How to Fail at Research Grant Proposals


[Update: this was a quick one-off. For a way better article, used at a major Boston-area university for teaching scholars how to reach a broader audience, see Six Skills Scholars Can Learn from Copywriters, which applies to grant writing and a lot more.]

Before applying for research grants to fund my dissertation, I came across one of the most helpful pieces of advice that I’ve ever read. It can be applied beyond grant applications I’m sure, but I took this advice and nailed down a Fullbright and, even more difficult to get, a Châteaubriand. There’s a lot that goes into a good grant proposal, such as showing that you’ve done your background research, that you have thought through the feasibility of the whole thing, that you’ve demonstrated that you have the skills, knowledge and contacts to pull it off and that the grant itself is essential for doing so.

But then comes the question of why and the authors pointed out that this is a common stumbling block, though it never should be (that is, you might have trouble proving feasibility, because that’s the nature of fresh research, but you should never be at a loss as to why finding an answer would be worth it). I’ve since had a chance to read several grant proposals and surprisingly, this is often where the applications fail. It’s not uncommon to see applicants who give a reason for their study that is no reason at all. Exampe:

Reason: “This has never been done before”
Objection 1: Maybe that’s because it’s impossible.
Objection 2: Maybe because it’s uninteresting.

In any case, the fact that something has never been studied before doesn’t mean it should and certainly not that I should give you money to do it. Also, the reasons you want grant money are not necessarily the reasons you deserve grant money and you always need to know which is which.

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