Sunday, February 15, 2015

On Grant-writing in Graduate School

I've been asked to speak next week at an event on grant-writing, hosted by Berkeley's History Graduate Association. Since some of the students who could benefit won't be able to attend, and as a way of thinking out my comments ahead of time, I'm going to write down some basic advice here. For reference, this applies primarily to history, though the broader principles apply across academia (and beyond).

As far as credentials go, over the course of grad school - excluding the History Department fellowship that funded me by default, and the postdoctoral fellowship I'm on now - I won a dozen or more fellowships worth something like $82,000 over seven years of graduate school. You can see a list of specific ones (in case you're looking for things to apply for) on my CV:

$82,000 is a lot of money, but that's pennies compared to what it wins longer-term, which brings me to my first major point of advice:
  • You can't win if you don't play, and everyone likes giving to the rich. 
There's a reason Harvard is at this point a hedge fund with a small sideline in education, and that's that everyone wants to be generous towards those who 'merit' it. This is America, land of the just world fallacy, and Academia, wherein the...exaggerated...idea of meritocracy is interalized and continually reinforced by selection bias. Success breeds success. You have to act like your work is great and deserving of every fellowship, whether or not you believe it, and apply for everything that remotely fits.

One grant becomes a CV line, which becomes two grants. Not in the course of two applications - it can take a dozen or more to get started, and reliability of grants never gets good. But especially if you come from somewhere prestigious like Berkeley, if you put together a half-decent grant, you're going to get some awards here or there. The people on the other end are simply operating with too little information to make truly merit-based decisions.

Beyond the direct rewards, and the longer-term snowball effect, there have been more than a few fellowships, postdocs, and jobs I have applied for that specifically request someone with grant-writing experience. That's a skill useful well beyond academia, which is a vital consideration in this day and age. Apply for everything.

Get rich, because that's how you get richer.
  • You are not too busy to apply. 
As my friend Robert Harkins pointed out yesterday, so many times through our careers we would discuss this or that fellowship with our peers, only to hear "Oh I'm too busy with X to get around to applying." 

No you're not. 

That semester research paper doesn't really matter. Neither do your language course grades, your weekly response paper, your lesson planning, or anything else. No one will ever care that you did "really really well" instead of "barely over passing" in grad school, so long as your letter of recommendation writers and dissertation committee are happy with you. No one worth caring about will ever look at your transcript. Everyone will look at your CV, and everyone will care if you seem, at first glance, to be a winner.
  • Done is better than good.
Relatedly, the more often you apply to things, the less time it takes to apply to the next one. I routinely send off applications for grants, awards, fellowships, postdocs, and jobs in less than 20 minutes, sometimes less than 10, because I've written so many that I can find something similar, edit the personalized sections, and send it off. If it's something that really matters to me, then sure, I'll spend more time. But you can never, ever know what a selection committee is really searching for. Spending days agonizing over the phrasing of your intro line is a waste. Spend that time applying to new things, or if you're done applying to things, get back to that research paper / lesson plan / etc. Once your application is competent (which I'll get to more below), any tweaks and improvements are as likely going against the preferences and picadillos of the selection committee as playing into them.

On that note,
  • You can never ever know what a selection committee is searching for.
Your application is a prayer burnt on the altar of fickle gods. Do not burn your ewe of awkward self-congratulatory writing and resent that the gods did not reward your supplication with rain. Simply hope that the wafting scents of the burning meat and splint wines were pleasing to them, and prepare your next sacrifice. The gods do not care about you, and they act only according to their own whims, beyond the ken of mortal man. Know only that they will spurn entirely those who ignore them, and that their blessings can be great. Only through faith alone can you be funded.
  • Be organized.
Here is a picture of my grants and applications folder:

In case that can't be expanded, the point is simple: Keep everything, and keep everything so you can find it at a few moments' notice years down the road. I use Dropbox, both for the security of off-site backup (crucial in a Bay Area where earthquakes could kill a hard drive with no warning, but really fire/disaster/incompetence can happen anywhere) and so I can work equally at my desktop, laptop, and even phone.

I doubt there is any mistake I've made as frequently, stupidly, and avoidably in grant-writing as forgetting to change the personalized statements - "I would love to teach at Hofstra University," I'd write to Yale. "This grant ties directly to your focus on legal history," I would write to a business history workshop travel grant committee. Organization is key to preventing this.

On that note, for here and so many parts of academia who don't seem to understand this basic feature of word processing (looking at you, rejection letter writers): Please learn how to use a mail merge
  • Your project might still be half-baked and promising what you can't deliver. Apply anyway.
Almost no one writes a dissertation about the topic proposed in your grad school application. I sure didn't write a history of quantum physics like I proposed; and even more importantly, the committee that chose my application to Berkeley History did not expect me to seriously pursue that topic. It's a lie agreed upon.

That very same principle applies to grant and fellowship writing, right up until someday you do have a great topic you're enthused about and truly prepared to be a world leader in uncovering. I didn't apply for some of the great funding opportunities available exclusively to pre-grad-school and first-year students (like Javits, the first go-round of the NSF GRFP, or others) because I was shy about pretending. Everyone is pretending. I really regret not applying, because those fellowships are worth a ton - and everyone is pretending, so no one really has much of an edge up on you.
  • Use Interfolio.
It costs too much money and it's only mostly reliable, but it can make you SO much money in the long-term to have a few general-purpose letters of recommendation stored that you can have sent wherever you want, whenever you want. I got ~$23,000 and amazing intangible opportunities from the Miller Center fellowship, and I got it after stumbling across the application 3 days before it was due. I would never have been willing to bother my advisor (much less my second letter-writer) to write an emergency letter, but I had their letters on Interfolio. Again, an application with less-than-specific rec letters and thrown-together language is infinitely better than no application. Done is better than good. Always always always.
  • Don't be shy about asking for rec letters
I know, it's awkward and stressful, like asking someone on a date. But everyone you're asking to write a rec letter is where she is because others wrote letters for her. It's her job, in both literal and karmic terms, to do the same for you, if she's able. If you start getting push-back ("You know, I might not be the best person to write, I'm not sure if I'll have time this semester," etc) that might be an indication that you're not going to get a very strong letter. If you have someone else you've cultivated, then consider backing out. But if you really need 4 rec letters for some irritating laundry list of requirements for an application (and these surely exist), and you have to impose a little on the fourth, it's probably worth it.

On that note, you really need to think consciously, continuously, and as early as possible about who your rec letter writers will be. You will need a minimum of three coming out of grad school. The ideal scenario is:
1) Your advisor, who can speak to your work, character, and potential with far more depth and insight than anyone else,
2) An established faculty member in an adjacent sub-field, who can speak to the value of your research beyond your own sub-sub-field. Ideally also can speak to your teaching ability
3) Someone outside of your university/discipline entirely, who can open new doors for you. This is very difficult to cultivate, obviously, so it's no big issue if it's not there. This third letter is generally the least important by a lot, as far as I can gather.


So, where do I find grants to apply to? There are a lot of resources, but there will also be some you're just going to have to find by googling. (This, again, is where organization is important - if you find something due 6 months from now, create a folder so you don't forget). Some resources:

  • H-Net - Beyond this page, you should also sign up for all H-Net lists that are relevant to your work. Put them on Daily Digest so you don't get 1,000,000,000 emails/day, have them filter to a folder so you don't get annoyed and unsubscribe, but check them at least once a week.
  • The AHA - The awards and grants section is mostly beyond the log-in section, which requires being an AHA member. That's a cost that justifies itself many times over if you get a fellowship, though.
  • Ask one of your advisor's students a few years ahead of you to send a list of grants and fellowships he applied to throughout his tenure. I've sent such a list to Berkeley history of science grads before - it cost me nothing (what are they going to do, plagiarize my research proposals from a half decade ago?) and helped them.
Your department graduate secretary (the infinitely capable Mabel, in our case) likely has a huge stack of paper announcements, too. Go look through them at least 1-2 times/year.


Okay, so, that's a lot of words without talking about what makes a good application. 

Well, the first point, again, is that no one knows. Seriously, a great application for one grant/fellowship/job is a hopeless application for a similarly-written announcement one listing over, and there is no way of ever getting feedback from either.

That said, there are a few points worth re-iterating. Note that most grant-writing tips, like most important lessons in History (the academic discipline) and history (the intellectual pursuit), can only really be learned from experience, and any advice tends to come across as cliches. Still, there's something to be said for hearing cliches, if only to point you towards truths you'll only digest later.
  • The hardest and most important thing is to read your application from the outside.
You know everything about your project and everything about yourself. It's really, really easy to imagine that you're giving a clear (or worse, coy / clever / understated) look into this project without realizing how much you're leaving out.

Another angle to this problem is to spend a lot of time trying to be clear, to communicate, without emphasizing the even more vital imperative to be interesting. Your project isn't interesting to everyone if they would only understand it clearly. It's interesting if you can make it interesting. 

The Great 'So What' will dominate your life in academia, and this one of the absolute best things about grant-writing: it's constant practice at answering The Great 'So What' over and over and over again to new audiences.
    • (a) It might be marketing buzzword nonsense, but you need to imagine yourself as a brand, as being on a hot forward trajectory, then write from that perspective
People like to see a narrative in your research - "I started at X, discovered this interesting thing, and now I want to work on Y because it's so important to Z, Q, and R" is a common one. This isn't always explicit, but it's the reason it's so much easier to fall down than rise up in academia's prestige game. It applies on smaller scales for grant-writing, too. Don't spend a lot of time and energy thinking on this one, but keep it in the back of your head when framing Proposal Narratives and Project Summaries. If you're not you, is it honestly very clear exactly who you are, and what you bring to this project that makes you the right purpose to pursue it? Again, modesty will not be rewarded.
  • Tailor your grant-writing to the stated goals of the application.
Yeah, this is both kind of obvious and kind of contradicts the comments above about grant-writing being shouting into a pitch-black room and hoping you don't wake any grues, but the more you can guess at the positions of your readers the better. Some foundations have money from some rich guy who really likes the idea of 'leadership,' or whatever, and as much as they might want to fund a sterling by-the-book historian, they're going to need someone who can make the donor happy when he reads a paragraph about (or has a 30-second conversation with) you. Find a way to explicitly  - NOT just implicitly - tie your topic to leadership (or whatever). (I've seen this exact scenario multiple times, from the many very well-funded Stanton Nuclear Studies fellowships, to a funded fellowship on immigration elsewhere, to schools finding creative uses for very generous multi-million dollar endowments originally designated for 'yoga.' ) Other places really want you to write op-eds and get your (and their) name out there, or organize a conference, or write a nice letter afterwards describing the impact of their funding that they can include in their newsletter. Make your project explicitly serve their needs.

Most selection committees also have some kind of disciplinary bias, and will feel subtly alienated if the historiography you reference is completely foreign to them, and much warmer if they see you're tapped into similar fields. Again, hard to predict, but this is where informal networks come into play. Ask around to find others who have won this award and ask if you can read the application - again, a big advantage of going to a place like Berkeley.