How To Beat Grant Season (with the Agile Scrum Method)

What it is… and what it doesn’t have to be.

It’s now autumn. Leaves change, cool breezes roll in, and millions of graduate students gain a lot of gray hairs because they’re furiously working on grant proposals. I used to be one of them, and I am relieved to know that I am not. Usually the following happens when grant season rolls around:

  • Everyone wastes time over the grants by … stressing out over the grants
  • Professors become surprisingly unavailable to talk about grants
  • Colleagues and cohort mates suddenly regard you with extreme suspicion
  • Your research begins to change in ways you really did not expect (or even want)
  • Somebody hits The Wall (this happened to me)

Something like that.

“Putting an amoeba in a suit”

For those of us who like our research to be infinitely exploratory, surprising, and unpredictable (both the bless and the curse of being a post-modern cultural anthropologist – don’t ask me what that means), suddenly writing for scholars in different fields startles the entire research process. Suddenly some scholars are forced to think of p-values, R-squares, and significance and while others might be confronted with deconstructionism, actor-network theory, or (gasp) post-postmodern critique (seriously, don’t ask me what this means).

Apparently, Gary Larson loved to draw about ameobas, but I speculate he got lazy.

Hence, the concept of “putting an amoeba in a suit.” Grant writing for many is this violent process of suddenly formalizing our research, especially when we are taught to keep our research open and “rhizomatic,” so to speak. Others might find the process to be perfectly adequate (typically in the “hard” sciences, which I find worth exploring). We end up hating our grants possibly even our research, which does translate poorly to those committees that evaluate your proposals. They can smell everything.

Source: PhD Comics (

Compromised Research, Compromised Values  

On the other hand, some students and scholars are so starved for research funding that they’ll accept just about anything … if it means compromising their research to suit the needs of their supporter… or even adjusting their own moral core. This happens more often than one would think, and while the research advances and the wide-eyed scholar gains recognition and possibly a solid academic career, many scholars look back at their unadulterated intentions in graduate school and wonder… what happened?

I think people should discard both of these attitudes and try to think of the grant application process as a challenge, not as a blessing or a curse. Being able to communicate your work is vital for your future, as you always want to build an audience or even a community around your own interests. It’s unlikely that an English scholar will apply for a biology grant in the National Science Foundation, which means most people will apply to grants that are relevant to their own interests. It’s just a part of the grant writing process, albeit a frustrating one.

However, I offer a solution to making it just a little more tolerable.

What is the Agile Scrum Method?

Scrum was first developed in 1986 by two Toyota executives in Japan to increase the speed and flexibility of their manufacturing processes. Rugby players probably recognize the word, and rightly so, because this process involves frequent, cyclical moments of unity, when people come together as a team to finish a product. Software companies more commonly use it since they are project-oriented, but I think it could be branched out.

I could describe the Agile Scrum Method by text, but I prefer to use this video:

This process may sound weird at first because it’s directed more for software development, but I applied to the efforts of a writing team, and we were highly successful with it. I wish I knew about it while I was in graduate school, because my productivity would have flown through the roof.

Let’s break down some of the key terms and adapt them to the grant writing process:

1) You need to work in a group (minimum 4)

You should never work on a grant proposal alone. Find at least three other cohort mates to work on grants with, and you will all be of mutual benefit. Appoint one of you as Scrum Master, someone who helps maintain the focus of the entire group and removes any obstacles that might get in the way. The Scrum Master doesn’t  manager or supervise the team – s/he is a member of the team that enforces the rules and the Scrum process.

2) Start a plan for a month prior to the deadline.

The Scrum operates on monthly sprints, which are scheduled task initiatives that Take each grant you plan to do and plan accordingly:

  1. Identity the Product Owner – in this case, the product owner(s) are the committee members who will evaluate and decide whether you should receive this grant
  2. Write User Stories – this is foreign to graduate students because the work tends to be individualistic. Instead, think about the Product Owner as a “User” of your research. The basic way to frame a User Story, adapt for grants is this:“As a <Scholar>, I would like to know <Information> in this section of the grant so that it produces <Benefit>.”

    This removal of the ego and conceptualization of your grant as something that others will read is the first major shift that must be taken before you move on.

  3. Commit to a Time Schedule – Use time frames of 1 hour, 2 hours, 4 hours, and 8 hours. If anything takes longer than that, it needs to be broken down into smaller pieces. Don’t be afraid to over-estimate. You’ll feel better knowing you did something faster than you thought you would.
  4. Create a Backlog – You need to store all of these user stories and tasks into a big database called a backlog. Excel is okay, but if you really want to max our your Scrum potential, I recommend spending $10 a month (or less) for some Scrum-based software (OnTime, GreenHopper, ScrumNinja are good).

Let’s take the Wenner-Gren (a grant application familiar to many anthropologists). If you look at the entire application as a whole, it’s too intimidating. Break it up into sections. Here’s how I wish I had planned my Wenner-Gren (item, time frame, user story):

  • Cover Page1 hour“As a scholar, I want to look at the cover page and already understand the basics of the project .as well as a little about the applicant to move forward.”
  • Budget1 hour“As an accountant, I want to the applicant to have a reasonable budget to conduct their work.” 
  • Question 1: Research Question 4 hours“As a scholar, I would like to know that there is a clear research question and/or testable hypotheses that drive this project toward fascinating results.”
  • Question 2: Literary Review8 hours“As a scholar, I would like to know that the applicant is situated at the forefront of their field and has done the due diligence to warrant their own project.”
  • Question 3: Research Plan4 hours“As a scholar, I would like to be able to envision the applicant as they conduct research, knowing clearly what they will be potentially doing with our grant money.”
  • Question 4: Training4 hours“As a scholar, not only do I want to know that this applicant can conduct the research effectively, but that they are the absolute best person available to be conducting this research.”
  • Question 5: Contribution to Anthropology2 hours“As an anthropologist, I want to know if this research will advance the discipline forward in any way, rather than just replicate someone else’s results.”
  • Question 6: Osmundsen Initiative2 hours“As an experimentally-minded anthropologist, I want to know if this project is truly unique in some or every way: new methods, new theories, new interrogations, or new societies.”

Estimated total amount of time: 26 hours (or, with 4 hours per day, 6.5 days or just under a week). I also over-estimated the time, just in case certain items take longer than usual. However, a week is a solid amount of time to get a strong first draft in, and the next weeks can be spent doing edits for yourself or for others, all of which should also be planned and incorporated.

Remember to balance it out with the rest of your schedule. You have to give yourself an appropriate amount of time in the day to do these kinds of tasks. Anything more and you will most likely burn out. Grants are important, but they’re not the end of the world.

Also, even though there will also be overlap, do not use the “one grant fits all” strategy. Every grant is different and wants to see different information on their applications. Plan accordingly and create proper user stories for each of them.

3) Do a Daily Scrum with your Group

A Daily Scrum Standing Meeting

If you’re working as a team, it’s important to remind yourself of that every day. The Daily Scrum is a quick 15-minute meeting where everyone in the team reviews the following: (1) What they did since the last scrum, (2) What they plan to do for the day, and (3) what obstacles might be in their way. The Scrum Leader organizes and facilitates scrum, and s/he also helps the team member remove obstacles that are in the way. The Scrum Leader also must record accomplishments and incorporates into a chart I will talk about later.

Why do these meetings go by so quickly? They’re standing meetings. Unless they are unable, it’s important to conduct them as standing meetings in order for them to go buy as quickly as possible. The Scrum Leader must be as “religious” as possible when it comes to conducting these meetings because they set a wonderful precedent for goal-setting and achievement every day.

4) Create a Burndown Chart if you can

I’d recommend using software, but this … works?

A Burndown Chart is the most motivating aspect of the Agile Scrum. What you typically see are two lines, one depicting the planned trajectory of the work flow, the other the actual trajectory. This image alone acts a reminder of what everyone as a team set out to achieve and what they are achieving, according to their Daily Scrum reports.

Naturally, not everything goes to plan. The Burndown Chart shows this very beautifully and allows teams to re-orient themselves in order to make their goal. Especially for grant season’s hectic, overlapping deadlines, adjustments will always be made. Using the Agle Scrum will make you even more flexible to such challenges and achieve your goals accordingly.

Here’s a much more elegant Burndown.

5) Once you’ve submitted a proposal, review and plan the next one.

Grant writing is a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as people make it. This method has been instrumental in building some of the largest, most successful companies in the world. I’m surprised it hasn’t been introduced within other institutions such as academia, especially in the social sciences. Why? For the most part, it’s just a re-orientation of people, a destabilization of the “manager-worker” relationship towards something more system-oriented, where people play by the rules rather than become micromanaged by a single human authority. It works in a (sigh) very Foucauldian way of self-disciplining, yet without the panopticon. (That was tough for me…)

I can’t promise you endless victory, but I can promise you that your work will be much more focused and far less stressful if you give this method a try.

I wish you all the best of luck.

Lee Ngo
Co-founder | Academica

Academic Woe-Be-Gone (a.k.a. The Education Eeyore Effect)

Dear Academica Readers,
It is my honor and pleasure to introduce Academica’s very first contributing guest writer, Stacy Austin! Stacy is a close friend of mine since our high school years (the exact years I refuse to disclose), and she has graciously written a few of her own thoughts on her experiences in graduate school to share with you. We hope she will be the first of many to rise up and express their grievances about academic culture. Please enjoy!

Lee Ngo
Co-Founder | Academica


I clearly remember the first day of my graduate program. It was supposed to be a quick two years master’s program in communication. I went to orientation, met with my cohort, and even updated my Facebook status: “First day of grad school, complete!” I was genuinely excited.

Then came the endless academic journals, the competitive nature of my colleagues, and unrealistic expectations I set for myself to publish and present. Every morning, I would wake up, cry deeply, and say to myself,

“I think I’ve made a mistake.”

Along with endless academic journals,
be prepared to scour the library for more things to read.

My department is very reputable and strong, but it has recently gone through a massive upheaval, i.e.

  • Faculty retiring,
  • New faculty recruitment,
  • A move to a new building, and
  • New core program requirements.

After losing my thesis advisor to a department change, I voiced my frustration to the department head over the lack of guidance and information I had received. All s/he told me to do was  “soldier on.” How could professors who are  scholars, experts, and educators in communication… be so poor at communication?

I’d often spend time with graduate students in other programs.

“I’m miserable,” I’d tell them.

And they’d reply, “We are too.”

Look at these students loitering on campus.
They appear to empathize with academic pains.

Even though they didn’t have the same problems I did, they certainly had their share. Academia is full of problems.

When I asked a professor for more positive feedback, he actually retorted, “…But I don’t get any. When my work gets published, no one pats me on the back.”

I really don’t mean to complain. Yes, I understand that…

  • There are dozens of people who are rejected or wait-listed from my graduate program each year,
  • Having an additional degree has numerous positive effects for my future, albeit currently unbeknownst to me, and
  • I should be happy to work with and for my esteemed professors.

The library is a cold, sterile building,
but I’ve spent so much time there that empty chairs always look really welcoming.

Let me share a bit of advice given to me by a peer, of which I still pass on to others. Participating in graduate classes and teaching undergraduate courses are the easy part of grad school. Working on my thesis, however, has been the real uphill battle. If you decide to stick it out and finish your program, here are five tips for completing your thesis and graduating out of the “Eeyore Effect” (see Winnie the Pooh to understand).

  1. Every time you email your thesis advisor a draft, let them know how many weeks are left in the term and your expected graduation date. This may seem unnecessary, repetitive, or even annoying, but let’s hope it’s an idea that must get planted in their heads. Don’t just cross your fingers; take initiative to move the process along.
  2. Keep the graduate advisor in your program updated about your interactions with your thesis advisor every month. You will have a paper trail and the department can assist you in case your thesis advisor drops the ball or goes rogue on everyone. Also, if you are concerned about your thesis advisor returning emails or providing feedback within a reasonable amount of time, tell your graduate advisor as soon as possible.
  3. If you email or call your thesis advisor, and they don’t reply, contact them again. If they don’t reply, do it again until they finally respond. If over a week passes where you’re unable to work on your thesis paper due to a lack of feedback, you will have lost valuable time.
  4. Get your forms and deadlines in order, marking them on a calendar. Graduation is often contingent on getting your department to sign and turn in the correct paperwork on time. Help them help you.
  5. Follow-up on EVERYTHING you tell your thesis advisor. To them you’re merely vacationing in academia, while they’ve made it their life’s work. No matter what, you will be perceived as a lower priority to their own concerns. Pertinent information about you can easily be forgotten by them.

Maybe your program is a breeze and you’ll never need to utilize these tips. If so, good for you! If not, plenty of people will empathize with you, so don’t ever feel like you’re ever alone in how you feel.

As I was once told, “A good dissertation is a done dissertation. Dissertate and graduate!”

Good luck!

Stacy Austin is a master’s student in communications and a freelance writer. Visit her blog or follow her on Twitter at @stacylaughs.

“If a scholar speaks at a conference, and nobody’s around to hear it, is she… trapped in an ontological conundrum?”

I have made it no secret to my peers that I hate going to conferences. In one year, I had to go to New Orleans twice, and by “had to,” I mean “highly encouraged by my department and peers to present at conferences and make a name for myself.”

The last conference I went to did indeed have some highlights that I would love to share. Forgive me if the pictures I provide are … not of terrific quality.

1) New Orleans has great food – this is undeniable.

Among the many things I consumed in New Orleans:

a) Seafood Po’ Boy. Why the Vietnamese haven’t adapted the bánh mì and take this concept to new heights is beyond me. Let’s get on it, Lee’s Sandwiches (no relation)!

I literally got away from the overwhelming cacophony of the conference I attended and crammed this seafood Po’ Boy into my face without a moment of shame.

b) Bananas Foster. Apparently if you combine bananas, ice cream, and syrup and set the whole thing on fire, glory happens.

Another reason why paying over $700 to attend this conference. was not a mistake. Except it was.

 c) Beignets. My New Orleans friends told me they go great with coffee. I wonder why.

These are beignets. They may look like doughnuts, they may taste like doughnuts, and they may even be prepared in virtually the same way as doughnuts, but THEY ARE NOT DOUGHNUTS. (Source: every New Orleans resident).

For a culinary experience, I had a terrific time there. That wasn’t the only wonderful part of the trip.

2) The French Quarter is full of music, color, and vivacity.

If you’re in the famous French Quarter in New Orleans (fortunately minimally damaged after Hurricane Katrina in 2005), and you don’t hear music. I’m sorry, but you’ve gone deaf. The city is known for its brass and its rhythm, and I could not help but get drawn in by the sounds.

Massive, unified brass bands are not an uncommon thing in the French Quarter.

Smaller, random gatherings in the evening outside of a Foot Locker happen, too.

Even this Japanese restaurant hasa bluegrass band that takes requests. The lead singer looks like Ellen Page a.k.a “Juno,” which I thought was cool.

Sometimes, you don’t even need to be in a band just to make a lot of noise…

This gentleman with a massive boom box was made of solid gold. Who are you to say he was not?

New Orleans is not just a feast for the ears. It is a town that will amaze your eyes as well. For instance, when you walk out of the terminal at the Louis Armstrong International Airport:

BOOM! You’ve just been mural’d.

Sometimes, however, the images might be too much to handle…

This…. thing, on the other hand, needs some explanation that I cannot provide as a social scientist or… otherwise.

All in all, it sure seemed like I had a great time in New Orleans… but I didn’t. Why not? Well, because of this photo.

Nobody showed up to my panel, so I took this picture with my old cell phone and started to contemplate my life.

While this may seem like a majestic view of New Orleans just after day break, it is a constant reminder of who was behind me as I took this photo: no one. I served on a panel with a UCLA graduate student and a UC Riverside assistant professor, scheduled for 8am on a Sunday morning. Nobody showed up to the panel. When my fellow panelists realized this, we shrugged our shoulders and presented to each other anyway, as if we did not hear enough about our work among the three of us.

What frustrated me the most was not the fact that nobody showed up, but I paid a lot of money to present a paper that nobody new and fresh would receive. Below is a list of the costs of my trip to New Orleans:

  • $392.40 – Roundtrip Ticket from LAX (Los Angeles) to MSY (New Orleans)
  • $80.28 – Car Rental
  • $54 – Hotel parking for 3 days
  • $0 – Hotel (I stayed with a friend I met in Vietnam)
  • $85 – Presenter Registration Fee – Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference
  • $75 – Student Membership Fee – Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference
  • $50 – Food (estimate)
  • $30 – Gasoline (estimate)

$766.68 – My total estimated expenditure for this conference. Over 1/3 of my monthly fellowship stipend – gone. Amount that my university reimbursed me for the trip: zero.

What was the point of going to this conference? I failed to share my work with anyone new. I failed to really network with anyone, although I did run into some random people from my undergraduate days. Still, if the point was to go out and network with as many scholars of cinema and build a colleague base, why must the cover charge be so high just to get into the club? The sheer volume of people scurrying in and out of the hotel alone made it impossible to have a meaningful conversation with anyone. As I was there, I kept thinking to myself:

“I’ve made a huge mistake with my life.”

Am I alone in feeling this way? Was this a vacation or a professional networking venture? Has anyone else out there ever felt like they’d rather network and present in a different manner than these highly expensive, crowded, alienating conferences? Please, tell me your thoughts about your most expensive conference trip to date..

Thank you for reading,
Lee Ngo
Co-Founder | Academica

When Good Professors Make Bad Mentors

Red ink triggers PTSD flashbacks for many graduate students.

Allow me to tell you a personal anecdote, one that I buried deep within my soul because it pains me to recall it.

During my first quarter of pursuing a PhD in cultural anthropology, I received the following from one of my professors (broken up into palatable sections but otherwise taken verbatim from the actual email):

“Dear Lee,

I was very surprised by your comment as we left class today — ‘was I offended by your questions?’ — and realized afterwards that you had totally misunderstood my email asking you to rework your questions.

My email had nothing to do with your comments on my book, it had to do with my long efforts as the prof, over the whole quarter, to get you to pose the kinds of questions that are most appropriate for a graduate seminar.
Questions that just ask something about the topic at hand at not the best questions. They direct attention away from what the seminar is trying to understand.

The grad seminar is directed at understanding a particular set of methods, theories, and concepts, best exemplified by the chosen readings. So, the questions students pose should be directed internally, toward the readings, toward previous readings, or toward the intellectual engagement with the topic at hand generally. They should not be questions about anything at all that comes to mind from doing the reading.

Do you understand this? I have tried again and again over the quarter to make this point to you — by intervening repeatedly to say ‘but we can’t
answer that question from our materials’. I was trying to make a crucial pedagogical point but, judging from your questions, below, I did not get through. Do you think you understand now what I have been trying to convey
all quarter?

Professor X”

Immediately after reading this email, I wrote a letter of resignation to the chair of my department. Yes, I will admit and concede to a certain ignorance on my part about the seminar process, especially given that it was my first quarter and I was not yet accustomed to reading an average of 600 pages of dense literature per week. However, it was never my intention to be perpetually digressing or tangential in that class – I was trying to make the works assigned to me comprehensible for my own sensibilities.

The bottom line is that this professor’s passive-aggressive pedagogical approach failed to change my seminar habits. Instead, it made me want to quit altogether, a mere two months into my program. Moreover, this professor was fully tenured and highly reputable in the field of anthropology. The sentiments made me believe that my pursuing this PhD would waste everyone’s time for the next few years.

I kept the letter of resignation in my desk, but I ended up never submitting it, largely out of the fear of going back into the working world. After all, it was 2009, the sub-prime mortgage crisis just happened, and there was no bailout in sight for people like me. I was completed trapped.

It was not until my second quarter that I worked with truly engaging professors who, despite their own personal struggles and angst towards the ivory tower, engaged directly with my interests, connected with me out in the “real world,” and treated me with the utmost courtesy and respect. Because of these professors, I shredded my letter and moved on from that terrible first experience.

If you’ve come to this point in this post and you’ve got a similar story to share, we at Academica would love to hear it. If you do share it here, however, please do so while maintaining the utmost anonymity. Academica wants to start constructive conversations on improving relationships between established and budding scholars, and that conversation starts with you.

It does gets better,
Lee Ngo
Co-Founder | Academica

Side note: The most ludicrous part is that this professor’s email was driven by a facetious statement I made just to clear the air between us. Apparently, despite the fancy pedigrees, the full tenure, and the numerous publications that probably less than 100 people have ever willingly read, the professor failed to quite grasp my tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.