Lessons Learned

Paula M. Krebs considers the way applying for a major foundation grant offers ideas for managing academic life generally.

October 29, 2007

I just finished a grant proposal for a major foundation -- a proposal to run a national project, not a proposal for research support in my field, which is Victorian literature. Putting together the proposal has been a major adjustment for me -- a new style of writing, a new way of thinking, a new set of people to consult and problems to solve.

The lessons I learned in preparing for The Grant are lessons I find myself applying in many areas of my professional life. Here are a few of them:

  • Spell it out. Give specifics, break it into steps, explain how you’ll get from Point A to Point B. Once I had to do it for The Grant, I found that this kind of over-explanation works in lots of other contexts: teaching, of course, but also academic writing. I've become better at holding my reader's hand and bringing her along with me through my argument, rather than expecting her to leap over huge chasms or the occasional mud puddle.
  • Show how you’ll know it works. This one was difficult for a humanist, as it leads to the language of assessment and shades into the quantitative. But I decided that if an outfit was going to give me hundreds of thousands of dollars, it had the right to demand some proof that it was getting what it was paying for. So I sat down with some social scientist colleagues who helped me to come up with the mechanisms for determining how I’ll measure success and (just as important) the language for explaining how I’ll do it. This process made me think about my own department and how we have resisted any kind of measures of what we are producing when we produce English majors. I anticipate being very annoying at department meetings as we prepare for re-accreditation.
  • Get the best people involved, and use them. I have been trained to labor alone in musty archives, and I like working alone. But I found that I simply couldn’t undertake this project by myself. Determination wouldn’t be enough -- the project needed folks with contacts, background knowledge, and experience to which I didn’t have access. And I was pleased to discover that plenty of people were willing to donate time and energy to this project, people all over the country and people on my own campus. I just had to work out mechanisms whereby I could tap their expertise without sapping their energy. I'm learning how to ask for specialized help and advice, how to assign small tasks, how to know how much is too much to ask.
  • Delegate. Even when I was a department chair, I usually found it easier to do jobs myself than to trust them to others, whether staff or colleagues. Consequently, of course, I spent a lot of late nights at my computer. But The Grant has shown me that I simply cannot do it all myself. I've hired an assistant, and she's fabulous. She knows lots of things I don't (mostly about spreadsheets and databases and Web design), and she learns really quickly. After I teach her something, she can do it. And I don't have to fix it. I know that people who teach at large and wealthy universities with lots of secretarial help don’t need this lesson, but I did.
  • Follow instructions. In trying to prepare for this project, I have stuck as closely as possible to the directions and advice I’ve received from the foundation to which I am applying. I do what they tell me to do, I address the issues they tell me to address, I provide the information they ask me to provide. This may seem self-evident, but when is the last time you reviewed applications for an opening in your department and read cover letter after cover letter in which candidates never address the requirements you so clearly spelled out in the job ad? The grants officer who’s helping me and the administrators at the foundation constantly seem surprised that I'm actually doing what they tell me to do. That seems like a sad statement about what they usually face.

I know this all seems a bit like Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned from My Grant Application or Chicken Soup for the Grantwriter’s Soul, but every lesson here has truly helped me in other aspects of my professional life. I find myself thinking about The Grant in college administrative contexts, in my own research, and sometimes even in my private life (think checkbook or household chores).

If I get The Grant, and I find myself with a big project and the big money to pull it off, there’ll be other lessons to be learned, I'm sure.


Paula M. Krebs is a professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.


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