Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template

An expanded and updated version of this post can now be found in Chapter  51 of my new book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. I am keeping a shortened version here, but for the complete discussion including the visual model of the Foolproof Grant Template, please do purchase the book, which compiles all my major job market posts along with 50% entirely new material.


Unveiled here:  Karen’s Famous and Foolproof Research Proposal Template.

This Research Proposal Template has won hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money for multiple graduate students and scholars in the social sciences and humanities over the past 15 years.

You may share, but please credit Dr. Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In, http://theprofessorisin.com).

Let’s walk through this step by step.

The first step is to identify what large general topic of wide interest that your specific project relates to.  These are topics that anyone, including your grandmother or someone sitting next to you on a plane, would say, “oh, yes, that’s an important topic.”  Obvious Examples include:  immigration, sustainable energy, changes in the family, curing cancer, new social technologies, environmental degradation, global warming, etc. Until you can identify a really broadly interesting theme that your project relates to, you will never be successful in applying for grants.

If you work on arcane topics or in a small field (ie, medieval French literature), don’t despair. You don’t have to relate to current events or go all presentist.  You just need to find the way in to your topic that starts at its widest possible relevance or interest, as appropriate for your field.  Don’t start at your topical micro-niche, even when you know you’re writing for others in or near that niche.  You always must show a wider import/context to your topic.

This is because your application must *excite* the readers, and the readers are likely from a range of different disciplines.  They will not all be interested in your discipline’s narrow debates.  They want to know that your work and your intellectual and scholarly vision are wide, and broad, and encompassing.

Once you have established your wide, much debated, topic, you then identify two bodies of literature relevant to your own training that dealt with this topic.

If you are an anthropologist, and your research is on Haitian communities in New York City, for example, you will start by pointing to the wide debates on immigration in America.  Then you will write, “scholars in many fields have addressed these important questions.  Within cultural anthropology, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have all explored the role of cultural beliefs in shaping immigrant communities.  Within Caribbean Studies, meanwhile, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have focused on the specific demographic and economic trends which have fueled outward migration.”


This brief survey will be no more than 3 sentences long. And indeed all of the above must be done in two paragraphs and no more.   Because it is only the Introduction to the “Kicker” Sentence, the axis on which your entire appeal for funding rests. And the Kicker Sentence must be on the first page.

The Kicker is your “HOWEVER” sentence.   The “however” sentence is the crux and the anchor of your entire proposal.


It reads like this:

“However, none of these works have addressed the central question of XXXXXXXX.”

XXXXXXX in this case is YOUR view of what is most essential to an accurate understanding of the big topic, but which  has never to date been studied by anyone else.

This brings you to the GAP IN KNOWLEDGE “Despite much excellent work on themes such as XXX and XXX, scholars examining the transformations in immigration in America have not yet fully explored the importance of XXXX in creating and sustaining these communities.”

Now for the URGENCY:

[… Please refer to Chapter 51 of my book!]



The rest of the essay then provides substantiating evidence In other words, concrete evidence that the project is doable, by you, according to reasonable and well thought out disciplinary methods and timeline.






All of this substantiating evidence is meant to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you will CORRECTLY UTILIZE the grant money once you receive it.

Finally, you cannot finish without a  STRONG CONCLUSION Even one sentence suffices, but do NOT neglect to include it.  It may read like this: […]

Do all of this, my friends, and you will walk away with generous, abundant funding for your every project.  You will have the leisure to do the best work, and the best work will in turn legitimize you for the next major grant for which you apply.  You will be on the “GRANT GRAVY TRAIN“, and that is the key to the most successful academic careers.



Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template — 87 Comments

  1. Dear Karen,

    Do you have a “foolproof” book proposal template? Or any advice re: the process of revising the dissertation into the book?


    • Maria, thanks for reading. I don’t have one written up on a one-page schematic!! But I can definitely write a blog post about that this week because it’s a HUGE topic and one that is so critical to people on the humanities and social science side of academic careers. Let me ask, what’s your field and topic? I’ll keep that in mind as I write it.

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    • There is no “Janet Gold” listed on the Guggenheim roster of fellows, nor is there one listed on your website’s bio, so I am confused by your remark.

      • That’s because I don’t write comments on this site under my real name. I write more freely when I’m anonymous. There are lots of Janet Golds, many of them with web sites, but I’m not one of them. I truly received a Guggenheim, and it made a wonderful difference in my life. I’m grateful for it and have “given back” to the Foundation. A few years back I had coffee with the then-director, Ed Hirsch, at an east side club whose name I’ve forgotten. I don’t suppose any of this ‘proves’ that I received a Guggenheim, but you’ll have to take my word for it that I did. I thank the Foundation in the book published as a result of its support.

          • Tch tch, name-calling! Au contraire: this way I have complete freedom.

          • Are you serious? Karen, I am surprised by this thread. Just because someone got a grant without following your framework, doesn’t make them an asshole. Neither does their commenting without using their own name — this is standard on online forums. On the contrary, you are the one that looks unprofessional.

          • So true, Dr. Karen! Lol. Just reading for the grant season but I can’t let a good article go without reading comments. I find it more than odd that Mr./Ms. Troll would refuse to

  7. Thank you for this! I have been very successful in getting small grants for field research with a very similar organizational scheme, and it’s wonderful to have it spelled out so clearly. I’m going to post this in our grad lab so that all of us will hopefully get the funding we need.

  8. Hello Karen,

    I highly appreciate your help in grant writing. I am noticing that this formula – broad scope, problem, hero narrative – is actually something that we also use in biology – and is probably used everywhere to market science. I want to point you and others (who might be interested) to the guideline on constructing a paper abstract suitable for Nature. It follows a very similar structure.

    For me as a fresh PhD those things are very interesting! I will use your formula for my next grant proposal!

  9. As I graduate student, I have been starring at the same blank Microsoft Word document for days trying to remake a not winning proposal into something more successful. I read this and it is suddenly totally clear why I didn’t win before and how I should reshape to proposal. Thank you so much much for your posts!

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  11. Thank you for this website! I have had a winding road in academia because there are so many unspoken rules that are not written anywhere. I had to find out the hard way a few times, but now I have a process for finding the information I need in order to succeed. Anyway, I appreciate you making visible the very things that remain invisible in academia.

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  13. Thank you for your very clear description and advice on writing proposals. Like Juan B, I have been staring at my so not winning proposal for days and just despairing until I read your post. Your crystallization of the idea of grant proposal as “Hero narrative” clicked with me and now I actually ‘get’ the purpose of writing one! Thank you!

  14. I followed this template for my proposal, and showed my Ph.D. supervisor a draft of it. He laughed and said it looked like I followed some model on the Internet – that it was a dime-a-dozen. I wonder if you have been too successful Karen, in spreading good practice 😉

    • there will inevitably be backlash from those profs who want to preserve the aura of mystique and inaccessibility around academic pursuits. They are the ones who call my kind of professionalization advice “gaming the system.” But the fact is, any proposal that articulates a project clearly and concisely and answers all necessary questions is a winning proposal, and that’s what the template accomplishes with a minimum of fuss and bother.

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  16. The grant template is a Thing of Beauty and if it has helped me obtain funding as a new TT asst. prof., think what it can do for those at earlier stages of grant-writing. There are, in fact, hoops to jump through and ‘games’ to play if you want to get a job in this harrowing, take-no-prisoners market and the advice on this blog is smart, savvy and quite literally on the money. Thank you, Dr. Karen!

  17. Karen, thanks for providing this clear and persuasive grant model. You mention some of the broad issues that one’s research might impact: “immigration, sustainable energy, changes in the family, curing cancer, new social technologies, environmental degradation, global warming, etc.” but for much of the research in fields like mine, art history, the link to these pressing societal issues is not as direct as it might be in the social sciences or sciences. Perhaps you have some examples where you helped clients broaden the scope of the appeal of their humanities field-specific research? If you can find the time, please provide some examples of how to make humanities grant applications more relevant to broader, contemporary issues. Thanks again!

    • I always tell clients (partic. in the Grant-writing Webinar) that many of us work on fairly obscure, narrow topics, and that’s ok! You don’t have to relate your work on 14th Century Aquitanian courtly poetry to global warming to make it relevant! Just make sure that you start at the most pressing and wide current question animating the field of medieval French lit, or maybe courtly poetry, so that people get intrigued by the qustion first, and then read on to your specific topic.

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  19. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for a great template. If a grant application asks for a relatively brief (c. 1000 words) statement, would you suggest cutting any of these sections, and if so, which ones? Or would you advise keeping all sections and reducing the length of each?

    Thanks for your help!

    • Just to clarify: the grant committee asks for a separate budget and itinerary. If that’s the case, can you strike them from the statement itself?

  20. Dr. Karen;

    What advice do you suggest for medievalists when spinning a “General Topic of Wide Interest.” How does one compete for grants that are also accessible to modernists who can much more easily tap into contemporary issues?

    • This is always a challenge in fields like yours, but just aim for something of broad scholarly thematic interest, rather than the narrow topical focus, if that makes sense. ie, a theme that is shared across temporal periods, if possible.

  21. Thank goodness for this!!! I am a novice at writing proposals. I have no letters behind my name and want to ask for funding for a women’s help and support center. I had NO IDEA where to even start when I found this template. For someone like me and my merry band of neighborhood do gooders, do you have any more advice?? Again thank you for this template.

  22. Hi Karen,

    I owe you a huge big “thank you” for this grant template, so commenting here to pay my dues. I followed your advice to refine my grant essay, and won a Mellon grant this year, besides a baby grant ($1000) last year :-) The Mellon will make life sweet indeed, since it is a total game changer. They notified me two days ago, and I am still over the moon.

    Overall, I applied to 4 grants over the last year–2 Mellons (big ones), another big one, and a baby one. Won 1 Mellon and 1 baby. That’s a 50% success rate, but yep, happy enough.

    Also, I used feedback from wherever I could get it. Some of the grants where I was unsuccessful applying sent along very helpful reviewer comments that helped me refine my proposal further when applying to the next ones. My university had a grants review opportunity set up. Of course I showed my advisor and some committee members. And I used the grant template here, hero narrative and all, throughout.

    I’m commenting anonymously since I’m just a lowly graduate student. But just wanted to say that I’ve found many of your blog posts super helpful in cultivating a sense of what is needed in our career trajectories in general (long term as well as short term). Also, apart from this template, your CV writing post is tres helpful.

    Thank you once again!

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  24. Excellent synopsis. I have been accepted into a PhD program for fall 2013. I am so excited to pursue my PhD and glad to have found you on FB. This template also comes in very handy for me as director of sponsored research and programs at another university where I work. I will certainly give credit where credit is due when I share this with them.

    Thanks so much!

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  26. Would you recommend this template for a fellowship? I will be applying for a post-doctoral fellowship for my junior sabbatical that is discipline specific and that comes with a standard package/stipend (thus the budget aspect seems less necessary). This template seems like it would work for that too with a few tweaks…

    • yes it does; you can always leave off any elements that don’t work for the application. For a postdoc, the timeline is particularly important.

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  30. Hi Karen, thanks so much for this. I just have one question that I can’t seem to find an answer to anywhere: how is the “budget” section relevant to humanities scholars who don’t need anything except a good university library to complete their research? I truly have no idea what to put in “budget” besides rent, bus fare, etc., at the very limit library and photocopying fees, which seems ridiculous. The grant I’m applying for stipulates it’s not to be used for travel or conference fees. So then… what on earth might they expect a literature scholar to need?

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  32. Dear Karen,

    Thank you for this valuable post! I saw somewhere else in your website that this template also works for postdoc applications, right?. If so, how should the “STATEMENT OF YOUR RESEARCH PROJECT” be changed for the postdoc appl. scenario?

    Can a research statement for a postdoc application include two main (related) projects?

    How should the timeline and budget be changed? Should I include them in my statement too? It occurs to me that the research group interested in hiring me will want to work with me, right? So I guess there should be a time available to do that.

    Thanks again!

  33. Thanks for this, Dr. Karen! I’m teaching a health program planning class, and students have asked me what the differences are between applying for a grant for research versus applying for a grant for a community project. I comment that the differences are not that vast–you still have to go through the steps you’ve outlined above. I have a lot of visual learners, so I think this image will really resonate with them. Thank you for sharing!

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  35. I just wanted to let you know that I had some great success recently using your template for my application to a major national fellowship foundation. Many thanks!

  36. I was told (by a prof) to begin a proposal with a brief attention-grabbing story or anecdote. So, for example, if the research is on drug policy, begin with a paragraph about a particular drug bust or something like that – I think the idea was to make the first paragraph dynamic and colorful. What do you think of this advice?

  37. After applying for several grants and getting rejected every time, a friend pointed me toward your website. I used your template for grant applications and have received two grants for my dissertation ($15,000 and $5,000). This funding has allowed me to conduct the fieldwork necessary for my research. I shared this link with my program in hopes that other students will enjoy similar success. Thanks!

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  39. Hi, I have just found this and am currently (deadline Friday!) putting together a phd proposal for a studentship. This is simple and easy to follow and i will be using this as my framework. My proposal however is only allowed to be 250-500 words!! Eeek. So I will be using a slim down version of it.
    Just wanted to say thank you and wish me luck!

  40. Dear Karen,
    Would you recommend including a cover letter for any grant application, even if it isn’t required by the committee? The fellowship I am applying for asks for a 1-2 page project description, CV and recommendation so I hesitate to include all the factual information (accomplishments, etc.) in the description.
    Thanks so much!

  41. Thank you so much for the invaluable post. This provides a whole lot of insights into the “mysteries” of grant-writing.

  42. Dear Karen, I’m now familiarizing myself with your advice, and this one is particularly good! I received a very competitive grant last year (success rate 5%) using exactly this narrative – I hit upon it without knowing your idea of the hero narrative, but it works wonders.
    I would advice everyone to follow this advice. It’s obviously not foolproof in the sense that you will def. land a grant, but, as they say, a good research may be hidden in a poor proposal, and they funders just don’t have the time to find out what it is. You need to make the text maximally appealing and fluent to read, without sacrificing accuracy and scholarliness (but many people think scholarly & accuracy mean boring. Boring is deadly for grant proposals)

  43. Dear Karen,
    I plan to apply for a postdoc fellowship in order to prepare my dissertation for publishing. Therefore,I wanted to ask you should I emphasize that at the beginning of my research proposal, or at the end, as a conclusion?

  44. Dr. Karen, you have guided me through constructing my CV and cover letter, and now this Research Statement. Just wanted to say thank you for your wisdom and insight. Don’t know what I would’ve done without you!

  45. Dear Dr. Karen,

    Do you think the Gap in the Knowledge argument applies for all fields? I’m curious because in several grant proposal workshops I have attended in the past year, facilitators stressed that it was not enough. Thanks,


    • it’s not enough if the entirety of your argument is: nobody has studied X before. Just because somebody hasn’t studied it, does NOT make it worthy of study. However the grant template devotes the preceding sentences to establishing a compelling and timely topic, so that when the gap comes, it is problematic and needs filling. See my post, Why Are There No Elephants? for more on this.

  46. Dear Dr Karen,

    thank you so much for the grant template, it just got me my own postdoc research project for the next 3 years!
    I will for sure keep using it in the future.

    Thanks again,

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  53. I never post comments, but this time I had to because this is one of the most helpful websites I have ever come across. I’m so grateful for all the work you have done to make this information accessible. Thank you Karen!!!

  54. Dear Karen,

    Just writing to let you know that this template has helped me to secure four grants, including a Fulbright! I applied for three of those grants the previous year, before coming across your site, and was unsuccessful. The content of those previous grant applications remained the same but your template helped me to reorganise it drastically. Thank you so much. It really is foolproof! I have started blogging so I hope it’s ok if I share this page with my readers? I will give you full credit of course. Your conference application tips also helped my proposals being accepted by two peer reviewed panels. I’m now trying to get published in a peer reviewed journal so I will definitely check out your Publishing Issues section. Thanks again!

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  56. wow! Karen I am loving this and can’t wait to get started with my phd research proposal. Thanks for being a blessing.

  57. This template is fantastically useful. I have been using it to work on my postdoc proposal. Your musings on Academia in general are also fantastic…and entirely recognisable on this side of the Atlantic!

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  59. Dear Karen, I prepared my documents for postdoc fellowship, but I dont know how much words, between 150 – 250,or more is enough in my application – research proposals? What is based?
    Thanks a lot

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  61. A follow-up question re: the Specifics and Background section outlined in the Research Proposal template. I am reading your book alongside, but am looking for clarification on what you mean here. Background on the research accomplished thus far? Or of the project overall? Do you have an example of a successful version of this?

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