This post is part of a series where Rutgers grant and/or fellowship winners are invited to share their thoughts and experiences with the process of applying for funding in graduate school.
By Ariel Mond
As many graduate students already know, applying for dissertation research grants is a daunting process. After settling on a research topic, identifying your research sites and methodologies, and selecting grants to apply to comes the most daunting task of all: starting to write.
What, exactly, goes into a dissertation research grant proposal? In this post, I’ll offer some answers to this question, drawing on my experience as a Rutgers history Ph.D. student, a habitual GradFund advisee, and a recipient of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC)’s 2020-2021 International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF) for my research on the history of political imprisonment, decolonization, and human rights in post-World War II France. Specifically, I’ll outline the component parts of a dissertation research grant proposal and some ideas for how to start writing them.
As any GradFund advisor would surely caution, the exact structure of your grant proposal will depend on the grant for which you are applying and your discipline. However, many successful dissertation research grant proposals will contain similar components: an introduction; a background, methodology, and/or literature review; your previous research experience; your research plan; and a conclusion. Each of these sections, whether part of a proposal that’s 1500 words or 15 pages, ultimately serves a broader set of goals: to clearly show what your research is, why it’s important within and beyond your discipline, and how and why you are qualified to conduct it.
Your introduction is an important space: it is where you’ll set up the significance and shape of your project. Think of your project in terms of its questions or tensions. What is your research asking us to rethink or reconsider, and why is it surprising and important to do so? Introduce your project in its biggest terms, and then follow up with the broad strokes of what you intend to argue or examine. Short, clear, and impactful sentences are important here. Even without elaborating the specifics, your introduction should leave a grant reader with a concrete sense of what your project is, why it is important, and your authority as a researcher.
Your introduction is perhaps the most important part of your grant proposal; consequently, it may also be the most difficult to write. Before putting pen to paper on your introduction, try listing out all the “big questions” that your project asks. Test them out as opening lines, even if they feel too big or too vague. Come back to your introduction once you’ve written the rest of your proposal and have a clearer sense of what you want to say. Write, rewrite, get feedback (especially from GradFund!) and rewrite again. Your introduction is worth it.
Depending on your grant and discipline, background and literature review sections might be discrete or combined. For scientists and social scientists, a methodology section might also guide your discussion of background and scholarship. In any case, these sections function to allow a grant reader to more fully appreciate the stakes of your work. A background section will offer more context on your project. As a historian, for example, this section allowed me to offer a fuller picture of the historical content relevant to my research topic. Similarly, a literature review section should offer context and elaboration on the bodies of scholarship with which your project is in conversation. Try to think broadly about these fields of importance, engaging with scholars within and beyond your discipline. Many granting bodies, especially those that fund the humanities or social sciences broadly, will be interested to see a project that engages multiple relevant disciplines.
A successful literature review section will not only say that your project is important because it hasn’t been done before; it will also say, as much and as clearly as possible, why and how this work will offer something new to its surrounding fields of scholarship. This may be a particularly tricky task for a dissertation research grant proposal – after all, your research hasn’t been conducted yet, so it might be hard to speculate what your conclusions or your project’s significance will be. To get started with this section, reflect on works of scholarship that are important in two or three fields relevant to your research. Think about how your project interacts with these works. What are you doing that’s different, and what might we learn from the reframing or new research questions that you propose? The aim here is not to be conclusive, but suggestive; think broadly and creatively about what your research could do, with and beyond your engagement with other important scholarship.
A section on your previous research experience more explicitly establishes what your proposal has so far treated implicitly: your authority and qualifications to conduct this project. What exactly you include in this section will vary depending on your discipline and past experiences. You may, for example, feature information on an undergraduate or master’s thesis, archives you’ve consulted, language training, prior publications or articles in process – anything that compliments the work you propose to conduct. Focus your narrative in this section on how your previous experiences have prepared you for your current research, while also indicating certain important work for this project that you have yet to do. This balance will help establish you as a qualified (but not overqualified) scholar with a legitimate need and purpose for this dissertation research grant. To get started on this section, consult your CV and think back to research projects from other moments in your academic career. Consider how they have informed your research skillset and intellectual interests that have led to this project.
Your previous research experience section can then effectively set up a section on your research plan. This part of your proposal will detail what you intend to do with this dissertation research grant. Depending on your discipline, you might use this space to identify archives you’ll visit, interviews or ethnographies you’ll conduct, and your research locations and lengths of stay. In this section, be as specific about your research plan as possible. Justify your plan in ways that clearly relate back to the aims, arguments, and interventions of your project. This is another place to establish your scholarly authority and, moreover, show that you will productively use this research grant. To think through a research plan, try putting together a list of tasks you’d like to accomplish during the funding period and a calendar of when you’d do them.
Finally, you’ll end with a short conclusion, likely no more than two or three sentences, depending on the length of your grant proposal overall. This conclusion should reinforce what your research is, why it’s important, and why you are qualified to conduct it –and to conduct it, moreover, with the support of this grant. An effective conclusion will work in tandem with your introduction, offering an even more concise version of the major questions, significance, and importance of your project. As you write your conclusion, return to the rest of your proposal and identify key concepts or phrases that stand out as important in the proposal – make sure to include these in your introduction, body, and conclusion to provide the reader with clear and consistent signposting for the major ideas of your project.
There is no single or foolproof formula for a successful dissertation research grant proposal. The structure offered here is just one option; its relevance for you may depend on your specific discipline and intended grant. However, I hope that this reflection can help demystify the process and make it a bit easier to start writing. Understanding a proposal by isolating its component parts can help to break down a daunting grant application process into smaller, actionable tasks. Moreover, keeping in mind the major goals of a grant proposal –to clearly show what your research is, why it’s important within and beyond your discipline, and how and why you are qualified to conduct it— can elucidate what, exactly, it is that a dissertation research grant proposal should communicate.
A final word of advice: make many, many appointments with GradFund to discuss your grant proposals. Dissertation research grant writing can be a difficult and stressful exercise, and it undoubtedly requires plenty of time, feedback, and constantly revised drafts. Start writing early and discuss several versions of the same proposal with your GradFund and dissertation advisors. The process will feel discouraging at times, but every new draft will be better than the last. Good luck!
References and further reading:
Adam Przeworski and Frank Salomon, “On the Art of Writing Proposals: Some Candid Suggestions for Applicants to Social Science Research Council Competitions” (1988, 1995). https://s3.amazonaws.com/ssrc-cdn1/crmuploads/new_publication_3/the-art-of-writing-proposals.pdf
Karen Kelsey, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD Into a Job (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015), Chapter 51: “The Foolproof Grant Template” (337-344).