The deadline for the NSF Cultural Anthropology Program Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (NSF CA-DDRIG) is coming up on August 17th.* This post offers 10 tips for finishing up and submitting a successful proposal.
Because the NSF is among the more involved and challenging dissertation research grants, this post assumes that you’ve got a working draft. While I wouldn’t discourage you from starting now, know that the NSF is longer and more complex than other proposals. In future posts, I’ll explore how to write a successful grant proposal from scratch, using the Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant as a model.
Welcome to the inaugural post of How To Anthropology! This blog is intended as a space to discuss the logistics of doing work as a cultural anthropologist. I’m a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, currently doing fieldwork for my dissertation in Delhi, India.
In this first series of posts, I'll explore how to write successful grant proposals, focusing specifically on the NSF DDRIG, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, and the Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant, which are all grants that have funded my own studies and research. Later, I plan to discuss tips and tricks for fieldwork methods, getting published, teaching, writing, and more. If you've got comments, questions, or ideas for future posts, please leave a comment below or drop me an email.
So, let’s talk about the NSF DDRIG. Here are 10 tips for finishing up and submitting a successful proposal to get your dissertation fieldwork funded...
1. Get Help Now
If you haven’t already, get your hands on others’ successful proposals and study them: not just for content but also for the structure of their writing. Ask yourself what each sentence and each paragraph is doing.
And while you’re reaching out to professors and classmates for examples of successful proposals, ask them for feedback on your own drafts. Tell them you’ll send them a draft by such and such date and then hold yourself to it! Don’t worry about how ready or not your writing is. Getting feedback from others is at least twice as efficient a use of your time as struggling through on your own. Ask them to summarize the most important points of the draft and also to point out places where the narrative is vague or confusing. Listen to them! Resist the urge to defend your work. Only after you've really heard their comments, and if they're willing, use the exchange as an opportunity to talk through your ideas.
2. Get Your House in Order
NSF has many more moving parts than most other grants in Anthropology. Take care of your researcher profile, your advisor’s researcher profile, your data management plan, your budget, and create a draft research summary. Have you liaised with your department administrative staff, or your campus Sponsored Research Office (SRO) to get set up on Fastlane? Each of these is an added stress that will distract you from the proposal, so take care of them now so you can focus on what’s most important - writing a compelling research proposal.
3. Create Structure and Optimize White Space
All writing, but grant proposal writing in particular, is an exercise in seeing the forest from the trees. Before we even get into the content of your proposal, take a step back and look at the thing itself.
Zoom out in your word processor and ask yourself the following questions:
- Is your proposal divided into relevant sections, with section and sub-section headings that are clear and logical? Or does it look like one giant block of text?
- Have you used bold face, italics, numbers, and other formatting to break up your text and make it visually inviting, as well as scan-able? Or does your text look monotonous, with all of your important points buried in with everything else?
- Have you attended to each section, using page breaks to keep content in its place? Or do certain sections break awkwardly across pages, leaving your sections decapitated and your headers hanging?
Structuring your writing has the added bonus of making it easier to actually write. Highlighting what's most important for your reader also forces you to pay attention to those most important elements: your hypothesis or research questions, methods, and literatures.
Structure also allows you to play with space for balance and added emphasis. Is your personal profile section (I called mine Preliminary Research and Preparation of the Co-PI) twice as long as your Research Plan? If so, that’s a problem that needs fixing. Is your literature review twice as long as your research description? Make the necessary cuts and tend to what needs more development.
Make sure you leave some of what graphic designers call “white space” in your proposal; that's the blank space around your text. Leave a space between sections, for example, or between important sub-sections. These visual effects cannot be underestimated. Because they make your proposal more inviting to read, they also lend it a sense of being polished (which can help distract from inconsistencies in the writing itself). If you pack everything in, your reader will feel overwhelmed and under-impressed. The right balance of structure and space makes a winning first impression.
4. Pay Attention to Your Methods
Whenever I feel stuck wondering what my research is actually about, I go back to my methods section. I find it's my methods that ground my research in a place and time and among people and things that I can see in my mind whether I've been there and done the research or not. Here's the bare bones of this section from my NSF proposal:
Successful grant proposals make the feasibility of their proposed research abundantly clear. The methods section is where the rubber hits the road. Can your reader visualize what exactly you're going to do or not? That's what it comes down to. If the mental picture you're painting is fuzzy, you’re not going to get funded.
In my first year of grad school, Susan Greenhalgh gave me invaluable advice about writing a methods section. For each method of data collection, she said, specify these three things:
- What the method is.
- What kind of data it will allow you to collect.
- How you will analyze that data.
Sounds simple, but these questions can be tough to answer directly! They force you to imagine what you will be doing from beginning to end, and that’s why answering them explicitly will take your proposal to the next level.
5. Be Conceited in Your Literature Review
You know those people who, no matter what they're talking about, somehow always manage to be talking about themselves? Well, that’s the attitude you want to channel when writing your lit review. You want every citation to be pointing back to your own research questions.
To do this, the important thing is not to get hung up on the idea that there is one way of summarizing someone else’s work. No two people could summarize a work in exactly the same way if they tried, so make that freedom work for you. For the NSF DDRIG, I found it helpful to group my literatures into three broad categories. These are not ready-made categories out there in the world. I made them up to advance my own project, and they emerged only after much tinkering.
My research explores the ways in which transportation planners in Delhi, India negotiate demands for both middle class mobility and environmental sustainability in planning infrastructure for the city’s future. I organized my relevant literature into the following categories: Bureaucratic Affect and Rationality, Urban and Environmental Futures, and Mobility and the Middle Class. Each of these categories encompasses a family of literatures that may or may not have obvious connections. I used my own research interests to make them connect.
6. Keep Your Personal Profile to the Point
Like the lit review section, you want your own personal and professional background to serve the interests of your research questions. Only include background that can be made relevant to the project at hand. For previous research that’s unrelated in content to your proposed project, focus on the methods and skills you used. Did an earlier project give you experience writing a literature review, conducting interviews, transcribing those interviews, or analyzing survey results? These are good, concrete examples of skills that you have. Use the questions from your methods section (see Tip #4 above) to talk about previous work: what methods did you use, what kind of data did you collect, how did you analyze that data, and what were your findings?
If you have preliminary fieldwork experience for your current project, play that up! Highlight how your research questions have been shaped by preliminary fieldwork encounters, especially how and why you’ve discarded previous hypotheses in order to pursue the questions that now inform your project. You want to make it seem that everything you've ever been doing has been preparing you to do this particular project, while only YOU are really qualified to carry it out.
7. Nail That First Sentence, First Paragraph, and First Section
Make these really count. Ideally, you want your first sentence to encompass all the key components of your research while also drawing the reader in: the context, a hint of surprise, and your own take on the situation. That’s a tall order! Alternatively, you can use the first sentence to establish important (and compelling!) background for what your research is really about. That’s what I ended up doing in my NSF proposal:
I think this is a pretty good first paragraph. It would be better if it took less than 4 sentences to get into my own analysis. The best first sentences and first paragraphs manage to combine both background and speculative or suggestive analysis at the same time.
As you craft and re-craft these very first lines, ask yourself:
- Is my first line short and to the point?
- Does it draw the reader in? (We are not always the best judges of how interesting our own work is. Therefore, this is a good question to ask a friend or faculty reviewer.)
- How long does it take to get to the question I'm interested in?
- Have I eliminated all jargon and less-than-commonly-known theoretical terms?
- Does this paragraph describe my methods and what I'm actually going to do in the field?
- Is the story I'm telling current, or have I begun so far in the past that it's not obvious whether the phenomenon I'm describing still exists?
- Would my mother/father/sister/brother/non-academic stand-in understand this condensed story?
One of the requirements that is particular to the NSF is the section about significance, including Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Use these sections to reiterate the main points of your research, in terms of both research questions and methods.
For Intellectual Merit, ask yourself:
- How does your project add to the ethnographic record?
- To what debates within and beyond anthropology does it contribute?
- Are you using novel methods, unexplored archives, or collecting new kinds of data?
For Broader Impacts, ask yourself:
- How will your research benefit your interlocutors in the field?
- Are there public policies that your project might inform?
- Who’s currently engaged in the debates that you’re exploring, and how does adding an anthropological voice make a difference?
- Talk about what this project is not.
9. Use Language and Grammar Strategically
Never forget that you're applying for funding from the National Science Foundation, which these days lives under the threat of cuts from Congressional Republicans opposed to frivolous or fluffy research (i.e., science). It's not just that you have to justify your research to NSF. NSF has to justify your research to Congress. To give your proposal the necessary scientific air, use simple and clear grammatical constructions.
What does this actually mean?
- Use the third person throughout: "The Co-PI is trained in... Her coursework has included..." Never use "I," "we," or "you."
- Be very specific about your methods... See Tip #4 above: Pay Attention to Your Methods.
- Replace all passive voice constructions with the active voice:
- PASSIVE: "A metro system was built in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games."
- ACTIVE: "In an effort to shift traffic onto public transit, Delhi’s planners built a metro system in time for the city to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games."
Feel the difference?
- Eliminate adverbs:
- WITH ADVERBS: "Preliminary research for this project has shown that bus riders, car owners, as well as planners and policy-makers have very different visions for the city's future."
- WITHOUT ADVERBS: "Preliminary research for this project has shown that bus riders, car owners, as well as planners and policy-makers each see Delhi’s BRT as an index and an instrument of the city’s future development, yet they differ on what that future looks like."
- Avoid jargon or theoretical language. If you must, limit usage to one per sentence.
- Break up list-like sentences with multiple clauses into several simpler sentences.
10. Give Proper Credit
Don't forget to include a References section and properly cite relevant literature in-text. I'd recommend using AAA citation style, because it will be anthropologists reviewing your proposal, but whether you use AAA, APA, MLA, or something else matters less than that you are consistent about it.
Now Go Get Your Research Funded!
You can do it!
*Note that you can apply to more than one section of the NSF DDRIG. For example, NSF Law & Social Sciences applications are due August 1, 2015, while applications for the NSF Science, Technology, and Society DDRIG are due August 3.