The fellowship season is upon us, and I’m working with clients on all sorts of grants and fellowships.
As part of that process I’m spending a lot of time talking people through the Dr. Karen Foolproof Grant Template. I won’t repeat the template here—I just direct you to this post. And if you want an even more substantial discussion of it, check out the Professor’s Guide- The Grant-Writing Handbook, in the Prof Shop.
Today I want to talk about how I ended up creating this template. Because the story is very revealing of how successful techniques circulate in quiet, backchannel ways.
When I was a brand new assistant professor, I had a senior colleague. This senior colleague had recently moved to Oregon from an elite East Coast institution. He had been successful and well liked there. He very kindly took me under his wing, and I learned a great deal from him.
One of the things that he told me in my first year was: apply for major national fellowships, and don’t stop until you get at least one full year off to write your book. I listened to him, and did as he said. He had received the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship a few years earlier, and he encouraged me to apply for it as well.
When I started work on the application, he passed on to me his own previous successful proposal. And he explained to me that this proposal was based on another proposal that had been written by one of his senior colleagues back at the elite institution. I was at least the third generation to draw from the model.
Now let me hasten to add, that we were not “re-using” a single proposal per se. Our projects were not remotely similar. Rather, we were re-using a consistent proposal STRUCTURE. The first iteration, and then my colleague’s, and then my own, all followed precisely the same organization. And, lo and behold, it worked for me just as it worked for him, and as it had worked for his senior colleague (and who knows how many before him.)
I immediately saw the utility of the proposal structure, and used it again and again. I got virtually every grant and fellowship for which I applied.
When I had graduate students of my own, I passed the model on to them. By this point, I was referring to it as the “grant template.” Each of my students structured their grant and fellowship applications according to the template, and every student got virtually every major fellowship for which they applied—over the years, some $600,000 worth of fellowships, in our modestly funded fields of Asian Studies and Cultural Anthropology.
I freely shared the template, in the form of my own NEH fellowship proposal, with anyone who asked. But not everyone was able to separate out the structure from the model. My proposal, after all, was on Japanese women who traveled abroad in search of Western men and Western careers. Not everyone could see the organization beneath the surface, and apply it to their own project.
When I left my academic career and came to the University of Oregon McNair Program, I began working with advanced undergraduate students, who are very green in the ways of the academic world, but who are ambitious and eager to apply for much-needed fellowships. I quickly saw that my template would once again be useful, but that I was going to have to help. They were much too inexperienced to be able to decipher the organization themselves. So I took the next step, and I did it for them.
I reduced my old NEH proposal into its elemental building blocks, and provided a basic explanation for its parts. I saw that the structure is, at root, a Hero Narrative, and named it as such. I came to understand that constructing this narrative is entirely formulaic, and hinges on the construction of urgency. Those grants that create a sense of legitimate and credible urgency get money. Those that don’t, don’t.
Now the template is in the form of a one-page diagram, with a brief textual accompaniment. You can see it here. I am happy to share it, although I appreciate getting credit.
The point I want you to take away from all this is not just that this template, now called the Dr. Karen Foolproof Grant Template, really works. I also want you to understand that effective grant-writing, like all other professional academic writing, is at its root completely formulaic. Your project can be creative and innovative, but your grant proposal had damned well better follow the formula. Deviation means failure.
Some of the most creative thinkers in the land are the worst grant-writers, because they can’t or won’t write according to formula. I can see that. My analytical and linear mind loves to reduce things to their component parts and find the underlying structure. But not everyone is like that.
The template does some of the work for you. Not all of it. I’m still surprised sometimes at what comes to me from clients who swear that they’ve followed it “exactly.” But it helps.
And on a larger scale, the story of the template demonstrates the ways that hidden codes and understandings operate in academia. They’re not secret, exactly. But they’re hidden, and passed along through personal connections and contacts.
Stay alert to these codes and models when they cross your path. They are the capital of an academic career. And always be ready to pass them on to others. It’s good karma.