August 17, 2011

Wasting away again in Grantlandia

...searching for my lost book by Bernard.  Ya, that title needs to be read with the underlying melody of a certain Jimmy Buffet song, which is always good to hear when you are mired in the depths of the purgatory that is academic grant writing.  That's where I happen to be trapped at present.  Please feel free to send me a postcard, or say hi if you happen to be down here too.  If you know the way out, at least leave some bread crumbs to mark the path.  Seriously.

Moving on to the heart of the matter: I am in that special stage of graduate school where I spend the majority of my time attempting to create the perfect little document that will help me get that BIG, IMPORTANT GRANT so that I can actually go into the field and move on with my research.  For some reason that perfect little document remains elusive.  It is more than likely my own fault, rather than some macro-structural issue. There is definitely a learning curve when it comes to making appeals to that complex funding machine that few people truly understand.  When it comes to getting that BIG, IMPORTANT GRANT, I happen to be zero for two at this point.  So if this were a baseball game, I would be in literal and metaphorical trouble.  But, I could always get inspiration from one of the all-time great hitters like Rod Carew, and pull off a clutch ninth inning hit.  That means money.  End of metaphor.

Anyway, I happen to find grant writing incredibly excruciating on numerous levels.  From what I hear around the halls of academia, I am definitely not alone.  On the flip side, I can't imagine having to spend hours and hours reading one grant after another about the "complexities" or "nuances" of this or that particular social conundrum.  Imagine that!  The whole grant writing process is filled with real people--and that's a good thing to keep in mind.  Let's not dehumanize the process, folks.  We're all just people, trying to find our way in this world.  Insert moody, yet pensive background music that makes us rethink our life priorities.

Enough pensiveness.  Let's talk about the trials and travails of grant writing.  I'll start, with some thoughts, questions, and observations that I have learned along the way.  Then hopefully some of your will chime in and give me your two or three cents about the matter.  Keep in mind the fact that I am not currently a grant writing MASTER, and realize that I am in the middle of working through all of this out too.  I may never figure it out!  If you are in the same fix, read along and join in.  If you are not quite at this stage and terrified of the whole process, read along and join in.  If you are in fact a grant writing master, read along and join in.  If you are currently sitting on piles of grant money that you don't know what do to with...WHAT??!  HOW?!?  Just kidding.  Please read along, everyone, and let's see if we can make that special place known as Grantlandia just a bit sunnier--or at least less horrifyingly stressful.

(in no particular order of importance)

1. Style.  I am finding the question of style to be a little difficult at times.  As you can see, I tend to be a little on the narrative side, but there just isn't a lot of space to GET NARRATIVE.  So word choices need the Hemingway method, which is all about getting straight to the point.  Hemingway is probably too wordy, but you get the point.  Be concise.

2. Style, part II: On the other end of the spectrum, there is what I call the "citation dumping" issue.  This is where you make a claim and then proceed to fill the next six lines with citations, like this: (Anderson 1977, 2009, 2011a, 20011b, 2012; Parsons 1919; Boas 1899; Kroeber 1945; Mead 1921; Farmer 2004; Malinowski 1928; Davis 1990; 2002; Low 2005, 2009..and so on).  When is it enough?  When is it going completely overboard?  Does it depend on the actual grant in question?  Does it depend on the point being raised?  For me, this particular stylistic move is particularly unreadable, but I understand that it has a certain utility.  I'd be interested to see what some others have to say about this.

3. Preparation.  I read an essay by Michael Watts about writing grants called "The Holy Grail: In Pursuit of the PhD Proposal."  Here is what he had to say: "One of the great curiosities of academia is that the art of writing a research proposal--arguably one of the most difficult and demanding tasks confronting any research student--is so weakly institutionalized."  The essay is online here, along with some other great resources for proposal writing (thanks, UC Berkeley, for putting that online).  Considering the difficulty and importance of this process, it seems like grant writing should be more integrated into the whole grad school process.  Right?  So why isn't this the case?  Or is it actually the case, just not everywhere?  Inquiring minds would like to know.

4. Eye strain.  It's a good idea to look away from your computer screen every 20-30 minutes, at least for about 20 seconds.  This decreases the need to utilize this stuff.

5. Reality check: So what happens when students don't get these grants?  The what?  Should they sit around for years on end waiting until they do get one, or find some other way to get themselves into the field?  When is it time to either change the field site or the topic?  This is a big question, and a huge problem in the overall political economy of grad school these days.  If the money isn't there--or the research just isn't appealing to funding institutions--what should a grad student do?

6. The F-Word.  No, not that f-word.  I am talking about Foucault, and more generally about some of the issues with relying too heavily on THE BIG THINKERS THAT EVERYONE CITES YEAR AFTER YEAR.  I learned this lesson the hard way the first time around, and then got some strategic advice about using THE BIG THINKERS.  Use them wisely, and concisely.  Also, keep in mind the fact that reviewers come from different theoretical camps: don't beat them over the head with your favorite BIG THINKER, because it might work against you.  This was some of the best advice I received: If the reviewer is already on board with your particular theoretical camp, then it doesn't take much to let them know where you stand.  The strategy comes into play when you learn how to put just enough so that it works on all fronts.  I am still working on this, by the way.

7. Harry Wolcott said this: "For the most part, the research that gets attended to is research on topics that attracts money and status, political factors beyond the control researchers themselves." (In The Art of Fieldwork, 2005: 135).  Do you agree or disagree with this statement?  Does it all come down to politics?  A bigger issue to keep in mind.

8. Remember the massive economic crisis of 2008?  Ya, that's not over yet.  So this means that funding is pretty constrained these days.  Which makes it all the more imperative to really think about your budget.  You don't want to be dismissed outright because you asked for 19 grand when you only *really* needed about three.  Be realistic.

9. Follow the grant directions closely.  Don't get disqualified on a technicality.  Make sure that you actually answer the questions that the proposal guidelines ask, or that you have all of the required sections where they should be.

10. Question: What's the difference between a grant proposal and the actual research on the ground?  What happens when all of those theories and methodological frameworks--written up for a grant competition to sound innovative and appealing--run into the messy realities of actual fieldwork?  This leads to another question: Is grant writing really a good way to conceptualize an actual research plan?  Is there a difference between creating a research plan and writing a competitive grant proposal?  Should there be a difference?

11. Rejection.  Look, don't take it personally, and be sure to really look at what the reviewers said--even if you disagree with them.  You're going to face the same process again, and will need to defend your stance.  Oftentimes, you get some pretty good ideas/feedback from those reviews,a and it can help you as you learn to navigate these kinds of processes.  Learn from the experience, and keep going forward.

12. If at all possible, find some time to take a break every now and again.  Grants matter, yes.  And they are incredibly stressful to prepare.  But, taking a short break can do wonders for mental clarity and creativity.  Go outside, look at some trees, stare at the ocean for a while--whatever.  It helps.

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