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Graduate Grants: Writing a Successful Proposal

Graduate Grants: Writing a Successful Proposal

Prove you're worth a grant or fellowship.

By Kathleen Carmichael, Ph.D., and Kay Peterson, Ph.D.

April 21, 2009

You’ve found the perfect grant for your graduate program. Now you need to convince the grant or fellowship committee that you’re the one to fund.

More Than a Scholarship Application

A grant proposal is a unique document. You have more freedom than you do when writing a scholarship application – and you have to do more planning as well. And even though you may know your project pretty well, don’t simply submit your dissertation abstract. A good proposal requires careful preparation, sensitivity to your audience and the ability to answer some key questions.

Preparing to Write

Before putting pen to paper, you need to do some homework. With a grant proposal, you’re explaining how your project fits the grant committee’s objectives. So before you write, you have to understand those objectives and prepare yourself to address them.

  • Learn about the granting agency. Check out the organization’s journals, publications and Web site. Look for a mission statement, major projects and do some research on the history of the organization.
  • Research the granting institution’s offerings. This is key if the grant covers expenses for research at a particular facility. Be prepared to identify the particular resources – artifacts, manuscripts, equipment – that are key to your project. Your university’s reference librarian can tell you about online services profiling holdings at research facilities nationwide.
  • Find out who’s on the selection committee. It could be professors, librarians, collection curators, business leaders who underwrite the grant, or a combination. Be prepared to gear your application – the language you use and the technical level of your explanation – to that particular audience.
  • Be ready to describe the nuts and bolts of your project and how you’ll use the grant. Produce an itemized budget estimating cost of your work as well as a timeline outlining how long it will take to complete the project.


Writing the Proposal

When you sit down to write, keep in mind that a grant proposal is not your dissertation abstract. You should avoid writing at the level of technical detail you used in your abstract. Assume you are writing for a lay audience and work to make your project accessible and interesting by casting your description in more generalist terms.

The best proposals answer three basic questions:

Question 1: What’s at stake in my project?
No matter who is making the decision to fund your project – business executives, scholars, collection curators – they will all want to know one thing: Is your project a good investment? This issue should take a prominent place in your proposal: Address it at the beginning of your proposal and maybe at the end as well. And make sure you answer this question for two audiences: the professional audience of peers in your field as well as non-specialists.

Question 2: What exactly can you accomplish in this time frame and/or with this money?
You need to be specific and realistic about what you can accomplish with this grant. This is where your itemized budget and timeline come in. If you can set out achievable goals and present a realistic plan for achieving them, the committee will trust you to use their funding responsibly. As a bonus, doing this planning beforehand will help you put your plans into action.

Question 3: How will this grant contribute to your future career plans?
While your immediate research plans take center stage in your proposal, grant committees also want to know about you. Funding agencies hope to launch careers that will continue to lead the field. Writing a brief paragraph on your future plans lets the committee know that you are somebody destined for great things.

Writing a winning proposal takes effort, but it’s worth it. Your grant will support your project, improve your professional profile and help you make valuable career contacts. So expend the effort and look forward to reaping great benefits.


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