The Big Issue In Your Grant Proposal

In the Foolproof Grant Template I ask for an opening sentence or two that quickly engages the reader on the “big topic” of the research.

My clients have a terrible time grasping what that opening should look like.  They’ve been so disciplined through grad training to think in terms of research and citation, that they cannot easily step back to remember that there is an ISSUE that precedes scholarly argumentation about the issue.

This issue exists in the world at large–the world OUT HERE, the one not in your or your advisor’s head.

I absolutely forbid clients from opening a grant with the dreaded line “My/this research/dissertation is about… ” because in my view that is the most myopic of all openings, the most insular and self-absorbed, and indifferent to the wants and needs of the reading public.

Consider these four opening sentences:

“My dissertation is about declining polar bear populations.”

“I am applying to the XXX fellowship to support my dissertation, which is on declining polar bear populations.”

“Many scientists in the field of environmental studies have been debating the causes of polar bear population decline.”

“Polar bear populations are plummeting due to recent changes in the climate.”

Only the last actually rises up to state the ISSUE–the topic at hand that precedes any and all debates or arguments or minutiae, and inspires the reader to take notice.

Yes, if you continued in that vein, it could move into a kind of journalistic sensationalism, but you don’t. You’re a scholar, and in sentence #2 and #3 of the template, you immediately introduce the scholarly works in the two most important fields that have addressed this issue. And then move on to describe a gap and the scholarly project that addresses that gap.

Grant-writing is, let it not be forgotten, PR. You are selling a project, and the reader needs to buy it.

You do that by remembering that we live in a world of big issues.  This is true even when your work is on a relatively obscure topic—e.g. 14th century Japanese Buddhist iconography, compositional structure in early modern opera—  when it is one meaningful in your particular field. Big is a relative term.  But however big is defined in your field, it is the big issue that inspires us to keep reading.

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The Big Issue In Your Grant Proposal — 6 Comments

    • I don’t. Due to demand, I’ve had to limit my business and the main limit is that I work only with advanced ABDs and Ph.D.s. Sorry, and good luck.

  1. Hi,
    Recently, we send some grants proposals, and most of them are rejected. We started to think that there is an issue in it. Now we are doing researches to improve it and your article “The Big Issue In Your Grant Proposal” help us so much.My question is, can you read our improved proposal and make feedback or can you advice someone who can do it?
    Thank you in advance for your answer.
    Mampionona from Madagascar

  2. I just wanted to say thank you to the prof and give her grant-writing formula all the credit in the world. I didn’t get the chance to work with her because I got around to asking too late in the fellowship-writing game, but I want to say that the foolproof grant template is…well, foolproof. I can testify to its effectiveness as I just made the cut for a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2015-2016 academic year, this after failing miserably (but learning from it at the same time) one year ago. To anyone who may read this, follow it. So, from deep down, thank you, professor!

  3. Hello, this is an excellent post. Thanks a lot. I have a question about writing grants/proposals related to the field of comparative literature. Do you have any recommendations on how to approach the literature review section in an approximately two to three page postdoc. proposal? I know that the length should ideally one to two paragraphs, but do you have any advise about organizing those paragraphs?

    Thank you very much in advance.

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