Charlotte Bacon Brings Grant Writing to the Humanities – and Beyond

This past Wednesday, October 26th, graduate students and post-docs in fields ranging from public health to classics to epidemiology met over lunch with Charlotte Bacon, Associate Director of Humanities Grant Support at the Leslie Center for the Humanities. Bacon joined the College six months ago and is an award-winning fiction author whose professional experience includes leadership roles in the non-profit sector and an eight-year tenure as an associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire.

Bacon received her MFA in writing from Columbia University and her AB in History and Literature from Harvard University.  She now plays an integral role in the Grant Proposal Support Initiative (GrantGPS) under the leadership of Senior Vice Provost for Research, Dean Madden. This program, funded by the Offices of the President and Provost, supports grant-writing activities across Dartmouth.  It provides opportunities to assist all faculty, postdocs, and graduate students in developing and writing effective and successful grant proposals across all disciplines and departments. It also sponsors workshops on writing grants for the NIH and NSF, coming up soon. 

Although her current role is tailored towards facilitating faculty grant applications in the humanities, she is eager to serve as a resource for students and scholars who are looking to apply for grants in any discipline. Bacon’s grant-writing experience is informed by both her time in academia and in non-profit leadership, and as the winner of a National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) fellowship and a Guggenheim award, she certainly knows a thing or two about crafting a well-worded proposal.

According to Bacon, grant writing is like fiction writing in some ways – “It’s all about voice, persuasion, and argument … the stuff of language.” You need to know your audience and your characters down to every detail, and tell a compelling story as to why your research proposal deserves funding above all others, she explained. Add a layer of bureaucracy, complicated forms, deadlines, and review committee politics and it is no wonder that grant writing can seem daunting to graduate students and faculty alike. Bacon is particularly tuned-in to the needs of speakers of English as a second language, who may have mastered every-day conversational English but who struggle with the peculiarities of formal grant-writing language.    

Bacon also spoke about the various offices and resources available to graduate students and postdoctoral scholars submitting grant applications, noting that it’s important to apply for grants through Dartmouth’s established channels in order to take advantage of existing relationships between Dartmouth and private foundations and to ensure compliance with federal regulations for government grants. Although grant support at Dartmouth has traditionally been concentrated in the sciences – something that her office is trying to change with GrantGPS – private foundation grants are coordinated through the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations (CFR), and government grants are coordinated through the Office of Sponsored Projects (OSP).

While most PhD-track graduate students already work with an advisor and Principle Investigator (PI) who is familiar with the grant application process and Dartmouth’s grant-related resources, Bacon pointed out that grant resources for Master’s students at Dartmouth are less well defined, especially in humanities programs such as the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) and Digital Musics. For these graduate students, the library can be a great resource for additional information. The new Pivot database, located on the OSP website, contains discipline-specific grant opportunities and relevant requirements, and the Foundation Directory, located on the Dartmouth College Library website, contains information on foundations, corporate giving programs, and grant making public charities. Graduate students should keep an eye out for upcoming Pivot database training programs offered through OSP and GrantGPS on November 30. The Subject Librarians are also a friendly and helpful resource for graduate students looking to learn more about discipline-specific grants, journals, and other academic resources.

The grant writing processes can be both daunting and grueling, but Bacon advises that intensity and resiliency can go a long way. For a graduate student without a PI or a graduate student or post-doc who wants some additional one-on-one grant-writing attention, a great first step is to simply get in touch with Bacon to set up a meeting. Cynthia Stewart, Program Director, Dartmouth COBRE Institute for Biomolecular Targeting (BioMT) and Program Manager for GrantGPS, is also available to help graduate students and post-docs looking for guidance specific to the field of Life Sciences and Medicine.

Regardless of whether a grant application is for federal, foundation, or even international funding, Bacon, Stewart, and the GrantGPS program can serve as a resource to discuss strategy, timing, and application language. Even if a first – or second or third – application fails to make it through the highly-competitive selection committee process employed by many grant-making organizations, the lessons learned will continue to bolster subsequent attempts.

Still a professor and teacher at her core, Bacon ended her discussion with three helpful pieces of advice for graduate students looking to succeed in both academia and in life. First, help other people – generosity is subject to karma, Bacon emphasized, and you cannot ask if you are not already prepared to give. Second, be accountable to yourself. It can be easy to let daunting grant applications fall to the bottom of a task list, so set deadlines for yourself in stick to them. Finally, be ferocious with your time, project, and passion. The grant review process is all about weeding people out. To stand out in a stack of applications, you need to devote long hours to your proposal, show intense attention to detail, and articulate a project that jumps off of the page – none of which is possible without passion.

For those interested in pursuing funding opportunities through NSF, GrantGPS is hosting a seminar on November 29: Write Winning NSF Grant Proposals, (registration deadline is November 15), and on December 15 another one tackles NIH Grant Proposals (registration deadline is December 1). Contact Cindy Stewart for more information.