Why Grant-Writing Matters (Even if you don’t get the grant.)

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Robert Cole is a PhD candidate in 20th century Chinese cultural-intellectual history at New York University. His research and teaching approach the modern history of China from a global perspective, with particular interest in problems of translation, transnational intellectual and cultural exchange, and global histories of economic and social thought. Robert’s dissertation research has been supported by the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) fellowship, the Center for Chinese Studies at the National Central Library of Taiwan, and the NYU Graduate School of Arts and Science. 

As I sat down to write this post about my experience in applying for grants in graduate school, I decided to glance through the folder of completed grant applications I’ve kept on my computer.  The first thing I was struck by was how very different my project is now, compared to the first proposal I made nearly four years ago.  The second thing I noticed was just how many applications there were: I’d written nearly forty separate requests for funding over the course of a seven-year PhD program.  I’d like to think that these two observations were, in fact, related.  Grant-writing is an unescapable reality of academic life—the thing we have to do so that we can do the thing we actually want to do in the archive, the lab, or the field—but it can also play a crucial role in the circuitous process by which vague research topics are transformed into clear arguments.

 In my own case, my dissertation work in NYU’s history department began with an inchoate interest in early-twentieth century Chinese debates over the nature and revolutionary potential of China’s agrarian population.  My earliest attempt to request funding for this topic was a jargon-laden essay full of obscure references and vague assertions.  In other words, I did just about everything that you’re not supposed to do in a grant application.  Unsurprisingly, that application didn’t get me very far.

After defending my dissertation proposal, I used summer funding from my department to travel to Beijing for an initial round of research.  During my time there, I met several professors at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who steered my work in productive directions, allowing me to completely reimagine my project for a second round of grant applications.  This time, I had a better sense both of the practical archival needs of my project and of the potential broader significance of my work.  Now I was telling a story of how the figure of the Chinese peasant took on global significance during the 1920s-30s, as writers within China and around the world drew attention to the depth and breadth of China’s rural crisis.  This reframing of the project did not catch the attention of the big yearlong research fellowships, but it did secure five months’ funding from the Center for Chinese Studies in Taipei, Taiwan.

Like my time in Beijing, my work in Taipei allowed me to explore new possible directions within my research, but I did not realize just how productive this time had been until I’d returned to New York and had sat down to write the next round of grant applications.  While in the midst of archival research, it’s easy (and perhaps even desirable) to slip into a sort of research myopia, in which you spend days asking and answering questions at the most micro- of micro-levels.  There’s very little time to step back and consider the “big picture” into which all of these micro-questions should eventually be fitting.  Grant-writing, however, operates entirely at the level of the “big picture,” and it was useful to be forced to consider such questions as I emerged from the archive and embarked on yet another quest for money.


At this point, I benefited not only from additional experience but also from the input of my colleagues.  The history department organized a hugely helpful grant proposal peer-editing workshop—and I would recommend taking advantage of any such opportunities your departments or program may organize (or even organizing one yourself).  The usefulness of an outsiders’ perspective on your work can’t be overstated, and I also enjoyed learning more about the research of other students in my program.  As a result of these discussions, my work began to coalesce around the concept of “crisis” as the central category that informed global inquiries into the state of 1920s-30s rural Chinese society.

This time, I was successful in securing one of the national yearlong research fellowships: the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) fellowship.  This program, sponsored by the US Department of Education, generously supports social scientific and humanistic research in areas of the world other than the United States or Western Europe.  In my case, I was requesting funding to return to Beijing to continue my work at the National Library of China and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.  I also expressed an interest in developing professional contacts at Nankai University in Tianjin, which has since the 1920s been a major center for research on the Chinese agrarian economy.

The support from Fulbright-Hays DDRA made possible the most significant transformation in my research thus far: whereas my work had previously been best described as “intellectual” or “cultural-intellectual” in orientation, I was able to ground my work in several archival collections that demonstrate the practical social significance of the intellectual debates I had been studying.  From experimental rural currencies in Shanxi province to “model villages” on the outskirts of Chongqing, my dissertation now approaches the abstract topic of global “rural crisis” by way of local Chinese experiences and case studies.  Such a granular approach would not have been possible without the advice of my mentors in China or my access to Chinese sources and archives.

Although I’ve spent the last few paragraphs sketching out a rather triumphal narrative, I’d like to close by unsettling that narrative.  What my story above elides are the many rejections I received, including from grants far less selective than the Fulbright-Hays.  After all, my “Grant Apps” folder contains nearly forty completed applications, and among them were only two “major” successes.  I bring this up only to underscore the fundamental inscrutability and contingency of this process.  I would not hesitate to encourage anyone to apply for the Fulbright-Hays DDRA or similar grants—as I think my experience attests, there are potential benefits in the grant-writing process even if the application is ultimately unsuccessful.  It is both a truism and a truth that there are many more projects deserving of funding than there is grant money currently in the system.  As many rejection letters have told me, one shouldn’t assume that failure to receive a given grant represents a negative judgment of the quality of one’s work.  It’s important, as well, to keep in mind that this relative scarcity of funding resources is a problem that has only gotten worse in recent years.  Indeed, the Fulbright-Hays DDRA had a near-death experience in 2011 and remains subject to the political vagaries of Congressional reauthorization.  Given this precariousness, those of us in the social sciences and humanities should continue to argue for the broader social value of our work, so that opportunities like the Fulbright-Hays can continue to inspire global scholarship and discussions.

Here more from Robert Cole and other NYU fellowship and grant recipients at the National Fellowship Opportunities Panel: Hear and Learn from the Experts on Thursday April 9th from 5:30pm to 7:00pm at NYU Wasserman in Presentation Room A (133 East 13th Street). RSVP here.