The Foolproof Grant Template–Where Did It Come From?

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.

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The Foolproof Grant Template–Where Did It Come From? — 9 Comments

  1. I just discovered you, and your blog. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m the first person in my family to pursue education beyond high school. I’ve found graduate study in a top program at an elite US university sheer hell. Your tips and insights make me feel more in control and confident.

    • Welcome, Michele! I’m so glad! It’s why I do what I do. Be sure and get in touch with specific questions you’d like to see answered on the blog.

  2. There’s a bigger point here too: talk to people, ask successful people for their advice (nicely, of course), read the work of colleagues. And by colleagues, I include the people ahead of you in graduate school. I almost always knew someone who had gotten a fellowship I was applying for and almost always asked to see their materials. Everyone passed them on to me and I in turn passed them on to others. Ditto for exam lists, dissertation prospectus, dissertation (well those were readily available in the department). Bottom line: never start from scratch, emulate those who have succeeded!

    Random little thing: is leading with a 1-paragraph “telling anecdote” a history thing? Almost every grant application I’ve seen in history starts with one.

  3. Pingback: The Evolution of a Book, Part 4: Funding Your Research « Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics

  4. As a current grad student on the west coast in Italian, I appreciate the pared down explanation of how to wrote a proposal like a knife. Not only is it no longer enough to be the best, most of my colleagues and I have gastric problems twitching over a future that may never come. But damn it, I have important things to say and this helps. Thank you so much.

  5. Great, I wanted to do something like this and what was the response of my Prof?… You have to do it alone.
    Not even a sliver of advice.

  6. Thanks for this, it’s really insightful. As someone finishing up a dissertation this year, I did have one question about the breakdown between pre-diss grants, dissertation completion fellowships, and postdocs. The template here seems especially well-suited to the large and important category of “pre-diss” and “fieldwork” grants — i.e. fellowships that depend on defining an interesting research project and proving that you can execute and disseminate the research program. But now that I’m in a more advanced stage, I sorta feel like many of the “dissertation completion” grants are less interested in the “project” and more focused on the manuscript/thesis writing. For instance, I’ve noticed that a few of the successful Newcombe/AAUW/ACLS type fellowship applications I’ve glanced at dedicate pages and pages to describing chapter-by-chapter breakdowns, timelines, and the overall structure of the manuscript. I’m wondering what you think of this? Do you have a sense of whether this is a general phenomenon in later-stage writing fellowships? Thanks!

    • you need both–you need to sketch and define the project as I explain in the template, and you ALSO need a particularly good timeline of work; and yes, absolutely you’ll want chapter breakdown–one relatively concise para per chapter.

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