Strategies in Minimizing the Labor Intensive Process of Dissertation Research Proposal Writing and Some Tips on What to Keep in Mind – #RoR2018

Strategies in Minimizing the Labor Intensive Process of Dissertation Research Proposal Writing and Some Tips on What to Keep in Mind – #RoR2018

Before I get started, I want to point out that this article is aimed at pre-field graduate students and undergraduates, and that the context is working with American funding agencies. YMMV.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, my dissertation research is supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSFGRFP) and the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Fellowship (FHDDRA). The former provides three years of funding that must be used in five years of graduate school. I can use it in place of a TA stipend while I’m on campus or I can use it during fieldwork. In my case, I’ve opted to defer it while I’m in the field so that I can use the Fulbright-Hays, and then I’ll use it when I get back so that I don’t have to TA while I write-up. The proposal that I wrote for the NSFGRFP was submitted during my senior year in college, and I’m sorry to say that I can’t recall a particular process that I used to write it. For those looking for information on how to write a proposal for the NSFGRFP, there are some useful websites, guides, and resources on the internet, and you can read my dreadful proposal here. The FHDDRA is another – much longer – story.

Start Early and Construct a Prototype
The sociocultural curriculum at Washington University is designed with very specific goals in mind, perhaps none more important than “get your research funded.” So, while I would like to say that the Proposal Writing course that we are privileged to have at WashU was the most influential to my ability to win money, the process started before that. First, I consider the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (NSFDDRIG) as a prototype, as it may be the longest and most comprehensive form of a dissertation research grant for sociocultural anthropologists. My proposal for the NSFDDRIG was ten pages, single-spaced, Times New Roman, 11pt font, justified, with one-inch margins on all sides. (Additionally, there was a four-page section of References Cited in the same format. I used the Chicago Manual of Style author-date citation.) That gives me an enormous amount of room to explain my project, and that’s important because proposal writing (for me) amounts to the spectre of my mentors watching as I write while incessantly asking, “Why is that important?” and “How do you know that?” The headers of the NSFDDRIG are up to the author, so I took some winning proposals which were generously donated by more senior graduate students and constructed my own in this order:

Problem Statement: What is the problem? Why is it important? Foreshadow every major point you’re going to make in the rest of the proposal. This section is constantly being retooled as new things are being added later in the proposal because you don’t want readers to find something out half-way through. At the same time, you’ve got to keep it brief.

Research Objectives (1, 2, and 3): Once I’ve explained the problem, I’ve got to explain what my objectives are to figuring out an answer to the problem. Here, you should foreshadow what kinds of data counts as satisfying these objectives and what kinds of methods are most appropriate for collecting that data.

Literature Review (with subsections): Backup a second. Your work is a response to other scholars’ work – you’re having a conversation – so you need to catch the reader up on what has been said so far and how your project proposes something new and different.

Research Methods (includes Timeline, Sampling Design, Data Collection, and Data Analysis)

Research Timeline: A broad overview of your plan. I put mine into a table that took up half-a-page and basically said, in “Months 1-2” (first column), I’ll be “Hiring research assistants; conducting focus group interviews with community stakeholders and gatekeepers; recruiting interview participants” and so forth.

Sampling Design: Who do you need to talk to and why? What methods will you use with them and what kind of data do you expect to get from them? How will those data answer objectives 1 or 2 or 3? (Tie it back to the rest of the proposal.)

Data Collection Methods: What are the methods you will use, what data do you expect to get from them, why are those data important to helping you make your argument, and how do those data relate to your objectives?

Data Analysis: Once you collect your data, what will you do to confirm that they address your objectives and how will you recognize that they do?

Broader Impacts: “encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes” (from NSF 15-556). For me, this meant giving back to the community and participants with which I work, giving back to the academic community in Dakar, and (lastly) engaging my home public though social media.

Research Experience: Who are you and why are you the right person for the job?

This is an important first consideration because it serves as a kind of checklist. One of the first things that I needed to do as a graduate student at WashU was prepare my “Second Year Paper,” a sort of part lit review, part non-thesis made up of three parts: two theoretical (I chose Postcolonial Theory and Masculinity) and one Area Studies (i.e. Senegal for me). This paper needed to be submitted to my committee by early-January of my second year. Just before that, in the fall semester of the second year, we’re taking a Research Methods in Anthropology course. Therefore, by the time we begin our Proposal Writing course in the spring of our second year, we’ve already got our literature review and our methods roughly done – which were a full seven pages of my ten-page proposal. The biggest challenge for me in the Proposal Writing course was not designing the research (much of that had already been cooking for a couple years), but stringing it all together in a cogent, deliberate, and airtight argument. While we spent weeks writing and re-writing and re-writing the Problem Statement and Objectives in a class dedicated to fine-tuning the argument, I was also taking a course in Argumentation through Ethnography which was teaching me – by deep-reading newly published ethnographic monographs – how to piece together arguments and turn data into evidence. That semester completely changed the way I thought about writing and the most significant lessons I learned were simple: Say what you’re going to do and don’t leave loose ends.

Sounds easy, but I’m having a panic attack just thinking about it.

Cut, cut, cut.
The reason, I think, that it’s important to begin with the NSFDDRIG is that it is easier (for me) to trim and cut material than it is to add. It is true that some agencies are asking different kinds of questions. The Social Science Research Council, for example, wants Mellon International Dissertation Research Fellowship proposals to draw heavily on interdisciplinarity, so I wrote about feminist geography, urban studies, global health, and the sociology of space. The Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant Application asks the dreaded Question 5: “What contribution does your project make to anthropological theory and to the discipline?” – an overwhelming question that one must answer in half of the space allotted to the other four questions! NSF and SSRC do care about your answer to this question, but they aren’t asking so explicitly, and having seen previous NSF and SSRC dissertation award proposals, I’m fairly certain that someone could skate by with barely a consideration to their contributions to anthropological theory and still be awarded money. Indeed, they have.

Aside from these differences in questions, the major components remain the same: What is the problem? What is the context of the problem? How are you going to figure it out? The most significant difference between the NSFDDRIG and the rest of my proposals is the page count. While the NSFDDRIG is up to ten pages, single-spaced, the Wenner-Gren is essentially four and a half pages, single-spaced; SSRC was ten pages, double-spaced; Fulbright U.S. includes a two-page, single-space “Grant Purpose” and a one-page, single-spaced personal statement; my Fulbright-Hays was eight pages, double-spaced. I think that completing the NSFDDRIG first, if possible, will allow you to get the fullest view of your research plan.

These lessons were further impressed upon me by a colleague who generously read and gave critical feedback on every single draft of my NFSDDRIG.

Find a community!
Lastly, I recommend joining a writing group, either on campus or online, where members are committed to regularly reading and commenting on each other’s writing. It, of course, helps if those members are either at the same level of proposal writing or are experienced and winning proposal winners in anthropology. Importantly: A winning proposal does not make it a model for future writers. First, sometimes people win because the problem statement is just that irresistible and compelling, despite their dreadful methodologies and incomplete literature reviews. (I know! I’ve seen them!) Second, as long as judges, entry rules, annual budgets, and trends in anthropology are changing from year to year, the target will always be moving. Do not take winning examples and attempt to replicate their formulas. It won’t work.

So, in the end, between April 2016 and June 2017, I wrote and submitted two FHDDRA proposals, I wrote three NSF-DDRIG proposals and submitted two, I wrote two Wenner-Gren proposals and submitted one, and I wrote and submitted one proposal to SSRC and one for the Fulbright U.S. That’s nine written proposals, seven submitted, and one awarded. But let’s be honest – they’re all basically the same.

To recap:
Develop a prototype. I recommend the NSFDDRIG.
Be recursive. Tie everything you write into something else you’ve already written. Justify every word and sentence.
Find a community of writers to work with.
Write a lot and submit a lot, but also don’t write too much because you already have a prototype. (That doesn’t make sense. I know.)

Next up: Ethical review or writing the interview instruments?

Dick Powis is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at dickpowis.com.