Observations and Ideas about Grant Writing

By David J. Ulbrich, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

History and Correctional Education

Ball State University

Crafting that successful grant or fellowship application is no easy task. Grant writing, however, is an essential skill that must be developed by graduate students. In this age of tuition increases, travel expenses, and even photocopying costs spiraling out of control, extra money from grants can be necessary for both professional development and financial stability. My article will give some pointers on the grant writing process. I base my comments on successful grants applications to the U.S. Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, the Society for Logistics Engineers, the Historical Society, the Society for Military History, and Temple University’s CENFAD, as well as my service on several grant selection committees for the U.S. Department of Education.

First, anyone looking for grants and fellowships should cast the net as widely as possible. Temple University, the History Department, and CENFAD offer internal funding that should be explored. Two such internal grants were awarded to me at times when I desperately needed the funding. External sources are more important, however, because receiving grants from outside one’s home institution validates the research in the eyes of the larger scholarly community. Advisors, committee members, and content experts are great resources for tracking down leads on grants and determining the viability of applying for those grants. With so many professors in so many fields at Temple University, those faculty members will doubtlessly know funding sources and probably possess contacts inside those organizations. A starting point in the search for external funding can be found online at the American Historical Association at http://www.historians.org/members/Grants/Index.cfm. There is also a bulletin board for “Funding” on H-Net at http://www.h-net.msu.edu/announce. 


Once a potential funding source has been located, the grant application should be directed to that organization’s purpose. Find out what the organization’s selection committee wants to see in applications and put those points in yours. This cannot be emphasized too much. In military operations, this is called reconnaissance. An applicant can start by reading the funding organization’s mission statement and quoting it back in the grant application. This simple act is not pandering. On the contrary, it demonstrates a clear correlation between what that organization wants to accomplish and how the grant money, if awarded, will help that applicant complete a project that benefits that organization. 

The same language used in dissertation prospectuses, conference paper proposals, or job applications can likewise be employed on grant applications. All are part of a similar intellectual process. No matter what the format or project, scholars always need to demonstrate the significance of their topics. On one level, success is about marketing one’s project. What is the thesis? What is the scope of the project? How does this project fit into existing scholarship? Does this project break new ground, verify some existing interpretation, or challenge accepted wisdom? Does this project employ new analytical tools or traditional approaches to interpreting the past? What are the primary sources that must be consulted? Where can these sources be obtained? How can a particular grant specifically help facilitate researching, writing, or completing a project? How does this project fit into an organization’s criteria for awarding grants? Temple’s graduate courses on historiography and research methods provide practice in answering these questions. Advisors and committee members can help polish grant proposals.

On two occasions, I tried to follow this grant-writing process when applying for funding from the Society for Logistics Engineers and the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. In 1997 when looking a paper topic for a graduate seminar on military logistics, I stumbled onto a large collection at the Eisenhower Library in Kansas. It consisted of seventy-five boxes of Lieutenant General Henry S. Aurand’s personal papers. Aurand spent his career from 1915 to 1952 serving as a logistics officer in the U.S. Army. During 1944, Aurand directed the transportation of equipment and supplies going to the American forces fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. I decided to concentrate on Aurand’s role in logistics planning earlier in the 1920s and 1930s because little attention had been paid to the interwar era in the existing literature.


With this topic in mind, I sought out organizations to support my research. One possible source was the Society for Logistics Engineers, which offered a $1,000 grant to promote the study and understanding of logistics. Although the SLE was off the beaten path for historians, I decided to apply for the grant anyway. My application posed the question: In examining Aurand’s career, what connections could be made between the U.S. Army’s success in logistics during World War II and the planning for logistical support of American forces during the 1920s and 1930s? My application also stated my intentions to present a conference paper based on my research and publish that conference paper in the SLE’s professional journal. I played up the novelty of a history graduate student requesting money from a non-history organization. This successful application brought in much-needed funds for a project that eventually developed into not only a short article for the SLE’s journal but also a longer, more scholarly chapter in an edited book.

More recently, my application for the General Lemuel C. Shepherd Dissertation Fellowship serves as a second example for the grant-writing process. After advancing to candidacy in spring of 2003, I began work on my dissertation titled “Managing Marine Mobilization: Thomas Holcomb and the U.S. Marine Corps, 1936-1943.” For reasons of personal finance as well as professional development, there was no way that this dissertation could have been researched or written without external funding. Having already received a thesis fellowship in 1993 and an outstanding article prize in 2000 from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, I knew that this foundation would be a good source for potential funding. My advisor, Professor Gregory J. W. Urwin, helped me craft an application for the Shepherd Fellowship. His own track record in Marine Corps history made his advice that much more solid and his support that much stronger.

My application for the Shepherd Fellowship asserted that my dissertation would explain how and why Commandant Holcomb successfully supervised the expansion of the Marine Corps from 18,000 marines in 1936 to nearly 400,000 in 1943. In so doing, he exhibited the traits of a shrewd publicist, meticulous planner, visionary leader, and progressive manager. No book-length study of Holcomb’s career had been previously written, and few historians of the Marine Corps had paid attention to such non-operational topics as leadership studies, organizational structure, civil-military relations, or military mobilization. I also made a case for how useful my study of an individual and an institution during a time of transformation could be for personnel currently serving in the United States military.

Beyond its institutional and biographical focuses, my application stated my intent to place the Marine Corps in the context of American social and cultural history. Utilizing the lenses of race, gender, and sexuality would, for example, explore why only heterosexual Caucasian men were seen by Commandant Holcomb as ideal marine recruits. Examining these issues placed my dissertation squarely in the “new” military history, and therefore my finished product could appeal to scholars in other historical fields. This meant my work would fill voids in the existing literature, not only in coverage but also in modes of analysis. 

In the last section of my application for the Shepherd Fellowship, I estimated that researching my dissertation would require spending several months in archives in and around Washington, D.C. My proposed budget allotted half of the fellowship’s stipend for this research stage during the fall of 2003. The other half of the stipend would free me from teaching responsibilities in order to write two chapters during the spring of 2004. Fortunately, the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s award selection committee saw fit to award me the 2003-2004 Shepherd Fellowship, and I finished my dissertation and graduated four years later in January 2007.

My concluding comments can be made quickly. Be audacious and perseverant in making applications for grants both inside and outside Temple University. Once one has achieved success in the grant-writing process, future applications will be more likely to garner support. It is important to find a seat on the grants-and-fellowships bandwagon. The process is not necessarily democratic or equitable.  By this, I mean that many organizations prefer to fund projects by applicants with proven track records, rather than take chances on those with no track records. But, be of good cheer because solid applications for well-chosen grants can and will achieve success.