Profiles | 9 May 2024

Staff Profile: Caitlin Charos


Caitlin Charos is the Research Development Specialist for Humanities and Humanistic Social Sciences in the Office of Research Development at UC Santa Cruz. While pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Princeton University, Charos established herself as a researcher, teacher, and persuasive grant writer, and was awarded a year-long fellowship funded by an AY19 Mellon-Sawyer Fellowship for her scholarship on global migration. She began her career in research development as a fellow in Princeton’s Office of Foundation Relations, where she helped connect faculty members to foundation funders with shared missions. Charos has supported faculty in securing significant grants from the Mellon Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Spencer Foundation, Cal Humanities, and more. She is a member of the National Organization of Research Development Professionals. In May, we sat down with Charos to discuss her research development work on campus, and her advice for graduate students and early-career humanities scholars applying to large grants.

Hi Caitlin! Thanks for chatting with us about your transition from a humanities degree to research development, and your current work as the Research Development Specialist for Humanities and Humanistic Social Sciences in UC Santa Cruz’s Office of Research Development. To start off, could you tell us exactly what is a Research Development Specialist?

The National Organization for Research Development Professionals (NORDP) defines research development as “a set of strategic, proactive, catalytic, and capacity-building activities designed to facilitate individual faculty members, teams of researchers, and central research administrations in attracting extramural research funding, creating relationships, and developing and implementing strategies to increase institutional competitiveness.” As that lengthy definition implies, research development specialists do A LOT of different things.

A good part of what we do in RD requires keeping up with the research trends in our respective fields by surveying major journals and researching the priorities of federal and private funding agencies. RD Specialists build relationships with faculty and learn about their research in order to match them with funding opportunities that might be a good fit for their projects. Oftentimes, we serve as thought partners to faculty while they are tailoring aspects of their research projects to funders, and those conversations can sometimes lead faculty to new research directions. When a faculty member or team decides to submit a proposal to a funder, RD Specialists provide consulting and project management support, as well as feedback on drafts. Oftentimes that requires reading more about the faculty member’s specific field and areas of interest, so that the RD Specialist can be a reliable consultant on the project. UCSC’s RD team also runs funder-specific events, faculty incentive programs, limited submission competitions (when the institution can only submit a certain number of proposals to the funder), collaborative research programs, and trainings.

A chart showing where Research Development sits in the “grant cycle.”

Research Development is a growing field, and many universities are expanding their offices. I highly recommend that any graduate students exploring careers outside of the academic tenure track look into RD positions!

I’m wondering if you could talk a little about transitioning from your PhD program at Princeton to working at UCSC’s Office of Research Development. What drew you to this work?

Like many graduate students in the humanities, I arrived at Princeton intending to pursue a career in academia, but over the course of my program I found myself gravitating toward opportunities to work in various administrative roles on campus.

By my fifth year, I was certain that my path would lead me to university administration, and I began to explore different roles by participating in a cohort program that Princeton calls, “University Administrative Fellowships” (UAFs). The UAF program provided professional development courses specific to familiarizing grad students with institutional operations and included semester-long opportunities to shadow university administrators. 

Finding faculty research funding is a lot like research-meets-matchmaking.

As the UAF in Princeton’s Office of Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations, I gained a lot of the experience that set me on the path towards my current role. There, I was mentored by the Associate Director of Foundation Relations and learned about the complex world of extramural research funding. With the guidance of my mentor, I learned that finding faculty research funding is a lot like research-meets-matchmaking: it requires many of the same skills as research–digging into articles and archives (my first project was skimming a funder’s public tax records and preparing executive summaries on funding trends in Inside Philanthropy)–but it also calls for relationship building.

As a “people person” who loves research, I got excited by the opportunity to build connections between faculty and faculty, between faculty and staff, and of course, between faculty and funders. These roles offered me a window into how the work of a university gets done from day to day and connected me with grads and faculty from other disciplines and wonderful staff who I would have been unlikely to encounter if I had been focused solely on my research. I began to see that being a place to perform research was just a small sliver of what the university actually did to support research, and that behind every event and course and project was a busy, collaborative network of efficient staff.

I credit this experience in Foundation Relations with helping me successfully apply for the Mellon-Sawyer grant that funded my seventh year on campus and with training me to support one of my advisors in her funding search. In 2020-2021, I helped her submit three grant applications to the National Endowment for the Humanities, and she was awarded two out of three, receiving over $500,000 in research funds.

The same enduring interest in the power of good storytelling to forge connections across time and space that led me to study literature has helped me cultivate a storytelling practice that moves grant makers to genuinely understand the souls of the projects they fund.

When I decided I’d had enough of my dissertation and started looking for jobs, I was immediately drawn to the Research Development Specialist position in the Humanities and Humanistic Social Sciences at UCSC. Since finishing school and beginning to assist faculty with preparing grants, I have been energized by seeing the wider impact I can make by championing others’ projects. The same enduring interest in the power of good storytelling to forge connections across time and space that led me to study literature has helped me cultivate a storytelling practice that moves grant makers to genuinely understand the souls of the projects they fund.

My job now calls for all of the things I enjoyed about my graduate work, about my administrative experiences, and more: not only do I support faculty in applying for fellowships and large research grants by guiding them through the proposal development process and organizing workshops and events, but I also get to be a thought partner to faculty members as they develop their research concepts. My expertise in literary study has made me an incisive editor and has prepared me to help faculty think through their research questions from the perspectives of reviewers and interdisciplinary audiences. The collaborative skills I developed through my various roles at Princeton are also helping me drive new initiatives to facilitate connections between cross-disciplinary teams of researchers, through which I hope to showcase the value humanities methods and perspectives can bring to other disciplines.

How have your experiences as a humanities graduate student affected the way you collaborate with and advise UCSC scholars in approaching fellowship application and grant writing?

In addition to the professional development experiences I participated in as a graduate student, what prepared me most for collaborating with and advising UCSC faculty was teaching. Not only did being a humanities graduate student prepare me to think critically and lead readers through an intellectual argument, but it also equipped me to distill scholarly and sometimes even densely theoretical material into small “bites” for my students. Teaching also helped me learn how to better structure my ideas and how to convey them concisely. As an undergraduate and early graduate student, I always had a hard time speaking up in the classroom–and I still get really nervous when I have to give a presentation! But teaching built up the confidence that I now project in my consultations with faculty, and the best part of my job is getting to talk with them about their research! I’m very lucky in that the faculty at UCSC are wonderful to talk with, and I appreciate their trust in my work.

Part of our work at THI is to support humanities graduate students to apply for fellowships and grants. Could you offer any tips to humanities scholars approaching the task of applying to a big, competitive grant for the first time?

  1. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to start early, with both your funding search and with drafting the proposal. Deadlines for funding proposals are usually anywhere from 6 to 18 months before the period of funding begins, and deadlines for most fellowships are in September-January. This means if you need funding for the 2025-2026 academic year, you likely need to start drafting your proposal in the summer and fall of 2024!

  2. Don’t copy-paste from your dissertation/academic writing! As humanities graduate students, we’re trained to think through a problem by leading the reader through a literature review before arriving at our motivation or argument. This is not the way a grant proposal is organized. A proposal is driven by the activities you will complete during the project period, and leading off with a hook and a simple list of what you plan to do while you are funded is often the best way to start. Then, you can contextualize that effort within a larger argument or research agenda.

  3. Always ask someone to read your proposal from the perspective of a reviewer. When we’re so deeply involved with our own research, it can be difficult to identify what’s obvious to an outsider and what isn’t. Asking a faculty member or a peer to review your draft will inevitably improve the quality of the proposal.

  4. Prepare yourself to expect rejection as part of the process. I almost didn’t apply for the Mellon-Sawyer fellowship that I won as a graduate student because I thought I wouldn’t get it…then I pushed past that fear and submitted something. There are so many factors that affect whether or not a project gets funded. If your proposal is not awarded funding, that doesn’t mean that the proposal or the project was bad. Always request reviewer feedback when it’s available, and don’t be afraid to try again!

What is one collaboration or experience you’ve had in your current campus role that you are particularly proud of/excited to share about?

I am a firm believer that the humanities are valuable and that humanists deserve to be paid for their work and perspectives.

This is a really tough question! I am proud every time a faculty member I’ve supported gets their grant, and proud even when they don’t get it but get some good feedback! I’ve been excited to see our faculty do so well in the past year, receiving grants from UCHRI and UCOP, as well as many extramural funders, like CalHumanities, NEH, the Spencer Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation! If I must be particular, I was very excited to be part of the larger team that helped prepare Dean Alinder’s “Employing Humanities” proposal for submission to the Mellon Foundation and thrilled when the award came through! I am a firm believer that the humanities are valuable and that humanists deserve to be paid for their work and perspectives. This initiative will help humanities students bring the skills they develop in the discipline to the work they do in other organizations and provide them with work experience that will help them demonstrate the value of the humanities beyond the academy.

What advice would you give to graduate students working the humanities who are interested in future careers or endeavors outside of tenure-track professorship positions?

For graduate students interested in careers off the tenure-track, I would highly recommend applying to be a THI Public Fellow. That program is such an excellent way to get work experience and skill-build outside of the university. I also recommend doing informational interviews with people in fields or careers that interest you. Before applying for this job, I talked to staff members at University of California-Office of the President and at UC Berkeley to find out more about their day-to-day activities and how they felt about their careers. (Their experiences were all very positive!). I also talked with friends from undergrad who were working in tech and nonprofit fields to decide if I really wanted to stay in a university environment (I did!). I know graduate school can feel so busy and like there isn’t time to focus on anything except the dissertation, but I recommend carving out an hour or two per week for exploration of some kind if you’re thinking about a new path.

Finally, what’s your favorite spot on UCSC’s campus? 

I think I need to take a tour… so far, I’ve only managed to see a couple of spots on campus–and two of them are where I eat! I enjoy the view from the Cowell-Stevenson dining hall best, but I suppose my favorite place to sit is outside Iveta with a boba tea or a poke bowl at lunch on a nice day. Feel free to say hi if you see me there and want to talk about funding!

Banner Image: The view from the Cowell-Stevenson Dining Hall.