Our PhD Candidates win–and talk–awards


Please join me in congratulating UWaterloo English PhD candidates Sarah Gibbons (pictured above) and Elise Vist, who have just each been awarded a highly coveted Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS), intended to support and further their graduate studies. I was fortunate enough to persuade Sarah and Elise to take time from their very busy schedules to reflect upon the process of writing the proposal, their strategies, and discoveries. Read on to find out how they did it.

JLH: How strange is it to write a proposal that is so specialized yet may be read by non-specialists? Was that difficult?

Sarah: In some ways, yes. As a graduate student, I’m accustomed to writing for professors and students in my field who are familiar with the writers, critics, and theorists that I’m drawing on. With my proposal, I wanted to describe my project concisely, but I also wanted to be specific enough that my research questions would still appear nuanced. Since I am in my third year of the PhD program, I had a working draft of my dissertation proposal while I was working on the OGS application. I think that the largest challenge that I faced was figuring out how to describe the same project in a single page. It was a good exercise in distilling the most important points that I wanted people to know about my work.

As I was writing, I had to remind myself that people reading my proposal might not be in an English department. With successive edits, I did reduce how much theory and terminology that I included in the proposal. I came up with my opening paragraph by considering how I might start to explain my work to another researcher in conversation.

My main area within English is disability studies, which is a very interdisciplinary field. However, even as an interdisciplinary field, there are many terms and theories used by scholars that audiences who are not familiar with disability studies or disability rights would recognize, which was something that I had to bear in mind. One of the aspects of disability studies that I really appreciate is that many scholars do use a very accessible style even while engaging with complex ideas. The question of non-specialists is also making me think now about the audience of my research as a whole. I would like to work on developing the writing style that I used in my proposal for my other writing too.

Elise, how did you find writing for a non-specialist audience?

Elise:Well, one of the bright sides of applying for grants for a few years is that I had about four years of editing and re-writing on this proposal. I’ve found that that it’s the re-writing that really helps when addressing a non-specialist audience.

My first draft was pretty specialized in that I’m fairly certain I’m the only person who could understand it, so I sent it to good friends (i.e. people I could trust not to laugh at me) to make sure that the overall message was understandable. After sending it to subject experts, grad students in other fields, and my mom (she reads all of my proposal-type writing to make sure I’ve been sufficiently flattering to myself), I started a new document and re-wrote my proposal — some elements stayed the same, but writing in a new document made it easier to change the structure without worrying that I would lose what worked in the original.

As with any writing, the constraints that you have to work with sometimes allow you to come to new conclusions and perspectives. Being restricted to the two pages makes it hard to prevaricate and over-explain — as someone who tends to undersell herself (hence the flattery-edits from my mom!), the limitation ensured that I didn’t spend too much time on throw-away phrases.

As a general rule, now, when I’m writing proposals, I write naturally (which includes a lot of asides, parentheticals, and self-deprecation), then go through and move my final sentences to the top of each paragraph, because by that point I’ve actually said what I wanted to say!

Did you develop any editing strategies that you continue to use in other writing?

Sarah:Yes, a couple. I also received helpful feedback from experts and friends on my proposal, which gave me a sense of the kinds of changes that I needed to make.

One of the difficulties that I’ve always had with writing is that I start the editing phase during my writing phase. I have a hard time getting started because I’ll write half a sentence and then delete it because I’m not happy with it. Sometimes I like that I can change what I’ve written so easily, but other times I find that I am too focused on individual sentences when I should be focusing on main ideas. So my first strategy is making sure that I don’t start editing too soon. One of the ways that I turn off my internal editor is by writing my first draft or even just my first paragraph by hand instead of typing. Transferring my draft to my computer then becomes part of my editing process. I’m less critical of my writing when it’s on paper, which allows me to record my main ideas without worrying about style right away. I don’t always use this method because sometimes writing a draft this way can take too long (I actually had to train myself out of this habit for comps).  But it is one way that I deal with writer’s block.

I really like what you said about productive constraints. I find it difficult to work within a word limit, but I do find that it helps me be a more critical editor. It helps me to write more concisely and purposefully too. Once I have a typed draft, I save a version with each substantive edit. This was a strategy that I developed while writing my proposal. I feel more comfortable cutting and changing content when I know that I have a backup if I ever want to reintroduce material. One of my other editing strategies is reading my work out loud. When I read out loud to myself, I find it easier to notice typographical errors and awkward phrases.

When I was writing my proposal, I experimented with different ways of structuring my information and ideas. What are some of the strategies that you have used to organize the information that you provide in grant proposals?

Elise: I envy your hand-writing technique! I don’t have the patience for that, but it’s really a great strategy to make sure you’re not spending the whole time edit-writing…. I find that using programs like Scrivener or Google Docs has a similar effect. Neither of those programs are heavy on the editing tools, and formatting in them is confusing (for a Word native like me!) so I tend to just type rather than worry about indents or font or paragraph lengths and all of the other little things that function as “productive” procrastination.

I’m also a reader-out-loud of my work. It can take ages (I remember doing it once with a 25-page paper…it was exhausting), but it really is a great way to catch those little things that our eyes can slip over. Long sentences, confusing asides, over-reliance on a particular word (I may overuse the words problematic and interesting because they’re nice, important-sounding nothing-words) — all of these things look okay to the eye but sound awful.

You’ve stumped me a bit with your question, as I don’t know that I’ve experimented all that much with my structure. I’ve moved information into different paragraphs because their content was more appropriate elsewhere, but I tend to stick with the journalistic style: lede (HEY LOOK! This is important and you should care!!), exposition (Now that I have your attention…here’s all the information you need to understand me), explanation (This is the important work I am doing), conclusion (Trust me, I can totally do this), and, hopefully, snappy final line so that people remember me as interesting.I’ll experiment with what information belongs in which category, but I rarely find myself writing proposals in any other format. I’m curious what different structures you used!

We’ve been discussing the strategies we’ve used to do the mental and physical work of writing a proposal, but I was hoping we could also address the emotional labour of the task — as someone who struggles with anxiety and low self-esteem, writing proposals can be quite taxing. Not only do I have to write out the work that I do (panic!) but I have to make it sound worthwhile and interesting?? Do you find you deal with the same kinds of thoughts — that your work isn’t really important, or that you’re not really doing anything of value? How do you respond to those thoughts (or how would you if you’re lucky enough to not have to deal with them!)?

Sarah: Thanks for your question! I think it’s a really important one. Yes, I definitely struggle with those thoughts too.  And even when I do feel convinced that my work is important, it can be difficult to communicate its significance in writing. I also feel a sense of panic when writing out what I do, especially when there are so many other interesting and important research projects out there. I’ve been nervous about this in other settings, like conferences, but I feel like there is something very personal about writing a proposal because it’s not limited to describing one paper – in a very real sense, it outlines what you want to devote your research time to for years. And I think sharing that can be difficult.

I wonder if some of the anxieties that we have surrounding proposal writing concern how people working in other disciplines, or people outside of academia who are interested in similar issues and questions, perceive or understand our work. I’ve had friends outside of academia, and friends working outside of the humanities, in biology or in engineering, for example; ask very genuine questions about how research works in English. I’ve been asked whether we write dissertations, how research works outside of laboratories, how research works when you do not have research subjects, whether we work with empirical data, how our research will be used after publication, etc. I usually answer these questions by describing my work or work that my friends or other researchers are doing in English, and I’ve always found that people are really interested in the work that we are doing and think it’s important. And this is reassuring, but also reminds me of why it’s important to have conversations across disciplines and professions.

I’m getting a little off track, but I find that trying to imagine my conversations with people outside the discipline can be helpful when I’m writing, so I guess I work through some of my anxieties and doubts about my work while writing. I find that talking to other grad students who also experience these feelings helps. I also find that sharing my work with my supervisor and other grad students helps too.  I’ve found that writing a proposal can feel very different than  writing a paper for a course, when you know that everyone in the course is invested in similar research questions and you have a shared sense that the work is important. We had a SAGE workshop on writing grant proposals a few years ago where we shared our work, and that was nice because we could talk to each other about projects. Our group size was about the same size as a seminar course group. I remember everyone being really excited about each others’ projects – I don’t know… maybe we spend so much time with our own ideas that they stop feeling original until we talk about them with other people and regain some of our excitement and conviction about our work?

How do you work through some of your doubts about your work?  Do you find it is difficult to communicate the value of your work – particularly when value can mean so many things?

Elise Vist
Elise Vist

Elise: Your point about our ideas not feeling original anymore is very important to keep in mind! I sometimes forget that my research really is quite specialized and even people in my department may not have the same knowledge I do. I think you’re right — that’s why it’s important to step back and talk to new people every once in a while…scary, but necessary! On the one hand, it can be very empowering to realize that your research really is original and not actually all that obvious to everyone else. But on the other…it can also be frustrating when people can’t just join you in your thought process. It’s difficult to go back to basics on a topic you’ve devoted years of study to, especially when not everyone sees that study as valuable or — a common one for English majors, in my experience — all that hard.

But although it can be more difficult when your opponent is not actually playing devil’s advocate, it really does help to have to go through those basic steps — especially when you feel comfortable in your work. There’s nothing that exposes holes in my logic quite like having to explain the vague middle bits to someone who doesn’t know everything about my field (another place where I’m indebted to my mother!)

I’ve had similar experiences with people not quite understanding what it means to do research in English. Friends in the sciences have claimed that there’s no possible way that I work nearly as hard as they do, because I’m just reading. One memorable friend-at-the-time told me that their profs were smarter than mine, because…science? When I became interested in fan and game studies, those kinds of comments doubled (a family member once lamented that they couldn’t take “video games” when they went to university). The logic was all very unclear, but the message wasn’t: what I do has no physical product or outcome, therefore it is not as valuable as more obviously productive fields. It’s been tough to shake that thought, and I still find myself fighting it more than I’d like. I strongly suspect that feeling will never quite leave…

I find that is the hardest part about writing proposals, for me. How do I tell a group of nameless, faceless scholars that my work (which I’ve self-deprecatingly described as “watching TV and writing about it on the internet” because even I can’t stop making jokes about how easy my life is…) will be useful. It means redefining use or value — away from the concrete, financial connotations of “productive”. It is, of course, tempting to shoehorn my work into such models: I’m working in television fandoms (or, at other times, game studies) so surely some executive in some network will be able to make money using my ideas, therefore it has value!

It feels cheap, though, since it’s barely true. So I try instead to point out the social and cultural value of my work. Try being the operative word. Relying on activist fields like intersectional feminism helps root my work in a real-world context — I may not be curing cancer, but I (hope I) am helping a generally marginalized group make themselves heard. I can’t say that I’ve solved this problem entirely, but, like you said, that’s where supervisors, colleagues, and friends come in. It does feel great when people whose own work you respect are clearly excited by and interested in your work!

Your research is also rooted in activist theories — do you feel it is difficult to be emotionally unattached to the outcome of your proposals? Outside of being happy about getting funding, of course! I mean, rather, that objectivity and rationality are still seen by some as necessary for good scholarship, and the restrictive format of the grant proposal doesn’t have much room for passion. I find it hard to separate my own sense of self-worth from the success (or failure) of my proposals, especially when the work I do is so important to me, personally.

Sarah: Thanks – I like that question. The issues of objectivity and rationality bring me back to your points about English degrees versus science degrees. I’m always reminding myself that there are so many questions that you can explore in English that you don’t have opportunities to think about if you’re working in other fields, but yeah, as English majors we seem to share that experience of being made to feel like our research doesn’t matter because our research outcomes don’t translate clearly into physical products- or, in the worst cases, of being made to feel like our degrees are just about reading at the beach all day. Although I surround myself with supportive friends and colleagues in other fields, I’ve also heard the more difficult because science argument many times – or even, the more objective because science argument, which I also find frustrating. I think that research in the sciences is very political, even if it is not always framed that way.

I also find it really difficult to separate myself from the work I do. It was hard to show my passion for my work without bringing myself into the proposal in a direct way. One of the things that I like about disability studies as a field is that the kind of personal and emotional responses and experiences that we’ve been talking about are valued. Since I work in disability studies and draw on other activist fields too, in my proposal, I did address the social and political reasons why I do the work that I do, but not the really personal ones (even though I think the personal reasons are political ones too!) For example, my family has really shaped who I am as a scholar, and how I relate to the work that I do in disability studies, but I didn’t discuss those relationships in my research proposal. One of the things I also find difficult about writing proposals too is that, even though I’m excited about the possibilities of my research and I love what I do, aspects of my topic are very sad – the kinds of stories that I find when I look in the archives that involve a lack of access are sometimes very sad ones, and that’s something that is really difficult to communicate in a short proposal.

I really liked what you said about the social and cultural value of our work, and the importance of helping members of a generalized marginalized group make themselves heard. I also like to think of my work this way – in terms of bringing other voices into research conversations. One of my concerns is that I will come across as attempting to speak for an entire group of people. Do you ever have this concern? I guess I’m thinking about this question of speaking for us as English majors because dissertations are not really collaborative, and we generally bring in other voices through our citational practices if we don’t have research participants. I was wondering if you had any other comments on that role as a researcher – on being a kind of facilitator, in a sense? I was also wondering if you wanted to speak to what it is like to discuss this role in the proposal? And another question I have that is sort of related is about teaching as the other side of our work – when you were thinking about real world implications of your work, did your role as a teacher play into your discussion of knowledge dissemination in the proposal?

Elise: I do worry about coming across as speaking for rather than with a group of people — part of my work in the last few years has been coming to terms with my position of power and authority, and I’ve tried to make that come across in my proposals, as well. Part of how I do this is by relying on ethnographic techniques. Although I’m not a social scientist, more and more of my work involves people who are not a part of a university or even consider themselves scholars, so I have to be aware of the power I have in all situations. I’ve read some really wonderful books about doing research with “real people” (Ethnography and Virtual Worlds, Boellstorff, et al;  Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method, Baym, et al) that help give me the language to discuss how I will ensure the safety, privacy, and agency of the people I come in contact with while doing my research. Unfortunately, a lot of the nuance of that work is not really possible to address in the limitations of a SSHRC/OGS proposal (especially given how many articles on the topic conclude with a shrug and the confession that it’s all very complicated), but the use (and definition) of terms like ethnographic and research participants signal my awareness of those potential problems.

I don’t know that I’ve really addressed my role as a traditional teacher in my proposals, but I have addressed the ways in which I am involved in a teaching role in different communities. I haven’t had the opportunity to teach a class that fits closely with my own research interests (until this year!), so I haven’t found it useful to take up space in the proposal to explain how teaching a group of college students how to use a computer has allowed me to get a sense of how young people are using social media and interacting with the internet (though it was invaluable and has shaped my research questions). When I was more focussed on game studies than fan culture, I was able to bring in the work I do with Judy Ehrentraut and Emma Vossen through the GI Janes, since our main goals are community outreach and education, but I never really gave it more space than a sentence or two in my second-to-last paragraph (the bit where I explain how I’m the only one who could possibly complete the research successfully, of course).

I imagine we should probably be wrapping this up soon, so perhaps we can do some last words on the experience of writing proposals? Here’s what I would tell my past-self who was just starting out on the looong journey of writing proposals:

Write a draft, save it, then start a brand new document and write a totally different draft. Get lots and lots of feedback (even if it makes you feel stupid or like a bad writer, because no one can write a great grant alone). Take every bit of advice an editor/proofreader/mom gives you, but do it in a new document. Test them out but only use the ones that feel right for you in your final draft. Read (and edit!) other people’s proposals — successful, unsuccessful, as-yet-unsubmitted — and get a sense of how different everyone’s proposal can be. Try not to spiral into an existential crisis about how everyone else is smarter than you, because they’re all doing the same thing themselves.

Remember that the people you’re writing to are reading hundreds of proposals like yours, so your first sentence has to let them know that you’re special and the last sentence has to stick in their brains. Care a lot about what you’re doing and let that come across in your proposal, but try not to care so much about whether or not you get the grant — you’re smart, but so is everyone else. It’s as much about luck and timing as it is about writing skills. Be happy for your colleagues when they get the grant when you don’t, however much you might not want to. They’ll be happy for you, too.

That came out a little more “Wear Sunscreen” than I’d like, but I think it would have been nice to hear those things when I was completely unsure about how to start…

What would you say to your just-starting-out past-self?

Sarah: I think you’ve covered most of what I would want to say too! My instructions to past-Sarah would be to start early, attend any meetings or workshop sessions offered by the department and SAGE, and read the instructions on both the OGS and university websites carefully. Ask for references – and make sure to give them as much notice as you can that you will be applying so that they have to time to write too. Read other proposals to develop a sense of the genre. Look back to previous descriptions of your project from other materials like your university application or your dissertation proposal. Decide which points you like and which points you might revise. Think about what works and doesn’t work for the context of the grant proposal. Also, think about how your project has changed since you first conceptualized it when you were starting out in the PhD program – in what ways have your research questions shifted and why? What has stayed consistent? Why is your work important, and what do you hope will come from your research?

Write a draft of your proposal. (I started out with a paragraph on my research questions, the place of my research within my field, and its significance. I provided a description of my dissertation project with a short description of each of my chapters. I’ve read some great proposals that discuss specific chapters and some great proposals that don’t reference chapters so I don’t want to say this is essential when I don’t actually know, but for me, it was really helpful to organize my ideas into chapters.) Save a new document and start your next draft. Make sure that you’re under the page limit. Now edit again. Ask for proofreaders, and be a proofreader too.

My final advice to anyone would be to try no matter what, and to keep trying. It can be daunting when there are so many other applicants and projects out there. (Maybe in some ways it’s easier not to look at the statistics?) Like you said – there are so many factors that influence the final decision, like luck and timing. It’s hard to know what works and what doesn’t work, so just keep trying.

Thanks for the conversation!

 Once again, thank you and congratulations to Elise and Sarah! –WIP



2 responses to “Our PhD Candidates win–and talk–awards

  1. Great interview. Sarah and Elise are interesting people as well as exemplary students and researchers in/for the department.

  2. Pingback: What are the Grad Students doing? |

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