Grant Writing as a Career Opportunity for Humanists

By Kelley Karnes

Brenton Brock hadn’t thought much about grant writing or the need for it, but that changed for him after participating in Summer Doctoral Academy put on by the Graduate School at Howard University.

“I’ve never considered grant writing to be a major part of my experience as a graduate student,” said Brock, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English. “But the retreat showed me that when it comes to advancing as a scholar, writing a good proposal can be just as important as writing a good conference paper or a good journal article…or a good dissertation.”

Howard’s inaugural Academy kicked off of their PhD Career Pathways initiative, funded by the Humanities Coalition through the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). The program provides doctoral students in Howard’s humanities and humanities-adjacent disciplines – English, History, African Studies, and Communication, Culture and Media Studies – with institutional support for pursuing external funding opportunities and with formal professional development in grant writing.

“This kind of programming is important for all students,” said Dana A. Williams, Howard’s Graduate Dean and project director. “But it’s particularly necessary in the humanities, where the need is most acute. Most of our students in the STEM fields and the social sciences traditionally receive some training in grant writing, but it’s quite common for humanities students to complete their programs with little or no formal instruction on how to successfully secure funding for their scholarly work.”

It’s not just Howard’s Graduate school that is experimenting with providing grant writing training: Loyola University Chicago, Purdue University, University of Southern Mississippi, University of Texas at El Paso, University of California Irvine, University of Missouri, and University of Wisconsin Madison, as well.

These schools are also part of the Humanities Coalition, a group of ten U.S. doctoral-granting institutions that are developing and assessing initiatives for better supporting humanities PhD students transitioning from graduate programs into the workforce. Many of these institutions’ initiatives are in various stages of progress.

The Humanities Coalition is the third phase of  CGS’s PhD Career Pathways project (which shares a name with Howard’s initiative but is a separate project) that developed and supported a network of 75 U.S. doctoral institutions committed to collecting data from STEM and Humanities PhD students and alumni about their professional aspirations, career pathways, and career preparation.

Most alumni reported that they are engaged in meaningful work and believe their doctoral work prepared them for their current job responsibilities. However, data also indicate that humanities PhDs who were employed in business, non-profit, or government, particularly those in the early stages of their careers, felt less prepared than their peers working at universities.

According to the survey, 78 percent of respondents didn’t feel adequately prepared for grant writing.

“We saw the value of using this opportunity as a way for us to be thinking about what it looks like to prepare students for careers beyond academia, particularly in the humanities,” Emily Barman, Dean of the Graduate School at Loyola, said about starting their Grant Writing Program. “Especially since we’re in Chicago, there are so many nonprofits, and it’s a strong philanthropic community.”

Linda Mason, Dean of the Graduate School at Purdue, sees grant writing as an easily transferable skill no matter what industry a student pursues.

“The skills required to write an effective grant are really about creating an argument that takes a position and says, this is what we need to do and this is why we need to do it,” Mason said. “The ability to write an effective argument is a critical skill that they can add to their resume and show success in that.”

Barman said her team worked with their Career Services Center to develop their programming, which is broken up into three components: academic grant writing, professional grant-writing and fundraising, and a mentored externship in grant writing or fundraising at a local nonprofit or foundation. She said they started with the academic grant writing course, promoting it to each of the humanities PhD programs and through word of mouth.

“By the end of the academic grant writing series of workshops, students are saying to the instructor ‘this seems like such relevant knowledge for us. Couldn’t we be using this for potential career opportunities?’” Barman said. “And that’s when we told the students who had participated that there actually will be more in the spring. We have 34 students who have signed up, which is great.”

Heather Sevener, Assistant Dean, Student Services at Loyola, said that faculty who know humanities degree holders outside of academia have been helpful in making those connections for the program and were more apt to encourage students to participate.

This was important to the Loyola team when they realized that not all faculty had these connections and were then less likely to recommend careers outside of academia to their students.

“It wasn’t that faculty don’t want to help their students, but what they really felt was that they don’t have the knowledge themselves on how to pursue that career path,” Severner said.

Barman said it was crucial to provide resources to those faculty so they can better advise their students.

“We’re not jobs counselors but we can convene and collaborate with all the relative parties to ensure that our students and faculty are aware of job opportunities that are available to them,” Barman said. “And then how best to prepare themselves for different career pathways.”

Howard’s initiative consists of a for-credit pilot course and a workshop series that engage the full spectrum of the external funding process, including identification of potential funders; developing successful proposals; ensuring ethical grants management; conducting assessment, evaluation, and reporting activities; communicating research to non-academic audiences; and cultivating and sustaining funding relationships.

Humanities students will receive one-on-one instruction and mentoring in the development and submission of proposals to external funding agencies and organizations from an interdisciplinary team of Howard faculty. In its later stages, the initiative will develop the pilot course and workshop series into a pathway for students to attain a micro-credential in grant writing.

During the Summer Doctoral Academy, students got to meet with the faculty advisors who recognize the value in collaboration in research and writing.

“Having an interdisciplinary group of scholars provided nuanced perspectives on the writing challenges we all experience,” Nicole Jenkins, an Assistant Professor in Howard’s Department of Sociology and Criminology, says of her experience as a faculty mentor. “The company was supportive and encouraging as we shared our goals and learned practical strategies and habits to support productivity in our academic work.”

In addition to one-on-one coaching with faculty mentors and dedicated writing sessions, retreat participants attended daily workshop sessions on grant writing and proposal development. By the culmination of the retreat, each student made significant progress on a dissertation chapter or an article for publication and produced a draft of the narrative for a proposal to be submitted to an identified funding organization.

Purdue started their program in spring 2022 and delivered the first course, Grant Writing for Humanities, which covered the fundamentals of academic research proposals. A second course, Grant Writing for Diverse Careers, was offered that summer with a focus on grant writing for nonprofit organizations. They initially pitched their program to three departments and expanded from there.

“We planned from the beginning to start off with our history, English and languages and cultures departments because they were ones that had been more open to collaboration from the start and eager to participate,” said Lisa Nielsen, grant writer and Director of Postdoctoral Office at Purdue. “We really wanted to make sure that we start strong with a smaller number of departments before expanding out.”

Melanie Morgan, Associate Dean of the Graduate School at Purdue, said that at first it took time to determine how to best offer the program so that it was accommodating to students’ busy schedules.

“Initially we had envisioned a face-to-face class, and there was this excitement, especially since the students had indicated that they wanted this training, and then…crickets,” Morgan said. “We did try to find times that would be accommodating to their class schedules, but it didn’t always work out.”

They decided to move the program online, so students could participate when it was convenient for them.

“With the online format, it wasn’t just listen to a lecture, it involved discussion boards and email-based activities. The idea was not to disrupt someone’s schedule by demanding that they be available at a specific time,” Nielson explained. “But students had a lot of interaction with students from other departments, and they really enjoyed that that process.”

Nielson said they were also concerned about a lack of participation because students wouldn’t want to take on more work, so they offered an incentive.

“Students who enrolled in these courses applied for a small research grant within the course. If successful, the funds could be applied to students’ current research project expenses,” Morgan said. “This exercise gave students the opportunity to apply for something that was relevant to them immediately while also practicing what they had learned.”

Another way they were able to recruit students was through embedding some of Nielson’s course content into other humanities courses.

“This fall we did have a history professor offer various parts of my content for her introductory history course,” Nielson said. “Now I have a handful of students who took that course, who are signed up for my spring course. That seemed to work very well and there was positive feedback from the students and the faculty involved. But that’s that was a unique experience that I didn’t anticipate.”

The Graduate School’s Ph.D. Career Pathways planning team at Howard hopes that programs like theirs will inspire similar initiatives at other institutions, especially HBCUs. Even with limited funding, colleges and universities can leverage their strengths to support the ongoing professional development of humanities students.

“None of this would be possible without our graduate faculty, who are committed to making this initiative a success,” noted Williams. “At most universities, you’ll find faculty with experience in proposal writing, so it’s really a matter of building the infrastructure needed to draw on their expertise.”