As graduate students, we like to stay in our cozy, academic silos. Why? Because there, we are free to use our jargon with ease, our colleagues will likely be familiar with our theoretical frameworks, and our research methods are generally accepted. But what happens when we must venture out into the world of funding agencies, where reviewers from disciplines other than our own will judge our work? We struggle to communicate our research to reviewers effectively.
You must remember that reviewers will likely come from many areas within the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences. Although you are passionate about your work, you have to put the needs of the reviewer first. For example, why should a reviewer from biochemistry or pharmacology care about your research on a rare species of frogs? Today, I’ll share an intellectual activity to help you communicate your specific research topic to a broad audience of researchers. I like to call this approach: placing the familiar in conversation with the unfamiliar.
As the applicant, you have to make the reviewer understand why your research matters to your larger field of study. To do this, you’ll need to frame your research interests within the context of broad concepts that will be familiar to a general audience of scholars: for example, the state, technology, health, economics, politics, family, power. You should then discuss how your research will illuminate new ideas about these concepts or challenge what we think we know. If you have trouble identifying the core concepts that inform your research, you’ll want to return to the literatures you seek to engage. What are the broader debates or research questions animating your discipline right now? Again, the goal is to move out of your cozy silo and into the larger world of funding agencies.
This is similar to the pedagogical approach many educators use when introducing students to new ideas, i.e. using film, music, and visual art to teach big concepts. There are several benefits to using this approach: it stimulates the interest of the reviewers, teaches them something new, and it allows you, the researcher, to highlight in an interesting way your innovative contribution to the literature. More importantly, this approach encourages the reviewer to engage with the text, not as a passive reader, but as an active participant, which will make your application memorable.