“Writing a Winning Fellowship Application” by Devoney Looser

Devoney Looser
Department of English
P.O. Box 870302
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85257
NASSR 2013 Graduate Caucus Roundtable

Writing a Winning Fellowship Application

Know your project, and research the competitions that best fit your needs.

  • Dissertation fellowships
    • Support late-stage (usually final year) completion of your dissertation.
    • Look at Academic Jobs Wiki page, Dissertation Fellowships Page
    • Consult with your advisers/mentors
  • Long-term fellowships
    • Post-doctoral or pre-doctoral, 6-12 months, to complete large projects
    • May allow you to dictate your whereabouts
    • May involve residency in a particular institution/library
      • Long-term fellowships at libraries may involve agreeing to give a lecture but rarely involve teaching
      • Post-doctoral fellowships at universities usually involve teaching
    • Seek advertisements through your professional organizations
    • Seek advertisements through research institutions or libraries
    • Consult with your advisers/mentors
  • Short-term fellowships
    • Two weeks to 3 months to travel to a particular collection for research toward a book, book chapter, or essay
    • Requires SPECIFIC knowledge of collection and why it is necessary to undertake your research there
    • Seek advertisements through your professional organizations, listservs, institutions themselves, etc.
    • Some fellowships offer residency and access but not travel (e.g. Chawton House Library). Be prepared to combine resources/funding
    • Consult with your advisers/mentors
  • Workshops
    • These fellowships require you to work in a group to complete readings, participate in conversations, and/or share your research in progress.
    • NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes for College and University Teachers now reserve two slots for graduate students.
    • Start now to track early post-doctoral opportunities, e.g. National Humanities Center Summer Institutes in Literary Studies: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/sils/
  • Graduate student travel to conferences
    • Usually require an accepted paper, application, and recommendations
    • Seek advertisements through your professional organizations
    • Seek internal awards at your institution (department, college, university, graduate students organizations, student fees, etc.)


Leave yourself plenty of time

  • The surest way not to get funded is to do rushed, last-minute work.
    • Produces shoddy applications
    • Prevents you from building a reputation as someone who does smart, careful work
    • Frustrates advisers/recommenders who want you to be known for doing smart, careful work
    • Remember: a fellowship is not a lottery; it’s a competition. Train for it!
  • Applicant packets have many parts, all of which are important.
    • Project description (length specified; follow it!)
    • CV
    • Letters of recommendation (2-3)
    • Budget
  • Share your application packet with peers and trusted others for feedback.
  • A month prior to the deadline, ask recommenders whether they would be willing to write for you.
    • It is polite to give your recommenders a copy of the draft of your project description after he/she has agreed to write.
    • The more information you offer a recommender (project description, CV, etc.) the more detailed a letter he/she will be able to write.


Sell your project

  • Project narratives: a genre to study and master.
    • Start with the big picture
      • Your first paragraph should give readers the information they need to answer this question:  “This writer is studying (TOPIC) because he/she is trying to discover (QUESTION) in order to understand (PROBLEM) so that (ARGUMENT).” (The Craft of Research)
      • What does your project offer that advances current conversations and debates? Why should scholars in your field(s) be interested in what you are doing?
      • Do not rely on “This fills a gap!” How and why?
    • Show that you are joining ongoing conversations/debates, but don’t let other voices have the floor for too long.
      • Reference some names or concepts, if you must, but this is not the place for long quotations from other scholars.
      • Why start a paragraph with another critic’s name, if you can help it?  Make an argument or a concept the first part of a topic sentence, not the critic.
    • Seek examples of successful applications.
      • Do you know anyone who has gotten one of these fellowships recently who might share his/her application packet? Does your adviser?
      • Look at the people who received funding in past years (often listed on the website).  Do you have connections to any of them to ask for advice or feedback on drafts?
      • Scrutinize what kinds of projects were funded.  Does yours seem to “fit” in its title, topic, conception, and/or scope?
      • Large organizations (e.g. NEH) will sometimes be willing to share model applications upon request.
  • Remember: you are writing to the committee reviewing applications.
    • Who is on this committee?
      • It is likely that they are academics and affiliates of the granting agency, not necessarily in your precise field.
      • They may be past recipients of these fellowships.
      • They will likely be rank ordering applications based on the worthiness of the project, its promise, and demonstrated need/fit.
      • Consider whether you should enlarge your rhetorical frame or give more cues to readers not directly familiar with your subfield.
        • Include full names, titles, dates for any texts/authors you mention that may not be well known to evaluators.
        • Consider adding brief descriptive adjectives on first mentioning a lesser-known figure, e.g. “the once-celebrated historical novelist Jane Porter.”
    • Be as clear and direct as possible.
    • Present any needed background information as part of an argument, not as part of a summary. Don’t lecture your readers; lead them.
    • Get rid of: cute or clever titles (use descriptive keywords + argument) and opening paragraphs that are flying at 30,000 feet (“In the beginning, there was literary criticism.”).
  • Read more academic self-help literature on this question. 


Show compelling need

  • How will this agency determine need, and do you “fit”?
    • Read the call for applications.  What kinds of need are you asked to demonstrate?
    • Is there a specific way you can show rather than tell, e.g. not “I am but a poor graduate student,” but “This fellowship would make it possible for me to complete needed research, as my university does not currently fund graduate students’ international research travel.”
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the program/library you want to invest in you.
    • In ways subtle and unsubtle, echo the keywords in their call.
    • If applying for a travel-to-collection fellowship, include 1-2 paragraphs (often toward the end of the project narrative) in which you specifically name the resources that you plan to consult and why.
      • Research the collection in question. What does it have that is unique?  What are its strengths?  Know your library!
      • Name the specific categories of materials and even specific titles that you will plan to consult and how they may meet your research needs.
      • Make sure that you are not proposing to travel to read something easily accessible elsewhere (Google books, ECCO, NCCO).
      • Do not suggest that you will complete more reading/writing than you can reasonably do in the amount of time stipulated.
      • Be specific about outcomes. “In three months, I will finish my book” is much less persuasive than “During the first two months of the fellowship, I plan to revise chapters three and five, using xyz. In the third month, I propose to complete research for the book’s conclusion, using abc.”
  • Budget realistically
    • Ask your adviser or someone who has applied previously to share a sample budget.
    • Use categories that are allowable within the grant.
      • What are the actual costs for airfare, hotels, etc.?  Use them.  Reference them.  Estimate upward if you would be traveling at a time it is more expensive.
      • Consult federal per diem rates for a particular city to estimate costs for lodging and meals.
      • Does your university’s Office of Research help with budgets?
  • Never, never, never give up!
    • All of us have been rejected.  Multiple times.  Dust yourself off, and try again next year or in another competition.
    • Seek constructive feedback. Ask trusted others, not the organization itself, why your application might not have been successful.
    • Some large organizations do allow you to ask for comments on your application (e.g. NEH). They specify this in their instructions.

[Editor’s note: published with permission of the author]

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