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Ask Dr. Editor

How to write clear objectives for your research grant proposal

They are the bricks that you’re laying on the path towards your goal.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | OCT 18 2022

Question:

I’m an artist-turned-academic, and the unwritten rules of SSHRC grants do my head in. I recently received feedback from a colleague that my draft proposal’s four objectives were “unclear.” What’s unclear to me is how to write better objectives. What are the elements of a clear objective?

 

– Anonymous, Film Studies

Dr. Editor’s response:

It certainly can be frustrating to try to follow the unwritten rules of grant applications.

“Objectives” aren’t defined in SSHRC’s glossary or in the application instructions for most competitions; when I was in my PhD program, I didn’t start reading a poem with any particular objective in mind – I just wanted to see what I would find.

As Lambros Roumbanis wrote in his compelling argument in favour of granting agencies using lotteries, despite “expert reviewers’ joint efforts to make as well-considered and fair decisions as possible, we nevertheless cannot disregard the fact that peer review is based on compromise and risk minimization” (2019). In SSHRC’s case, this risk minimization is built into the structure of the evaluation criteria, which assess, in part, the “probability that the objectives will be met within the timeline proposed.” (SSHRC)

So, to score points on SSHRC’s evaluation criteria, you need some objectives – but what precisely these ought to look like is unstated. To learn more about what makes for a well-written objective, I spoke with Betty S. Lai, author of the forthcoming book The Grant Writing Guide: A Road Map for Scholars. Dr. Lai broke down four components of clear objectives:

1. Good objectives aren’t too nebulous

Just as with the learning objectives that you write for your syllabi, research grant objectives shouldn’t be too vague. If you were to write, “our first objective is to understand X,” it would be hard for anyone to know if you’ve accomplished that. If you were to write, “our first objective is to study X” – well, almost anything you do might fulfil that objective.

Use words that are concrete enough that your funder, reviewers, and you will understand if you have achieved your objectives. Avoid “understand,” “explore,” “consider”; instead, opt for “demonstrate,” “produce,” or “determine.”

2. Good objectives aren’t too narrow

While you want to be concrete, your objectives should still be closer to “why” than to “how” or “what.” If the overarching goal of your project is to unpack the significance of art form X to social construct Y, and thereby reveal the importance of understudied artist group X in the Y movement, then the objectives that you might set out to achieve that goal could include:

  • to describe instances of art form X appearing in the emerging construct Y advocacy movement.
  • to delineate echoes of X artistic method in the language used in a prominent Y publication.
  • to compile examples of formal parallels between art form X and protest method Y.

The methods that one scholar uses to achieve these objectives could be different from the methods used by another scholar: to meet Objective iii, for instance, one person might dig through archives, while another might program an algorithm. Similarly, for Objective i, one researcher might focus on one collection of art; another, a totally different body of work, or even a single artist. These “how” and “what” details are your approach, your methods, your chosen corpus; they’re distinct from your objectives.

3. Good objectives need to be the right size

Since your goal is to reveal something important, your objectives are the chunks of evidence you’ll accumulate to mount that overarching argument. But how big is a “chunk?”

Dr. Lai advises: “Each objective, when answered, should be about the same size as a journal article.” What amount of content would give you enough meat to draft a research paper? That same amount should be about the “size” of an objective.

4. Good objectives are distinct

“Don’t make objectives depend on one another,” says Dr. Lai. If your first objective is to build a bridge, and your second objective requires the use of that bridge, then what happens if your bridge fails? “Reviewers worry when your objectives depend on each other,” Dr. Lai told me; having discrete objectives thus reduces the riskiness of your proposed work.

In sum, dear letter-writer, your objectives are bricks that you’re laying in the path you’re building toward your goal. To make good bricks, it can be helpful to analyze the work of previous brickmakers, whether that’s by reading the grants of colleagues and friends, or whether that’s spending some time over at the Open Grants website. Reading successful grants, Dr. Lai advises, will help you to develop your understanding of this genre and of the expectations of specific funders and reviewers.

For my own part, I wish that SSHRC auto-published all successful grants in their Awards Search Engine, perhaps 12 or 24 months after the end of the funding period. Doing so would shine a light on these aspects of the hidden curriculum, making researchers like you, letter-writer, less dependent on your personal and professional networks. In the meantime, I can only encourage you to submit your application to Open Grants – once it’s no longer confidential, of course – so that those who come after you don’t have to puzzle through as much opacity.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @shortishard.
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