STAR Method, or What Academics Can Learn from Project Managers, Part II


In a previous post, I talked about using Gantt Charts to map out dissertation timelines and estimate how long it will take you to meet short and long-term goals. All of that I learned from my fiancé, who works in a world of glass skyscrapers far different from mine. Over the past two and a half years, what my partner and I have found is that our seemingly disparate worlds have much to learn from each other.

Throughout my academic career, rejections have piled up much faster than acceptances: I applied to Ph.D. programs in two separate rounds before I got in, and I applied to MLA three times before I got in. Where I failed previously was not in the quality or merit of my work but in mastering the genre of the application. Even then, I submitted countless grant proposals with only mild success until I learned about the STAR method from my brilliant, project proposal-writing wiz of a partner.

This post is about how to use the STAR method, a very simple and straightforward method that has helped me earn over $12,000 in grants and awards in the past two years. It completely changed the way I write grant proposals, abstracts, thesis statements, and more. And it’s not just me. I’ve recommended the STAR method to others who have gone on to win grants with it, and they are currently traveling to do research around the world, from China to the UK, with their newly-acquired funds. Here we go.

S is for Situation

First and foremost, you need to offer your reader (or interviewer) a specific Situation, whatever event or context will offer a clear idea and example of “the stakes” of your project. Where, specifically, is the need for your work? First you must establish that need. Here are some examples taken from grant proposals I’ve written that have been successful:

“In our post-industrial soundscape, reminders of human impact are always ringing in our ears, like the trains that pass Walden Pond.”

The example above introduces a problem (noise pollution) that the project will work to address in its Task list. Here’s another example:

“While several studies have been conducted on music and Margaret Fuller, none as yet have been informed by Fuller’s disability.”

This situation introduces a gap in scholarship that the project will work toward filling in its Action list.

Essentially, the Situation is the Chekhov’s gun of your proposal: you introduce a problem, gap, or situation in Act 1 that needs to be addressed by Act 2 or 3.

T is for Task

Task is a fancy acronym-friendly way of saying “goal.” (Everyone wants to be a STAR.) Outline the goals of the project, and note that here it is most helpful to keep the list to attainable goals that the funding you’re applying for will help you to complete. Here are some examples:

My project challenges readers of Thoreau and a public audience to critically listen to a text and to their sonic environments.”

This example is shorthand for several goals of the project: (1) it will reach out to readers of Thoreau, (2) be public-facing, (3) challenge a public audience to listen differently so they will (4) bring that listening with them into their reading habits, and (5) help them listen differently to their local environments (and bring the problem of noise pollution closer to home for them based on the Situation above). Here’s another example:

“To complete writing this chapter and make intellectual contributions to the field, it is crucial for me to better understand Fuller’s infamous Conversations series and daily interactions.”

This example already begins building toward Action items. The project goals are to (1) complete writing the dissertation chapter, (2) make a contribution to the field, and (3) better understand Fuller’s work and life (Action: by visiting relevant archives).

It may sound like a great idea to achieve world peace in your $500 grant proposal, but you want your goals to be feasible within the timeline for the project. You can’t do everything, so set reasonable expectations and make a list of attainable goals. It might be helpful to do some digging to find out how much things cost, figure out what you could do for $500 or less, and then set your goals using that as a bench mark. Set up parameters for the project that help you to paint its successful future for the reader.

A is for Action

In addition to listing future things you will do with the funds you’re applying for, here you might also list Action items that are already complete. For example, that might include the fact that you’re already in touch with the archivist at the library you want to visit (and it’s easy to send that email off before you submit your proposal). It’s always good to show you’re serious and already at work on your project! Action items should be simple, clear, and detailed; here’s an example:

“This grant will support research for one of my four dissertation chapters.”

This is also a great place to insert your budget and a brief rationale for your budget. The best way to sound prepared and ready to take Action is to know as much as you can before you go on that trip. Think about a per diem and calculate a reasonable rate using the GSA website (and say that you’re using GSA to come up with that number). Look at the price of tickets, parking fees, admission fees, and the rules you have to follow. If you consult with someone from the library, or, in my case, a park ranger, find a way to write that down! Here’s an example:

“Work with Walden Woods Project and park rangers for help requesting early access to pond before opening hours.”

This is also a good place to mention if you have any other sources of funding. Perhaps the grant you’re applying for offers a maximum of $1,300 but you really need $1,700 to get the job done. In the Action items list, show which activities the funds would cover and which ones you’ll seek out additional funding for elsewhere. You never know, they might give you more.

Finally, if this is a team effort, you should emphasize the team and collaborative work elsewhere in the proposal because this is the place for you to emphasize your personal contribution. If you are submitting the request for funds (and not co-submitting), or if you’re interviewing for a position, you need to turn the focus to your work at this stage.

R is for Result

Be confident, be bold. This is the place to really sell it, and you should be putting up a project that’s worth selling, my friend. Hang your impostor syndrome at the door and you can pick it up again on your way out after you click “Submit.” This is the time to sparkle like a prismatic disco ball made of conflict-free, sustainably-sourced diamonds.

If you know that the institution you’re pitching to has goals (and you can find that out easily by going to their website, reading their mission statement, and looking at other projects they have funded) then this is the place for you to tick off all the boxes. Cue the fancy buzz words, paint a picture of a future that would make Bob Ross proud.

Most importantly, writing it should feel real and as optimistic as fruitcake, not as fake as fantasy. If you did all of the things you were supposed to up to this point, introducing a Situation that really needs fixing as well as detailing Task and Action lists that are feasible within the timeline of the project, then it’s time to show some pride in what you have and will accomplish. Here is an example adapted from one of my first successful grant applications:

“The work of my dissertation would be greatly enhanced by [insert opportunity here]. My audiences at conferences and my students would also greatly benefit from [insert project here]. The dissertation, when it becomes my first book, would have [insert results here]. The project, as a whole, integrates [insert small-to-big ideas here] and it brings [insert accomplished goals here] to a public audience.”

Next Steps

Keep this method in mind when future opportunities come up. The best lesson I learned from this process is that you definitely won’t get funding if you don’t apply for it. So go forth and apply for all of the things that you have a reasonable amount of time and energy to apply for!!!

Once you’ve acquired funding, keep a detailed record of how you spent the funds and make sure you take time to write thank you notes not just to the committee that picked your application but also to the source of funding, be it a department, a generous donor, or a foundation. Show gratitude and show results. You might do this at the very beginning by sending a personal email or letter; in a meta-reflection when the project is complete, like a personal email or white paper report; or at milestones along the way via social media, in a personal letter, or in a progress report. Showing gratitude helps you to build stronger bonds with people who want to see you succeed, it spreads goodwill, and it also keeps projects like yours funded. Remember to always thank your supporters every time you present your work.

Update: read more about how to use project management tools like the STAR Method in group work in your classes from a more recent post I wrote for Cengage’s Today’s Learner Blog: “5 Tricks for Successful Group Work.

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