Grant Season Journal, Part 2

Please note: the application procedures described in this article are no longer applicable.  Please refer to the Programs section of the Foundation’s website for current application procedures.

Grant Season Journal, Part 2

Our President returns with another installment of invaluable advice for building a successful grant proposal.

How to write winning answers to our project description questions.

This is the second installment in our blog on writing winning proposals for Wenner-Gren (Here is the first). Good and convincing answers to the project description questions are essential – they are the core of your application and its success depends on how well you answer these questions.

What follows is based on my experience in reading and reviewing almost 9,000 Wenner-Gren applications. Believe what I say here – I know what I am talking about. Remember that you only have limited space to answer each question. For the full page answers this amounts to somewhere between 700 and 750 words depending on how long or short your words are and how many paragraphs you use.  Take some time to think about constructing your answers with the space limitations in mind.

My first piece of general advice is to read about answering these questions in our application procedures. The second is to be as clear and to the point about your research as possible.  There is not enough space to waffle or otherwise get off the point. Also avoid the excessive use of jargon at all costs.

Question 1:      Describe your research question/hypothesis or research objective. That is, what will be the focus of your investigation?

This answer should clearly outline what you are going to do. In the application procedures we remind you that the research questions, hypotheses, or objectives should be narrowly focused and answerable with the time frame of the funded project. They should not be presented as if the answers were already known. We also advise you to be realistic about what you can achieve.  Many applications fail because they present vast, unfocused research topics that are simply unrealistic. We would rather fund a narrowly focused project that has an excellent potential to actually achieve what it intends.

You should also remember that Wenner-Gren funds theoretically oriented research. My best advice to any applicant is to start out their answer to Question 1 with a clear statement of the general theory that informs the research. Only a few sentences (or a short paragraph) are needed here, but it is essential to demonstrate from the beginning (1) how your research is derived from a certain body of theory, and (2) why your proposed research is an ideal way to contribute to that body of theory.  In other words, justify your focused research project in the context of the broader theoretical questions or debates and do this upfront.  Once you have established the theoretical relevance of the research, go on to discuss and justify the importance of the focused and achievable research questions/hypotheses/objectives that will guide your research.

Question 2:      How does your research build on existing scholarship in anthropology and closely related disciplines? Give specific examples of this scholarship and its findings.

Don’t think that this is merely a literature review question and don’t simply “dump” an unfocused summary of literature here.  This question gives you the opportunity to discuss the theoretical framework that has guided you in formulating your research questions and demonstrate how your research is derived from this literature. It is surprising how many applications are declined on the basis of an inadequate answer to this question.

In the application procedures, we advise you to clearly demonstrate that you have a good knowledge of the anthropological literature as well as other disciplinary literature relevant to the topic of your research. When you are answering this question, also keep the following in mind:

  1. Make sure that you are up-to-date with the relevant literature, but also don’t forget older pieces of relevant research. Reviewers are reading this question to assess how prepared you are to carry out your research and whether you appreciate the historical development of the discipline as well as the current arguments and debates.
  2. Don’t only cite the narrow research relevant to your topic in the particular geographic area you are working in – or if you are an archaeologist, the time period – or if you are a primatologist, the particular species, etc. To demonstrate the theoretical importance of your work, it is essential to cite the broader literature — material that is theoretically relevant but may be from a different geographical area, time period, or species, etc.  I can’t stress this point enough. Think theoretically and not just locally – it is important.
  3. Also, don’t assume that the only relevant literature is written in English. This is particularly important if you are going to carry out research in a location where there is a strong anthropological or archaeological tradition of publication in other languages (e.g. Latin America). Wenner-Gren reviewers are international and know the relevant literature. Each year applications are turned down because they appear parochial in ignoring this relevant material. Don’t fall into this category.

A last to point to remember is that all of the literature listed in your bibliography must be cited in the textual part of the application. Don’t “pad” your bibliography with literature that you do not discuss in the body of your application.

Question 3:    What evidence will you need to collect to answer your research question? How will you go about collecting and analyzing this evidence?

This question is another one that might seem deceptively simple. However, again, a significant number of applications are declined because of an inadequate answer to this question. In our application procedures, we advise you to clearly and explicitly demonstrate that the evidence gathered and the analytical procedures proposed will realistically support the research goals that are discussed in question one. Don’t forget this!

A good approach is to list your research questions/hypotheses/objectives again in your answer to this question and demonstrate in as much detail as possible how you will gather the data to answer each of these. If you are a social anthropologist, don’t just say, for example, that you are going to use participant observation. You must provide more information to assure us that you will gather appropriate data to answer your research questions. Likewise, if you are an archaeologist, justify your sampling or excavation strategy, etc., or if you are a human biologist, the methods you are employing. Wenner-Gren supports all types of research methodology – the important thing is to justify your research design/methodology in the context of what you intend to achieve. Don’t think that a short answer will suffice here – make use of all of the space available.

It is also a good idea to take some space – more or less depending on the project – to demonstrate how you are going to analyze your data. This is particularly important if you have large quantitative datasets.

This is also important if you are requesting funds for transcription. We only support word-for-word transcription if it is essential to the research methodology (e.g. discourse analysis). It is up to you to demonstrate this necessity, etc. It is not sufficient to say that you are going to use NVivo (or other similar software). You need to demonstrate that you have thought through your analytical methodology in more detail than simply saying that this approach will help you to interrogate your data.

Here – as well as throughout the application – it is important to keep feasibility in mind. Our main concern is that you will be able to achieve your results. You need to convince us of this and this question is your opportunity to do so. Give us a timeline for your research and if the research is to be conducted in phases, you should strongly justify why this is necessary. Remember that the Foundation does not fund trips home to consult with supervisors/colleagues, to carry out preliminary data analysis or to attend conferences, nor does it fund follow-up trips to the field to verify or augment data, etc.

Question 4:    Describe your training and preparedness for this research (examples: language competence, technical skills, previous research, and any other relevant experience). Describe any work you have already done on this project, and/or how it relates to your prior research. If you are collaborating with other academic personnel describe their role/s in the project and the nature of the collaboration.

In this question we DO NOT particularly want to hear about the courses you have taken in graduate school. We are interested in your specific preparation for the research to be undertaken and whether you are ready to “hit the ground running.”

The language issue is important. We do not normally fund research carried out through interpreters and it is up to you to demonstrate that you have the linguistic skills to make the project a success. We are realists in relation to gaining competence in field languages and if competence can only be gained in the initial phases of the fieldwork, we want you to be clear about this and outline your strategy for gaining competence. We will fund research assistance to help you achieve this goal, but we do not fund tuition costs for language course-work (or tutoring) at home. We expect you to be as ready as possible for your fieldwork. Each year applications are turned down because the reviewers do not feel that the applicant has demonstrated sufficient linguistic competence to carry out the proposed research.

While we are talking about being prepared for fieldwork, we also expect you to have made local contacts and arranged academic affiliations where appropriate. We don’t fund applicants that are going into the field cold without have done any preparatory work. If you have done pilot work for your project definitely tell us about it and show how the current application builds on that pilot work. Give us a short summary of your pilot data and results – this always helps.

It is also important to be entirely clear and upfront about any risks involved with the research.   Are there any safety or access issues involved with the fieldwork or other forms of data collection? If so, take some time to explain how these issues will be managed. We are concerned about the safety of our grantees in the field as well as of the research participants.  Talk about this if appropriate. We also don’t want you to be overly optimistic about access to museum collections (or other data sources – e.g. guerilla groups, etc.) where access is known to be difficult or dangerous. If this situation applies, you need to supply evidence that access is possible (and safety issues have been addressed).

A final point concerns any ethical issues involved with the research. We expect that all research projects will be approved by the applicant’s institutional review board or other relevant review committees (e.g. Ethics committees, Animal Care and Use committees, local scientific, academic, museum, institutional or tribal authorities, etc.). However, certain projects deal with especially vulnerable groups (e.g. children, institutionalized research participants, or individuals experiencing unusual emotional stress). If this situation applies, we expect you to discuss how you will obtain informed consent and manage any follow-up issues that may arise such as supplying access to counseling, etc.

Question 5:    The goal of the Wenner-Gren Foundation is to support original and innovative research in anthropology. What contribution does your project make to anthropological theory and to the discipline?

This question is the shortest question of the five questions – it is only half a page long. But it is also the most difficult question to answer, particularly if you have not followed my advice in demonstrating the theoretical derivation of your work earlier in the application. If you have clearly discussed the relevant theory in your answer to questions one and two, you shouldn’t have any problem here. All you need to do is expand on your earlier discussions and clearly and explicitly show how your research will make a specific contribution, or contributions, to on-going debates.

The big problem in answering this question arises when you have not established a strong theoretical context earlier in the textual part of the proposal. Many applicants just say, for example, that their work will contribute to the anthropology of religion, or to economic anthropology, etc. – and expect us to fill in the specifics of the relevance.  This is definitely not sufficient! You need to be very clear about the nature of the contribution and not expect us to do it for you. At the Foundation we tend to call question five the “killer” question. Many applicants produce vague and unfocused answers here and their applications are declined as a result. Don’t be among this group and don’t forget the importance of establishing the theoretical importance of your work for funding from Wenner-Gren.

This is probably enough for now. Next week I will be talking about resubmitting a previously declined application and how to prepare a convincing resubmission statement. The main point is not to despair (too much) if your proposal is declined. Resubmitted Wenner-Gren proposals have a higher success rate than first-time applications – but more on this next week.


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