Ah, grant-writing season--it's definitely not the most wonderful time of the year. It's stressful. It always falls right before the holidays, with multiple applications due between mid-terms and finals. Having just wrapped up this year's season, and having spent much of 2019 writing five different dissertation grant proposals, plus a few resubmissions, and a handful of travel and seed grants, I do have some tips:
Timing & Preparation: Plan strategically. Figure out when you should start writing and submitting applications. Timing will vary by program, but you'll likely need to apply for fieldwork grants during your third and forth years. I first started applying to dissertation fieldwork grants in the fall of my third year. I had yet to complete all three of my comprehensive area exams and hadn't drafted a full dissertation proposal. So, it required some pretty heavy lifting to write those first applications. But the one thing that saved me was good preparation. By that time, I had already conducted a summer of preliminary fieldwork. And I had also taken a Social Network Theory and Analysis (SNA) class that required me to write a mock NSF grant as my final project. This allowed me to draft the beginnings of what would be my winning NSF-DRRIG proposal. Such early preparation helped to make the application process more manageable.
Know your audience: It may seem obvious, but every grant should be tailored to each funder's specifications. In other words, the grant proposal I submitted to the NSF is different than one I submitted to the SSRC or to Wenner-Gren or Fulbright. Read the CFP guidelines carefully. These, of course, provide you with technical requirements (page length, section titles, font size), but if read carefully, these can also provide insight into the types of projects funders are looking for. Also, be sure to try and review examples of both winning and unsuccessful proposals.* And take advantage of the resources around you; use your mentors and friends both in and outside your department as editors and reviewers.
If at first you don’t succeed: In general, submitting multiple times can increase your chances of winning. For example, the Wenner-Gren Foundation states that the success rate of second-time applicants is nearly twice that of first-time applicants. As my qualitative methods professor told me, grant writing is a numbers game. It’s not only about how good your idea is but also about how many proposals you’ve submitted, the number of other applicants, and how much funding is actually available that cycle. Plus, even if you don’t win, you do get the benefit of reviewer feedback in many cases (e.g., NSF, Wenner-Gren, Fulbright-Hays). And keep in mind that every time you rework your proposal, you're only making it better.
Other Great Resources:
The SSRC’s On the Art of Writing Proposals
NSF DDRIG-specific advice from Dr. James Holland Jones
The great political ecologist Michael Watts' take on dissertation grant writing
The Savage Minds blog post (be sure to read the comments too)
And finally, Dr. Steward Schrader’s blog series, Advice for Graduate Students: How to Win External Fellowships
*I’m happy to share both my winning and unsuccessful NSF-DDRIG proposals, just ask.