The project I proposed during GradFund’s Summer Mentoring Program in 2009 is not exactly the dissertation I’ll be defending this summer, but it— and the work I continued to do with GradFund over the next six years— shaped that dissertation and the course of my graduate career. Even as one of the few incoming grad students with an idea for my future dissertation, I was stymied at first. Was I really ready to write a detailed project proposal and make big claims about my field— all without using jargon? Well, perhaps not— but through the mentoring program I wrote myself into readiness. By the end of the summer, I had a proposal I was proud of, a great working relationship with my advisor (without even having taken a class with her yet), and a new sense of myself as a scholar and researcher.
I didn’t win the predoctoral fellowship I’d been preparing for that summer— and I didn’t win the Fulbright I applied to three years later, or many of the various other fellowships I applied for over the next few years. (My CV of Failures, like that of anyone with any successes, would be an impressive document.) But through drafting those applications and talking them over with advisors in my department and at GradFund, I developed the best possible version of my project. Having to write concise literature reviews helped me focus my early research, and having to address the needs of specific funders led me to expand facets of my project I might otherwise have left undeveloped. And there’s no better way to sharpen one’s thinking about one’s research than having to articulate its “so what” early and often. All of this concision, expansion, and sharpening, not to mention the writing habits forced on me by meeting all those deadlines, not only improved the dissertation itself, but helped me when I had to write abstracts for conference proposals and clarify the contribution I was claiming to make in a journal article.
Preparing those applications also led me, finally, to win some actual funding, first to do the archival research abroad I’d originally planned and then to finish writing. In 2013-2014, I combined a fellowship and three smaller grants to fund thirteen months of research in over a dozen archives in England, Wales, France, Italy, and Maine. That work was crucial to my dissertation, and enabled me to answer my central research questions, as well as to make discoveries that took me in new directions. In my last week at the Cambridge University Press archives, for example, I found heretofore unknown evidence for correspondence between two authors I’d been studying for years. This discovery not only informed my dissertation, but became the impetus for an article I published last year.
Working with GradFund even on applications that didn’t win funding made my research trip possible in other ways: the requirements of the Fulbright, for example, forced me to make contact with potential mentors abroad and to reach out to archivists long before I thought I would have to. This meant that when I did get the funding to go abroad, I had seats at small archives reserved well in advance and, once I was on site, friendly contacts who introduced me to other researchers and helped me settle into my temporary communities. I’m still in touch with many of those I first contacted as part of that application process: right now, for example, I’m working with the archivist at Cambridge University Press on an exhibit based on my research there into early 20th-century women scholars. This summer, I’m also drawing on my extensive experience in writing proposals for the job applications that will effect my transition from graduate student to faculty— writing myself into readiness once again.