I am a biological anthropologist by training and yet many of the
questions on which I work can easily be approached from the
perspective of social anthropology. Indeed, most anthropological
demographers and anthropologists working on questions of infectious
disease are social or cultural anthropologists. Since coming to
Stanford, I have found that most of my students are more social than
biological anthropologists. So it goes.
I have been on numerous scientific review panels, including the
NSF Cultural Anthropology Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant
(DDIG) committee. While committee work of any kind can be a hassle,
there are definite up-sides to working on scientific review panels.
Top among these is the incredible amount that you can learn about
grantsmanship. There's nothing like looking at 20 grant applications
-- and talking about 100 in committee -- to learn what works and what
My goal here is to translate some of this experience into
practical advice for students. Ostensibly, this is advice for
students applying for DDIGs in cultural anthropology. However, much
of it transcends the particulars of this panel and applies to
grant-writing more generally. Some of the stylistic advice I have
copied from my Guide to Research Papers.
- Read the Guide
to Grants . Pay particular attention to the Proposal
Preparation Instructions. If your proposal is too long, or you
use the wrong font, it will be sent back unreviewed. That is
a pretty bad reason for not getting funded.
- Your proposal should not be too long. NSF has very strict
guidelines for formatting your proposal to which you must conform.
Even so, don't push the limits of the letter of the law; follow the
spirit. No one ever complained that a colloquium talk was too
short (particularly if there are refreshments waiting after).
Similarly, no reviewer is likely to complain if a coherent,
well-edited proposal doesn't fill out the 10th page or brush up
against the 1-inch margins on every page. The trick is to write
enough to show that you have fluency in the field, have an
interesting and scientifically important project that you can
actually do in 12 months within the ten pages that you are allotted.
This takes discipline and repeated editing. Get a friend to help
you edit. Only include the information that is absolutely
- On a related note, don't be overly ambitious. This is a
dissertation proposal. Keep it simple and, above all, doable. You
have the rest of your career to do everything else you want to do
and getting a DDIG is a great start toward insuring that you have a
career in which to do the rest of the work!
- Particularly if you have an ambitious proposal, you must show
some results from preliminary research. Many scientifically
excellent proposals get dinged because the panel has no reason to
think that the applicant will actually be able to carry out the
research. Reassure the panel that you can get safely to and live
safely in your field site, collect the types of data you plan to
collect (in the numbers you say you need), and do the analysis you
say you are going to do. Pre-test your survey instrument or
experimental game. Oh, and pre-testing on a bunch of undergraduates
at your home institution doesn't count...
- Think about your audience. For the DDIG Cultural
Anthropology panel, you are writing to the full spectrum of
anthropologists. For other panels, you are equally likely to get a
broad range of panelists. Write for a general audience. Avoid
excessive jargon. Define your terms! Things that might be
obvious to you may be utterly baffling to a specialist from another
sub-field. Given my background, the terms with which I frequently
have difficulty are those like "governmentality," "imaginaries," or
"predicaments of modernity" (though I am equally befuddled by terms
bandied about in evolutionary psychology applications). I don't
really know what those terms mean. They may encode very important
concepts, but for them to communicate effectively, they need to be
defined. I would not expect a non-specialist to necessarily know
what I was talking about when I used terms like "eigenvalue",
"centroid," or "betweenness," so I would define them.
- Don't believe the folklore about the panel. The Cultural
Anthropology DDIG panel recommends all sorts of proposals for
funding. If your research does not fit the mold of natural science,
don't try to make it sound gratuitously scientific. You'll probably
just end up sounding scientistic and that's never a good thing.
Similarly, if you are more of a natural scientist in your approach,
don't try to sound like a literary critic. Describe your research
in coherent, well-written, carefully-edited prose.
- If you want real information on the panel, talk to the program
officer. This is always a good idea before embarking on a
time-consuming grant application.
- On a related note, do your homework. Read the
abstracts online of funded proposals from previous years. But
be careful. This is one way that the folklore about "what the panel
is looking for" can get distorted and perpetuated. From the
successful projects, you know only about the numerator. You know
nothing about the denominator. Say there are only two proposals
that were funded that resemble your research. How many proposals
were submitted in that area? You don't know and there is no
practical way to find out. NSF can not fund research in your area
if there are no proposals!
- Just because NSF offers a short course on some method doesn't
mean that you need to use that method in order to get funded.
Social network analysis and cultural consensus modeling are powerful
tools. That doesn't mean that they should be used for every
- If your proposal comes from the tradition of a cognate field
(e.g., evolutionary psychology, science studies), make it very clear
why a room full of anthropologists should give you funding. Come up
with something better than "I couldn't think of any other panel."
Talk to the program officer about appropriateness.
- When you are asked for an NSF-style biosketch, don't provide an
NIH-style biosketch. Nor should you write a discursive biographical
essay. This is a specific instance of both reading the
GPG and editing the proposal.
- Be certain to explicitly describe both the intellectual merit
and the broader significance of your proposal. In your project
summary, set these out as separate sections.
It's the Theory of Mind, Stupid
This is so important that it is worth spelling out again. The
advice in this section applies not only to DDIG applications but to
any grant application, fellowship application, or research paper.
- Each panelist has to read at least 20 proposals in detail and many
panelists will vote on your proposal having only read your project
summary. This fact should condition everything you do in a
- Make life easy on your reader. Don't make the font too
small or the text too squished. Have logical subsections. Don't
overdo the typography. Ensure that your summary is well-written and
coherent. Define terms. Label tables and figures.
- Clearly state your aims, hypotheses, and goals. Tell the panel
why you are doing the research. This is never self-evident,
although it may seem so to you.
- Testable hypotheses are good. Don't overdo it. If you have
fourteen hypotheses, no one will believe that you will actually be
able to test them. And if you refer to them by number, you are sure
to lose your reader.
- Explain why the research is important. Will your research
answer an scientifically significant question? To which debates does
- Sometimes a figure can help. It can also obfuscate. Avoid
extremely complex flow charts. If you can come up with a simple
figure that encapsulates your research, you have helped your cause
greatly. A spaghetti diagram is just a waste of toner.
- Yes, I'm sure you're very smart. Don't come across as a
pompous jackass. Lots of very smart people get their proposals
rejected. You don't want to run the risk of turning off your reader
with your attitude.
Notes on Writing Style
- Do not be vague when you can be specific. Define your
terms. If you suggest that "urban environments are bad for human
health," what do you mean? What aspect of human health? What is
"bad"? Increased mortality? Increased morbidity? When you write a
scientific grant application, it is particularly important to define
terms that have generally recognized folk meanings. Watch out
particularly for words like "stress" and "fitness," which have both
colloquial and technical meanings. Do not confuse these.
- Avoid extended quotes. Paraphrase (and cite appropriately)
material that you are using.
- Avoid colloquialisms and trite neologisms. Do not use nouns as
transitive verbs. Leave your soap box in the store room, your high
horse in the stable, and squelch the sarcasm. Let the quality of
your arguments, the coherence of your research design, and the
elegance of your prose communicate whatever righteousness or
criticism may be your just due. Your point will be made all the
- Don't fall into the trap of parochialism or ethnocentrism.
Think about the generalizability of your statements. If you write,
"people work to save for their retirement," does that really apply
to people, broadly construed? What about arid-country
hunter-gatherers? Horticulturalists in the Amazon basin? Nomadic
pastoralists on the Tibetan Plateau? In statistical parlance, ask
yourself the question, what is the universe of entities to which my
- That said, don't overly particularize your statements either.
I am reasonably confident with the statement that people seek food
when they are hungry and circumstances permit it. I don't feel the
need to say something like, "As a Caucasian, middle-class man in my
early forties speaking from this point in the early twenty-first
century, I believe that hungry people seek food."
- Argue with logic and from first-principles, not by citation.
Argument by citation is only slightly better than appeals to higher
authority, which have absolutely no place in a scientific paper or
- That said, you need to demonstrate to your reader(s) that
you have a command of the literature. Be thorough but be concise.
With 20 researchers in the room evaluating your proposal, you have a
lot of expertise. Don't try to snow anyone because you are likely
to get caught.
- The passive voice is to be avoided. A proposal written with
the author's voice removed does not sound more scientific, it just
sounds old-fashioned and pompous. Some journals insist that all
instances of "I" or "we" be excised, but this is becoming less
common. That said, watch out for having your proposal sound
solipsistic -- it should not read like a diary entry. Avoid, in
particular, phrases like "I believe..." or "I think..." Clearly, you
believe it if you are taking the trouble to write it.
- Organize your proposal with section headings and sub-headings if
necessary. Such structure greatly facilitates readers' ability to
follow the logical structure of a paper.
- That said, don't go crazy with headings and structure. In
particular, keep fancy formatting to a minimum Bold face type is
probably sufficient for most headings and sub-headings.
- Edit your proposal. You are trying to convince a room full of
skeptical reviewers that you are a careful scholar with the tools to
capacity to carry out the proposed research. Nothing turns a
committee off faster than a sloppy proposal. Your goal should be to
force readers to engage with your ideas not to get distracted by
sloppiness. Of course, this means that your ideas have to be
- Use page numbers.
- Avoid sneer quotes. Yes, we get it. We're all terribly
ironic. If a term is problematic, define it. Say what you mean and
why it's problematic.
- Avoid excessive typographical acrobatics. Let your clear prose
cue the reader to what the important point or the key hypothesis is
rather than underlining and italicizing big blocks of
- Don't use as many exclamation points as I have in this
- Have a research design.
- Think hard about sampling. Yes, you need to have a sampling
strategy. Even if your doing "pure" ethnographic research. How
good will your ethnography be if you only talk to lames?
- More to come...