‘How to Get Grant Money in the Humanities and Social Sciences’

Professor discusses new book about finding the funds to do your project and advance your career.

January 31, 2019

Many graduate programs train Ph.D. students in the physical and biological sciences on how to apply for and manage grants. But many humanities and social science scholars have to teach themselves. A new book provides guidance, on everything from thinking of a project to identifying potential sources of funding to the application process. How to Get Grant Money in the Humanities and Social Sciences (Yale University Press) is written in encouraging language that doesn't assume the reader has already been through the process. The author is Raphael B. Folsom, associate professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. He responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: What prompted you to write this book? Have you had success winning grants?

A: When I was in graduate school at Yale, my adviser, Gil Joseph, ran an informal dissertation prospectus workshop that doubled as a grant-writing workshop. It was very successful. It is the main reason I’ve been able to get funding for my research (which I’ve since received from the Fulbright-Hays program, Mellon Foundation, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and others). When I got to the University of Oklahoma, where I now teach, I realized that graduate students here needed the same kind of help I got -- particularly because OU does not have near as much internal research money as Yale does. I ran a grant-writing workshop for graduate students in history and related fields at OU that was based on the one I had taken, and it too has been pretty successful. My wife suggested I turn the syllabus for that workshop into a book. When I mentioned the idea to Laura Davulis, the editor of my first book, who was then at Yale University Press, she liked it. She asked for a proposal, I wrote one and the rest is history.

Q: Many professors report that their institutional research offices tend to focus on helping those with in the biological and physical sciences, since potential grants tend to be much larger than those in the humanities and social sciences. Is this a problem?

A: I think that is probably true. Often federally funded grants are how research is measured by administrations and legislatures, and it is only logical that institutional research offices would focus on high-dollar grants. I think that is part of the reason why the demand for a book such as mine, which offers guidance to grant seekers in the humanities and social sciences, both exists and has yet to be adequately met. Institutional support for grant getting in the humanities, social sciences (and the arts, as I’ve recently discovered), is generally not strong.

Q: You advocate a process in which you start by thinking about the topic and framing it to win funds. This contrasts with many people first coming up with a topic absent the funding process. You also outline a very methodical process to seeking funds. Why is this crucial?

A: Great point. Most of us who go into the humanities and social sciences, and persist through years of graduate studies, do so because we love the subject matter. Money is often the last thing on our minds when we think about the books, ideas, problems and questions that we are passionate about. That passion is a sine qua non of excellent scholarship. But at a certain point most of us confront the question of how we will fund our research. You have to eat. You need shelter. You often have to travel abroad. When the time comes to answer the question of how to pay for all of the above, many younger scholars are at sea. What I hope my book does is give readers an idea of how to frame the ideas that motivate their work in such a way that a funding agencies will take the risk of investing in it.

Q: What are the main mistakes people in the humanities and social sciences make in seeking grants?

A: The varieties of error and inadequacy and poor preparation are infinite. Here are three misconceptions that I think are pretty common:

  1. Most applicants think getting rejected is a bad thing. They think it means their ideas and/or scholarship are inferior. That usually isn’t true. In reality you have to get rejected quite a lot in order to get the funding you want. Getting used to rejection, and more importantly, learning from rejection, improving your work and applying again is the most direct path toward funding.
  2. People think that their most important audience is within their field. One’s field is very important, and you have to speak to colleagues in your field in ways they respect. But the trick to getting funding in the humanities and social sciences, particularly the most prestigious grants, is to speak both to those in your own field and those outside of it. It is very hard to do. But it is critical to remember that those with the power to grant or deny your application are almost always extremely smart and learned people who know nothing about your area of research.
  3. People undervalue good writing. It is only by writing well that you can impress people both within and outside of your field. I recently read an article that gave empirical proof that proposals that met various criteria of clarity and fluency were more likely to be funded. (Ironically, the article itself was a nigh-impenetrable mishmash of jargon and meaningless abstraction. So the problem abides.)

Q: Your book is appearing at a time when parts of the federal government (including the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities) were recently closed for weeks because of the stalemate between President Trump and Congress. We have also seen in recent years Republican attempts in Congress to curtail funding of political science and other social sciences. Do you think federal support is viable in the social science and humanities?

A: This is somewhat beyond my ken. But I do remember anxiously reading reports about the administration’s plan to zero out the NEH. It didn’t happen. I suspect that this is so because the programs are tiny in comparison to the budget as a whole. The relatively low cost of research in the humanities and social sciences may allow us to fly under the radar. My best guess is that support, federal and otherwise, for the kind of research we do is viable in the long term, because ours is a deindustrializing service economy that confers big rewards on high education. That means there are millions of people out there who depend for their living on, and are just curious about, the history and social structures and aesthetic achievements of humanity.

Q: Graduate students in the physical and biological sciences frequently learn about grant seeking and grant management from their doctoral advisers and from working in grant-supported labs. Should doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences spend more time on these issues?

A: I think this is the traditional method by which graduate students have learned about getting grants. But some advisers are less focused on it, or are less gifted at training graduate students to do it, than mine was, and so graduate students fail to learn grant-getting skills. I do think that universities should take a programmatic interest in helping scholars in the humanities and social sciences get grant money. Since so few of them do it, I think a relatively small investment could yield a disproportionate return. One way for doctoral programs to get started on this project would be for them to buy a short guide to the topic, preferably in large quantities, and distribute it to their profs and graduate students. I understand that one may soon be published.


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