Okay, I’m back! Easing into the Grad School Survival Guide, I want to address questions that have come from a couple of friends and readers who have asked some variant of the following question:
I wrote a grant proposal to work in a collection, and I said I was going to work on topic x, but now that I’ve been out and about and am starting to construct my dissertation, I realize it’s really going to be more about topic y. What should I do when I get to the archive?
Bearing in mind that the hard sciences work in a completely different manner, and that I am speaking to your average humanities/social sciences person here, and also assuming the “change in topic” you’re worried about is more akin to “I wanted to look at the history of medicine, but I realized I’m doing more of a social history through a medical lens” than “I was doing British History, but I’ve switched more to botany,” you can probably relax.
The fact is that, especially at the level of completing a doctoral thesis, what you actually produce is almost certainly never what you set out to write (mine sure wasn’t. And the project that I proposed in my application to the history program is now so embarrassing I can’t even bring myself to describe it). This happens to everyone. In fact, you should probably be worried if this doesn’t happen to some degree.
Funders are looking for assurances that their money isn’t going to be wasted by someone who wants to look at a handful of documents one morning and then spend the rest of their “archival visit” hanging with friends in New York City. That’s why they ask about your overall project, its research goals, and want to see what you think you’re going to find in the collection before you even get there.
And this is an important step in the process — I mean, I did once read a grant proposal wherein the applicant proposed working with material in a language they had never studied and gave no indication of otherwise being able to understand.
However, if your project is well-described, you have a reasonably academic approach to your topic, and you’re clear about why the research is important to achieving your goals, you’ll at least be in the running. Applications will be ranked, and maybe you might not make the cut, but you’ll be on the list instead of in the “Write back and ask if this applicant is pulling our leg” pile.
When it comes to most smaller grants, like those given by organizations to facilitate research in their collections, I’ve never heard of a funder pulling out someone’s grant narrative and saying, “You said you were going to work on [very narrow subtopic x] but you didn’t address it here, and we were so looking forward to reading your book when it comes out in ten years and we’ve all switched jobs and/or retired.” (Sorry, was that too on the nose?)
Anyone who’s worked with doctoral students will understand that research projects mature and change. It’s the nature of the beast.
Having said all of the above: Rule number one is: when in doubt, ask before you undertake your trip or start spending the grant money. It’s always better all around to be up front and honest.
If you’ve read the fine print and are thinking you may have to hide the fact that your project has morphed, you should contact the grant officer and discuss your concerns. You never know when you may need to work with a particular collection or organization again, and there’s no faster way to burn bridges and get yourself (and possibly your department or institution) blacklisted than misspending grant money.