Writing a Successful Grant Application
by David C. Lindberg, Professor Emeritus
I prepared this document some years ago for the benefit of applicants to UW's Institute for Research in the Humanities. But I think much of the advice is also applicable (with modest adjustments) to grad student research applications.
The attached announcement lays out the rules of the Humanities Institute Fellowship program. Let me add a few notes that may be of help to people who plan to apply or who are considering whether to apply.
The most important element in a successful application is a clear and persuasive description of the proposed research. Vague proposals, however brilliant they may be, are not likely to be successful. The Selection Committee wants a clear definition of the project, including some rough indication of the conclusions you expect to reach and the methodology you expect to employ. You need to discuss the importance of the project within your discipline and for other humanistic disciplines. Projects in such a preliminary state that these questions cannot be answered are unlikely to be funded. The proposal needs to be simultaneously ambitious and realistic; that is, the Selection Committee is most interested in funding projects of major significance, but don't propose to accomplish the impossible.
It helps if you can demonstrate progress on the project -- say, one or two chapters of a book already written, or articles that deal in preliminary fashion with the project. It also helps if you can show how the proposed research grows out of (without duplicating) previous research, or how it will open the door to future research.
Track-record is a major factor in the selection of fellowship recipients. For example, a long fallow period immediately preceding the date of application is not going to help your application. If you have deficiencies in this regard, they cannot be quickly repaired, of course, but you may want to prepare for a successful application to the Humanities Institute by getting some research done and some scholarship published before you apply. (The closer you are to your doctorate, the less significant this criterion is likely to be.) Your vita should contain a complete, but not an inflated, account of your scholarly or academic accomplishments. Give complete publication data for published scholarship, including page numbers for articles (and even a page count for books); failure to supply this data is often interpreted as an attempt to conceal a small publication behind a large title.
The best measure the Selection Committee has of the quality of your mind is apt to be the quality of the prose in your application. A clear, graceful, convincing description of the proposed research, intelligible to non-specialists and free of disciplinary jargon, is a critical feature of a successful proposal.
Finally, the Selection Committee is inevitably influenced by the quality of the letters of recommendation. Have these letters written, insofar as possible, by scholars themselves capable of writing clear and persuasive prose and willing to address in a serious way the merits of the proposed research and your qualifications for carrying it out.