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