‘Describing your project’: guidelines

ACIS letterhead 2017

DESCRIBING YOUR PROJECT

Every year, members of the ACIS Cassamarca Scholarships Committee read many exciting – very often inspirational – ideas for research projects that they would love to support. This is one of the things that make sitting on the Scholarship Committee such a pleasure: we see a snapshot of the wonderful work that young scholars are carrying out in the area of Italian Studies in Australian and New Zealand universities.

At the same time, it is sometimes clear that applicants are not experienced in the art of writing scholarship applications. While the ideas and the project itself are often very good, crucial details are sometimes not included. Sometimes proposals are not well structured or clearly argued: it might not be apparent exactly what a student intends to achieve, how the project in question is to be researched or, more simply, how a student intends to use the valuable time in Italy that the scholarship affords. Or in other words: having a good idea for a research project and writing a good application for researching funding are two very different things!

Writing applications for scholarships and research grants is a particular skill, and there is no one ‘right’ way to do it. There are, however, some basic principles that you should keep in mind when writing such an application.

First of all (and this doesn’t just apply to the ACIS Cassamarca Scholarship), remember that yours will not be the only brilliant application! As with almost any comparable scheme, the pool of available funds is limited, and this means that if the Committee is assessing a number of strong proposals, it will be forced to select only some of them for financial support.

One of the principal ways a Committee makes its choice in such circumstances is by selecting proposals which make clear that their authors have thought systematically about their project. Well-designed applications typically provide:

  • a clear, persuasive explanation of the aims of the project;
  • a statement as to the significance of the project;
  • a persuasive outline of how the researcher will achieve these aims;
  • a realistic research timetable.

There is another, general, rule, which again relates to resources. Remember at the most basic level that you are requesting a significant amount of funding to support your independent research. This means that you need to persuade the Committee that this funding will be effectively spent. In other words, your proposal should be an argument designed to convince the Committee that your project is intellectually significant, academically feasible, and that the research program that you set for yourself is realistic.

Writing your research proposal

A good way of structuring your proposal is to think of the four dot points above as sections, and for this reason we ask that you use the following section headings to organise your proposal.

Aims

This is basically a ‘what’ section. Make it clear from the very beginning what the project involves in a clear, precise outline. Don’t just say, for instance: ‘I want to work on 20th-century Italian cinema and would like three months in Italy to see what I can find out.’ All research in the humanities, regardless of discipline, addresses an intellectual issue or problem. In a literal sense, this ‘problem’ is your project, so you need to identify it clearly. Describe the problem that you intend to address and what you plan to do with it. Identify the sources (archival, architectural, archaeological, textual, cinematic, performative, etc.) on which you intend to work.

If possible, say what your inquiry will produce. This last point doesn’t mean that you have to know in advance what you will discover – that’s often not possible for obvious reasons. It should, however, be possible to talk briefly about the kinds of insight or conclusions you intend to generate, and about their potential significance. These intended outcomes are very likely part of the reason that you decided to do your project in the first place, so you should be able to provide an outline, even if they change over the course of the actual research program.

Significance

The ACIS Cassamarca Scholarships Committee does not expect you to make intellectual discoveries that will create world peace, put an end to worldwide hunger or change for all time the way study in your field of endeavour is conducted!

What we do like to see, however, are applications that address the intellectual significance of the project being proposed. One way to do this is to provide a brief statement explaining where your project stands in relation to recent relevant research in the area to which it belongs. Are you filling a gap in the specialist literature? If so, why is it important to do so? Are you building on or extending work done by other scholars? If so, how? Are you working on material that scholars have previously ignored? If so, why? We realise that you may have only just started your research and may not yet have very clear answers to these questions. But even a short indication of why you think that the project you are working on is important will be very helpful to the Committee.

Method

This is where you explain how you intend to go about realising the aims that you described in the opening section of your proposal. Is your project governed by a specific conceptual approach? Are there scholarly techniques or conceptual theories that you will apply to your examination of evidence?

It is not an oversimplification to conceive of this as the section in which the mechanic describes the contents of his or her toolbox, and explains how s/he will make use of certain tools to perform the job at hand. A scholar specialised in linguistics might want to do research into the uses of regional dialects in a series of unpublished diaries; in such a case this scholar might explain – briefly and in plain language – the conceptual or theoretical approach she or he intends to use, how this approach will be applied to the sources in question, how they will be used to extract insight.

It should go without saying that this ‘how’ section presumes some knowledge of the sources that you intend to study. It would be a problem, for instance, if you listed sources in Italy to which you could not gain access, or which for some reason are not amenable to the kind of analysis that you describe. In describing your method, therefore, pay attention to such points as:

  • Location, accessibility, availability of source material
  • Professional skills that the scholar needs in order to use them (i.e. relevant languages, palaeographical skills, other technical ability)
  • Sampling techniques (can the amount of source material that you need to study be covered in the time available? If it is very large, make sure you can reassure the Committee that you have a strategy for dealing with it)

Research timetable and budget

Do not feel that you must impress the Committee by saying that you will cover a suspiciously huge volume of material in many places within a very short time. While of course you need a critical mass of material to tackle the problem that you are addressing, your emphasis should be on quality, not quantity. In other words, be realistic. Say how long you think you will need to cover adequately the sources that you describe, or how long you need to be in the places that you need to visit, etc. If you have described your aims and method clearly, this section should literally be a timetable, with some explanation about how long you need in each case.

In this section, you should also include an indicative budget, outlining how the research funds will be spent. While this section does not have to be very detailed, do try to include realistic estimates for your main expenses, e.g. international and domestic travel, accommodation, etc.