from the quality of the grant application. In all probability, the quality of science of the applications in the 10% below the cut-off for funding by an agency is not significantly different from that in the 10% just above the cut-off. “Grantsmanship” can make the difference.
The art of “grantsmanship” will not turn mediocre science into a fundable grant proposal. But poor “grantsmanship” will, and often does, turn very good science into an unfundable grant proposal. Good writing will not save bad ideas, but bad writing can kill good ones.
Let me stress, too, that this is not about advocating lies or bad faith. You should always be as honest as you possibly can about what you intend to do (bearing in mind, after all, that a proposal is all about predictions of what you’ll do at some point in the future…).* And you have to care about it, to believe that it matters in some small corner of the universe that you get to do this.
Time for a hefty dose of reality before going any further (success at these things probably tends to make me unreasonably over-optimistic, I’m afraid). Kraicer mentions success rates of less than 50%. Well, he’s talking about the sciences, and certain types of funding within the sciences. Many funding competitions in the humanities are much harder than that. As I recall, about 1 in 4 applications to the AHRB for PhD funding is successful, and it’s much, much worse for post-doc funding (I don’t know the rates for small research grants; they’re probably better than the latter, but not necessarily the former). You can do your best to maximise your chances, but there’s still a strong element of luck, and of being in the right place at the right time. So you have to be practical and think about alternatives (yep, you may well have to get a real job, or study part-time), but don’t give up too soon; how long you persevere is a personal decision. But the only way to be completely sure of not getting what you want is not to try in the first place.
Think of writing a research proposal as being very like writing a research paper in some ways. When you want to convince readers that your analysis of a historical subject is sound, you take care to construct your argument logically, to make the most effective use of your evidence (and other intellectual tools available to you), to show why this is a particularly good way (not the only way, but perhaps, at least, the best way given the current state of knowledge) to understand something better. You focus, revise, get feedback, revise some more. ‘Facts’ don’t just speak for themselves.
A good research proposal is constructed along similar lines, and using the same sort of skills. This is not superficial, it’s not sleight-of-hand. The ability to write an excellent research proposal strongly implies that you have what it takes to be an excellent researcher. Besides, it’s (to begin with, at least) the main piece of evidence the committee will have to make decisions about you. (There may be subsequent stages of evaluation based on interviews and/or more substantial examples of your previous work, but you’ve still got to get shortlisted on the strength of that proposal first.)**
Back to some basics. You have an idea buzzing around in your head. Perhaps you’ve already done a small piece of research (an undergraduate or MA dissertation) which has set you thinking about something bigger. Or you want to expand your PhD research in new directions. You’ve identified what you think is a serious gap, or a flaw, in existing research and you think you have a way of doing it better, of asking new questions and filling some significant holes. And from the beginning, it’s not enough to pile scorn on the existing historiography: you have to have a clearly articulated strategy for doing better. You need to think about the sources you want to use – as a historian, it may even be the case that you’re starting from a body of neglected source material you’d like to get stuck into – and what concepts, theories, methods, you’re going to use to interpret them. Start scribbling down notes. Make sure you’re as up to date with the relevant historiography as possible, so that you can be clear about where you will want to place your ideas in relation to it.
You need to refer to why you’re dissatisfied with the existing state of play, but be positive too: in setting out where your research will ‘fit’ into the field and the contribution it’s going to make, try to use metaphors of building rather than destruction. For one thing, the former are nearly always more accurate; there are few violent revolutions in academia, however ground-breaking you think (in your enthusiasm) you’re being. (Please don’t fall into the trap of over-hyping the importance of what you’re going to do. You’re not a superhero and you’re not going to save the world, okay?) And secondly, remember, the committee might contain ardent supporters of the approach you’re busily shooting down in flames. Don’t make unnecessary enemies at this stage. (And on re-reading this it strikes me that you probably don’t want to mix your metaphors quite as promiscuously as I’ve just been doing either…)
Then you need to start to clarify and to organise those scribbles. Now go and read section 3.6 of Kraicer’s Art of Grantsmanship, carefully. (You should also look at section 4.) Bearing in mind that he’s addressing science researchers, not historians (we don’t, for example, tend to talk about ‘testable hypotheses’…), what he says there is essential reading and adaptable to the different emphases of other disciplines. It sets out pretty clearly what you should be doing to turn your rough ideas into a convincing argument to put to a funding committee. So I’m going to save myself some time here by not repeating it.
But do start by asking youself: What are the big arguments? You might have to divide a proposal into different sections starting with a synopsis: this is a good place to summarise the key themes in as punchy a manner as possible. Even if a synopsis isn’t required, try starting with an introductory paragraph doing this anyway. There may be hundreds of proposals competing for this funding; you need to grab readers’ attention fast. You can elaborate on how you propose to go about your investigation in subsequent sections. (Not that you can elaborate on anything that much. There is never enough space for what you really want to say. But this is A GOOD THING. Seriously. It forces you to focus, to edit ruthlessly, distill it down to the very essence. In the process, you should gain a clearer sense of what you’re aiming for and how to say it succinctly and effectively. Don’t waste words. Learn to love your red pen.)
Then there’s the feedback and revision stage. From whom, will depend on what stage you’re at. If this is a PhD proposal, then you should at least have a number of teachers to whom you can turn for advice (and perhaps other postgrad students you know too). By the end of a PhD, however, you ought to have a small network of people who can advise you: supervisor and other staff in your department (and possibly your external examiner, depending on how positive your viva experience is), along with your fellow PhD sufferers; and other academics and research students you’ve established friendly contacts with along the way (IRL or online). So asking for feedback on a draft of a proposal (or papers, or chapters of your thesis) is simply a more elaborate, slightly more formal version of the discussions you should be having with academic friends and mentors anyway from the earliest stages. It can be intimidating approaching ‘real’ academics for things like this at first, but ask politely and bear their gruesome workloads in mind, and you’ll generally be pleasantly surprised at how kind and generous they are. (They’ve all been there too, don’t forget.) If you’re going to be a ‘real’ academic too, you need to get used to asking – and giving in return – favours.***
Getting advice from those with more experience will help with some of the difficult balances that have to be maintained: between confidence in the value of your ideas and awareness of the problems; between going over old ground and originality and impractical speculation; between coherence and rigidity (you never know at the outset quite where your research will lead). Gauging what’s manageable without being too ‘small’ and narrow isn’t easy either. Moreover, other readers – experienced old hands or not, and whether or not they’re familiar with your particular field – will bring fresh perspectives, a little more objective distance than you can probably manage at this stage. They can spot problems you haven’t noticed, things you haven’t communicated very well. (“Um, what exactly are you trying to say here? Have you thought about such-and-such? Is this bit really relevant?”)
Eventually, you will have a working nearly-final draft that you can use as a template for different applications. I say ‘nearly-final’, because you need to be prepared to revise it depending on the priorities, and requirements, of the different organisations you’re likely to apply to. Some will give you a little more space than others; some will want applications structured in different ways. In any case, it will need periodic revision if you aren’t immediately successful with it, to refine it further if possible, but also to ensure it doesn’t become dated.
And you have to be prepared for rejection. It will come sooner or later, and it will hurt. Not just because of the practical worries (“What now? Can I find alternative funding? What will I do instead? Eek!”), but also because of the emotional investment you’ve poured into it. (“How can they do this to me?! My baby, my baby!”). All you can do is pick yourself up and try again. A rejection (or even a few rejections…) doesn’t automatically mean that there’s anything wrong with your project or with the proposal. Remember, the next committee may love you.
* Although sometimes a little cynicism is a Good Thing. For example, Rob was concerned about the AHRB’s apparent expectation that applicants for MA funding should already have clear plans for their PhD, which seems on the face of it rather unreasonable. As I said then, this would be one occasion when you don’t have to be entirely honest:
I think that they want to see that you’re thinking about it and that you have constructive ideas for the future. I really don’t think that if your subsequent PhD proposal looks rather different, anybody’s going to turn round and say, Aha! Liar! Get lost! It just won’t matter by then. So think of it in terms of what you could use the MA to go on to do, put something that sounds good in the form and then – forget about it.
** There will often be another section on application forms that needs careful work: the one about what you’ve been doing lately. If you’re applying for a post-doc, they’ll probably want to know about your PhD research. Chances are that there will be strong links between that and what you want to do next; so write up the outline of the PhD in a way that highlights those connections. Show that you have a Plan.
*** That is not meant to sound like a recommendation to approach strangers out of the blue and ask them for detailed comments on your pet project, by the way. That would just be rude. And only cranky old professors can get away with being rude.