Scholar Voices

An Interview with Hannah Darvin, Part I

Apr 06, 2023

I went to elementary school in Texas in the 80s. One day, a teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. 

I said, “President.”

Her response was, “You can’t be President. Why don’t you try being a journalist like Connie Chung.”

Her comments shamed me. I realized I was dreaming about a future I had no right to.

As an adult, I feel immense sadness thinking about that moment. My teacher couldn’t picture possibilities for girls or Asian Americans. She hadn’t seen them. And her limited worldview became my worldview.

Moments like these are the reason I run the Scholar Voices series in this newsletter. It’s hard to picture possibilities you’ve never seen. We need to hear stories from diverse scholars (e.g., career stage, backgrounds, jobs) to learn what could be possible. We all have the right to dream.

And as part of this series, I’m delighted to share an interview with Hannah Darvin. Hannah is a PhD Candidate in Art History at Queen's University in Canada. Her work focuses on an artist called Luke Fildes, particularly his 19th century painting, The Doctor. Her dissertation examines how he visually constructed the doctor-patient relationship from the 19th century to today. She’s also a BIPOC scholar and a new mom. 

~~~~An Interview With Hannah Darvin~~~~

When did you first start hearing people talk about grant writing?

I first started hearing about grant writing at the very onset of my PhD applications. It was something that a lot of potential supervisors would mention in Canada. We have this behemoth of a grant, and it's called the SSHRC. That's the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Grants. And when you come into a PhD program you are strongly encouraged to apply for it or you're expected to already bring one with you. [Betty’s note: SSHRC is pronounced  “shirk,” ironically.] 

How did you learn about grant writing?

It was really trial and error. My supervisor and mentor, who's really wonderful, is Dr. Allison Morehead. She encouraged me to apply for competitive grants like SSHRC. I was also nominated by my department for other competitive grants, such as the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and the Trudeau Foundation Grant. Dr. Morehead would read through many, many drafts, line by line, and she would give really important critical feedback about my work. 

What were your biggest challenges as you learned to write grants?

For me it was really honing in on what that formula was for grant writing. I started to understand that there was a formula, although I was not yet able to put my finger on exactly what it was. Another challenge for me was wrapping up my self esteem with each grant I wrote. At first I started to see the rejection as very difficult to surmount. I overcame this when I realized that it's about submitting and then resubmitting, applying, and reapplying to any and all grants. The other piece that was a bit challenging was understanding the “Why’s” of grant writing. As I mentioned with SSHRC, we were expected to apply. That usually happens during your first year, first semester. That’s a time when you're having all sorts of things thrown at you with your PhD. So it was difficult for me to understand how I was supposed to be focusing on my own research, my work, my coursework, and then also have this thing that's taking up maybe 18 to 20 hours a week where I'm writing and rewriting the same paragraphs over and over again. It became quite grueling. 

How did you feel as you were learning grant writing?

There were moments of frustration, of course, but it really made me feel empowered. Through speaking with my supervisor, and also taking your course, I started to understand the larger implications of why it matters that someone like me wins a grant. For me, it was really about understanding that if I win a grant it actually creates a systemic change. And on top of that, if we want the culture of academia to change, as a new mother and a BIPOC scholar, it's really also very important for me to assert myself in these spaces.

What changed for you after you started submitting grants?

I started to understand the template for grant writing. In terms of the formula, there’s the physical structure of what reviewers are looking for. You need your big idea. You need your lit review. But you also need to understand why your work makes a difference, and why someone would be passionate about your work. I started to understand that part of my job as a person writing grants is to make it as easy as possible for the reviewers to get what they need so that they can advocate for you. And I also know now that winning one grant begets another. Understanding this structure and figuring out what the formula is for you and for your field, gives you freedom.

How have grants influenced your work or studies?

Grants have had an immense financial and professional impact. It's allowed me to pursue work that I really care about that I'm really passionate about. I just won two grants, the Paul Mellon Centre Research Support Grant and the Queen’s Graduate Dean’s Doctoral Field Travel Grant. I'm able to spend 8 weeks in the UK doing onsite field research, which I'm very excited about. And it's also allowing me to pay for travel to go to the US and conduct other onsite research at American universities. And grants have helped me understand what is feasible within the timeframe of 4 years. Of course you want to be ambitious, but it's really important to understand what can realistically be done in that time period. And it helped me realize that not every question is going to be answered in your PhD. And sometimes that's a beautiful thing. It leaves a little bit of room for your postdoc, or potentially the rest of your career. 

~~~~~End of Interview~~~~~

Thank you so much to Hannah for sharing her wisdom. Stay tuned for our next newsletter, where Hannah will share her top tips for scholars who are new to grant writing. You can read more about Hannah and her work on Twitter, LinkedIn, or through her Queen’s University webpage. She will be on the job market in Spring 2025! 

If you’d like to read more scholars’ stories, check out my interviews with assistant professor Dr. Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana, associate professor and director Dr. Michelle Meyer, and freelance academic editor Dr. Letitia Henville.

Thanks for reading and believing that scholars deserve support for incredible ideas.


Stay in touch: The Newsletter, Twitter, and The Grant Writing Guide book.

P.S. Here’s a photo of me from the 80s. Overalls never go out of style. And get a load of that giant TV in the back. It took up a whole corner of the room. 

[Photo from the 80s.]

P.P.S. A few announcements:

  • If you’re interested in my Grant Writing Fundamentals course, it will run from June 1 - June 22 this summer. I’ll post about it in a future newsletter. But if you already know you want to register, get $75 off the course price with the coupon code: EARLYBIRD (good until May 11).
  • Join Dr. Ido Rosenzweig and myself on Twitter Spaces, April 12 at 4pm EST, where we will be talking about my book.
  • I’m hosting a free virtual webinar on 7 Grant Writing Myths on Wednesday, May 3 at 3pm EST. You can register for the virtual webinar here