I’m currently in midst of writing reviews for 21 NSF proposals (which need to all be filed by 5:00 tomorrow before I head to the airport to fly out to Washington for the Sociology Panel…argh). Having read most all of them at this point, I can make a couple of recommendations to future writers of NSF grants, but I’ll limit myself to just one in this post. This same recommendation flows just as much from my experience editing the journal Mobilization and from watching innumerable job talks over the last decade. That advice is: get a theory.
The biggest problem with the vast majority of these grant proposals is that it is not apparent that many of the authors have a theoretical project at all, or if they even know what that means. Likewise, this has been (without a doubt) the biggest gripe from reviewers of Mobilization manuscripts over the past year-and-a-half: Where’s the theory? And, it is the number one concern raised about faculty candidates (both junior and senior) in our department since I’ve been involved in faculty searches: “The empirical stuff seemed ok, but I couldn’t figure out where s/he was going theoretically.” That question is the kiss of death.
So many candidates seemed oblivious to the importance of talking about the theory, that when I was chair, I took to tipping off candidates when I invited them for interviews. I’d say something like “make sure you spend a significant amount of time in your talk discussing your theoretical contribution. It’s possible we may over emphasize it here, but it is critical to get that theoretical piece across to the group.” Mostly, it didn’t work–either people didn’t incorporate anything about theory or they’d append a slide to their power point called something like “Theoretical Issues” and blow through three bullet points suggesting possible theoretical links with existing literature.
That’s bad enough for a junior faculty candidate, but I can’t imagine going into a highly competitive grant competition like NSF Sociology* and expecting to get anywhere without communicating very clearly to the reviewers and panel what you think the theoretical payoff is going to be, or what theoretical hole you are trying to fill. It’s true you don’t know for sure because you haven’t finished the work yet, but you need to have an agenda at least and show that you know (a) that there is some theory already out there and (b) why what you are doing might be important to the developing theoretical trajectory of the field. When rating NSF proposals, one has to label each as Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, or Excellent. Without a strong theoretical basis or upshot, I feel that Fair is a pretty generous rating.
In contrast, I just got done reading a really good one from a very experience grant getter and, boom! By the time I got through the second paragraph of the project summary (the one page abstract of the project), I knew exactly where the project was going theoretically and why it was important.
Honestly, it’s even worse when one is submitting an article. With a grant proposal, there’s always some degree of speculation about what will come, but an article is a finished project. You had better give the reader a clear sense of the theoretical contribution or you’re dead in the water. I am uncomfortable, as an editor, issuing an R&R decision and having to ask the author(s) to develop some theory. How this can be an afterthought is beyond me–it should have been driving the whole paper forward. I have done it on occasion, but invariably, I have been disappointed with the results. If the author didn’t take it seriously in the first place, it unlikely to emerge in the revision either.
* There are obvious exceptions like the GSS which are large data-gathering enterprises that are expected to serve many different needs, so of course there is not a coherent theoretical vision driving that kind of project, but the vast majority of NSF proposals are not of that ilk at all.