Suggestions on writing strong funding applications often emphasize the significance of starting out early. This, in general, is great advice. By making a head start on your applications, you will not only have time to develop your project, but also to get feedback from multiple readers to make your application stronger. But what happens when you have to change your dissertation project at a critical juncture and you find yourself not being able to start so early? For some students, this is not an unlikely scenario to plan for. Nevertheless, there are ways to work around this potential obstacle. As a graduate student who had to deal with this somewhat unpleasant experience at a time when I needed to start writing dissertation research grant applications, I would like to share some tips for others who may find themselves in a similar situation.
Review your previous project
One way to tackle the unexpected change in your research is to see if there are aspects of your previous dissertation plan that you can incorporate into your new project design. Maybe there is a body of literature review you wrote that is still pertinent for your new topic, or maybe some of your methods can still be useful to consider in designing how you will conduct your new project. In any case, don’t think of your prior work on the topic you’re no longer researching as wasted time and effort; everything you did for that project prepared you to undertake your current research. So, instead, review your writing and see if there’s anything salvageable in what you previously produced. Maybe it won’t be the content, but perhaps you’ll find something in the structure of your proposal that worked really well for you then. Take a look, assess, and see if you can make what you had before fit what you’re currently working on.
Keep your options open
Another way to deal with change in your project is to keep your options open about what types of awards you can apply for. This advice may be more applicable for graduate students in certain fields and programs than others, but, in general, you should be creative in your search for funding. For instance, when I changed my project in my third year, I still had not begun major dissertation research and could benefit from more exploratory time doing preliminary research. Therefore, in addition to working on dissertation research grants, I also applied for a pre-dissertation research fellowship to help support my initial months in the field. If you’re in a situation like mine (i.e. dealing with some vagueness in terms of your timeline), the key to your funding search is to check the eligibility requirements for each award. If there doesn’t seem to be anything barring you from applying, and you can make the case for why you would be a good fit for the award, then go ahead and give it a try.
Seek feedback on your application
Finally, whatever you produce, don’t forget to seek feedback on your application. It’s okay to feel like you’re back to square one, especially after all the hard work you put into preparing whatever materials you were working on for your previous research –be it a preliminary proposal or a fully developed grant application. However, remember that you will be able to bring your new project up to speed with some perseverance. I know, because I was there! What will help you most as you are regaining the intellectual energy to put into your new project is to make sure that you have a group of people from whom you can solicit feedback on your research. This feedback cycle can include your advisor, fellow graduate students, mentors, family members, GradFund fellowship advisors, and whoever else you think may help, but you should have a set of people to share your work with, and get used to sharing it as often and early on in the process as possible–this is how you will make your application stronger.
While changing your dissertation project may throw you off track in sticking to your plans for applying for external funding, the suggestions above demonstrate that there are ways to work around this potential obstacle. Once you get over the initial setback and start working on your applications, you will see that you will regain your momentum!