They are the stones you lay on the path to your goal.
I’m an artist-turned-academy and I’m struggling with the unwritten rules of the SSHRC grants. I recently received feedback from a colleague that the four objectives of my draft proposal were “unclear”. What I’m unclear about is how to write better goals. What are the elements of a clear goal?
– Anonymous, film studies
Answer from Dr. Editor:
It can certainly be frustrating trying to stick to the unwritten rules of grant applications.
“Objectives” are not defined in the SSHRC Glossary or in the application instructions for most competitions; When I was in my doctoral program, I didn’t start reading a poem with any particular goal in mind – I just wanted to see what I would find.
As Lambros Roumbanis wrote in his persuasive argument for outsourcing lotteries to agencies, despite “the collective efforts of reviewers to make the most informed and fair decisions possible, we cannot ignore the fact that peer review is based on trade-offs and risks Minimization” (2019). In the case of SSHRC, this risk minimization is built into the structure of the assessment criteria, which in part assess the “likelihood of achieving the objectives within the proposed timeline”. (SSHRC)
In order to score points in the SSHRC evaluation criteria, you need a few goals – but it is not said exactly what they should look like. To learn more about what makes a well-written goal, I spoke to Betty S. Lai, author of the upcoming book The Grant Writing Guide: A Scholar’s Roadmap. dr Lai has broken down four components of clear goals:
1. Good goals are not too nebulous
Just like the learning goals you write for your curriculum, research grant goals shouldn’t be too vague. If you wrote, “Our first goal is to understand X,” it would be hard for anyone to know if you accomplished that. If you wrote, “Our first goal is to study X” – well, almost anything you do could accomplish that goal.
Use language that is specific enough that your funder, reviewers, and you will understand when you have achieved your goals. Avoid “understand”, “explore”, “consider”; Instead, opt for “demonstrate,” “produce,” or “determine.”
2. Good goals are not too narrow
Even if you want to get specific, your goals should still be closer to “why” than “how” or “what”. If the overarching goal of your project is to unpack the importance of art form X to social construct Y, thereby revealing the importance of understaffed artist group X in the Y movement, then the goals you set could be designed around that goal achieve include :
- to describe instances of Art Form X emerging in the nascent Construct Y advocacy movement.
- To describe echoes of X’s artistic method in the language used in a prominent Y publication.
- Compiling examples of formal parallels between art form X and protest method Y.
The methods one scholar uses to achieve these goals may differ from the methods used by another scholar: for example, to achieve goal iii, one person might search archives while another might program an algorithm. Similarly, at objective i, a researcher might focus on an art collection; a different, a completely different work or even a single artist. These “how” and “what” details are your approach, your methods, your chosen corpus; They differ from your goals.
3. Good lenses must be the right size
Since your goal is to reveal something important, your goals are the pieces of evidence you amass to make that overarching argument. But how big is a “chunk”?
dr Lai advises, “Each objective, when answered, should be about the size of a journal article.” What amount of content would give you enough substance to write a research paper? The same amount should be roughly equivalent to the “size” of a lens.
4. Good goals are clear
“Don’t make goals dependent on each other,” says Dr. lay If your first goal is to build a bridge and your second goal requires using that bridge, what happens if your bridge fails? “Reviewers tend to get restless when your goals are interdependent,” Dr. lay; Having discrete goals thus reduces the risk of your proposed work.
In short, dear letter writer, your goals are building blocks that you place on the path that you build to your goal. In order to make good bricks, it can be helpful to analyze the work of previous brickmakers, whether by reading the grants of colleagues and friends or by lingering on the Open Grants website. Reading Successful Scholarships, advises Dr. Lai, will help you develop your understanding of this genre and the expectations of certain funders and reviewers.
For my part, I would like SSHRC to automatically publish all successful grants in their award search engine, perhaps 12 or 24 months after the end of the grant period. This would shed light on these aspects of the hidden curriculum and make researchers like you, letter writers, less dependent on your personal and professional networks. In the meantime, I can only encourage you to submit your application to Open Grants – as soon as it is no longer confidential, of course – so that those who come after you do not have to guess so much obscurity.