Tag Archives: archives

“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]

“Maximizing (and Enjoying) Research Time in the Archives” by Andrew Burkett

Andrew Burkett
Assistant Professor of English, Union College
Roundtable Talk:  “Researching in the Archives”
NASSR 2013, Boston University
August 9, 2013
11:30-1:00 PM; Conference Auditorium


“Maximizing (and Enjoying) Research Time in the Archives”


I wanted to begin my brief remarks today first by thanking Kirstyn and her co-organizers for putting together this exciting roundtable and for inviting me to share some of the story of my own experiences in archival research as well as some ideas about how we might all approach future archival work a bit more efficiently and with, perhaps, a bit more enjoyment.  In doing so, I’m going to limit these remarks to thinking about how to maximize—and to appreciate more fully—one’s time once at the archival research site.  And I wanted to note too from the start here that I’m basing these insights largely on my own experiences while working with the Charles Darwin Papers while a Visiting Scholar in the Manuscripts Room at the University of Cambridge’s University Library (or the UL, as it’s affectionately abbreviated).  So, these notes are made in relation mainly to my work at a single-author archive, and some of these ideas thus might not translate seamlessly into other forms of archival research.  That said, I’ve worked to keep my remarks broad enough so as to speak—as best as possible—about “Researching in the Archives.”

A few very brief notes about my archival research project:  I spent roughly two years—on and off—completing the research for the final chapter of my dissertation (which focuses on the role of the idea of “chance” in nineteenth-century cultural and scientific production) at the UL, where I was looking at Darwin’s unpublished manuscripts concerned with the concept of species variation and evolution.  Before leaving Duke and even up until my first days of arrival at Cambridge, I envisioned my archival research as an unearthing of what I—at the time—speculated to be Darwin’s investments in Romantic poetic forms and philosophies, and I hoped to substantiate that thesis by uncovering in the unpublished papers evidence (textual, conceptual, etc.) of an indebtedness to Romantic notions and representations of the aleatory.  Unfortunately, though, I found very little evidence of this sort, and while some of these research endeavors were indeed fruitful to some extent, I found myself moving into something like a state of panic, as my assumptions about what I would find among the papers were rather quickly overturned.  And this leads me to my first major point about working in the archive—be more than willing to adjust your research program as and when you are in the act of investigation.  The more rigid I became in my initial weeks to seek out such evidence, the more I realized that I wasn’t paying the archival materials the respect that they deserved—indeed, that they demanded.  So, I feel that while we certainly need to bring with us expectations of what would be successful outcomes of research, we also need to be able to adjust to the contingencies of the archive.  Once I began to let go of that desire to find what I believed I was seeking, I actually started to stumble upon so many new forms of evidence that took my work in radically novel and exciting directions.

Fortunately, these initial interests led me to uncover—by chance—a largely unpublished sector of the archive dealing with what is referred to by the curators of the Darwin Papers as Darwin’s “Botanical Arithmetic” drafts.  Of course, I won’t go into the details of this find, but I’ll note briefly here that, while Darwin made these numerous and extensive statistical calculations involving the bio-geographical distribution of continental plant species just before the 1859 publication of the Origin of Species, only a few scholars had investigated, at the time of my research, Darwin’s botanical studies that played such a crucial role in his discussion of the key evolutionary concept of ‘variation under nature’ in Chapter II of the Origin.  So my point here, which builds off of my last, is that we must be prepared to evolve as archival researchers if we are going to make new discoveries in unpublished materials.  And this leads to my next piece of advice as well:  this sector of the archive opened wide before me—which was obviously exciting and promising—but as it did so, I was quite overwhelmed with the number of volumes and boxes of documents dedicated to these complex mathematical calculations.  I was also extremely surprised to find that even with an author as famous and celebrated as Darwin that some of these materials were impossible to seek out via electronic research methods and that I had to do the leg work of catalogue searches and even sometimes had to stumble around blindly through volumes and boxes in this sector—page by page, or leaf by leaf—as a number of the boxes were (surprisingly) not fully marked or catalogued, given the relative obscurity of these drafts.  So, part of my second major point here is to expect at some point—and even perhaps for several days at a time—to be overwhelmed completely by the avalanche of information that you will likely trigger in your work, regardless of your project.  The question then becomes:  how does one move through such mountains of information to seek out those five or ten documents that will be most important for your argument and that you might wish to transcribe or even pay large sums to have imaged?  My answer here is a quite simple one:  befriend the archivists and curators and even other researches working among the papers in which you are interested.  Upon finding these materials, I quickly sought out and turned to Adam Perkins, the Curator of Scientific Manuscripts at the UL, and he proved to be an invaluable source of information about the micro-sectors of the “Botanical Arithmetic” drafts that made the most sense for me to look into first (and even provided me with an order through which to move among the papers) based upon the more global concerns of my chapter focusing on the concept of chance—and more specifically to Darwin—the development of his theory of organic variation.  Adam let me know that (by chance) David Kohn, one of the few scholars who had studied and written about these papers, had been seated only a few tables away from me for several weeks during my work in the Manuscripts Room.

This serendipity leads me to my third and final set of remarks—personal observations really—about working in the archives:  really do allow yourself to enjoy your time while searching through the materials.  David was more than excited to talk with me about my project and to give me advice about things such as where I should look next in the archive and ways to proceed efficiently with the work (many of which I’m borrowing from in my own remarks today), and I soon realized after befriending Adam and David that archival research sites are just as—or perhaps even more “alive,” so to speak—as any of our other work sites (e.g., our departments, our classrooms, our offices, etc.).  Archival centers are extremely dynamic, unpredictable, and—as such—exciting places:  they can certainly be intimidating and overwhelming but, more often than not, if we are willing to accept their contingencies and surprises, they are almost always prepared to greet us with hospitality and—most certainly—with vitality.

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



New Collection: Libraries and Archives


New York Public Library

This post announces a new Collection of posts that we are building on the NGSC Blog on working in archives and libraries. The Collection strives to create a place where we continue to share our experiences and questions about applying for fellowships and conducting research in libraries or archives that have holdings of interest to Romanticists.

We are working on a way to redesign our front page to feature a few Collections of posts, but for now it’s best to use the Categories drop-down on the right side menu. Look for Libraries & Archives.


Here is what is in our blog’s Libraries and Archives Collection so far:

  1. Kelli Jasper has a great introductory post on the early Spring Semester (January through March) as the season for applying for research fellowships to libraries, including the Newberry, the Huntington, and the Beinecke.
  2. Michele Speitz wrote a post about her adviser’s recommendations and her time researching at The Huntington Library. The part about this post that sticks with me the most is how to get your writing done while on fellowship reading in an archive. What a great reminder that time does not stop while we’re basking in the aura of primary source material.
  3. I’ve written a couple of posts about working in CU Libraries Archives and Special Collections on the Women Poets of the Romantic Period Collection and a little introduction to the Stainforth manuscript. I’m intimately familiar with our collection here at CU, so please send any questions you have my way.
  4. Jacob Leveton–our resident Romanticist art historian–posted on how to use the Yale Center for British Art while working with a William Blake manuscript–the sole complete copy of Jerusalem, no less!
  5. Jacob also posted on how to use the Art Institute of Chicago Prints and Drawings Department. While it looks like he used his research trip to study George Stubbs’ piece “Horse Frightened by a Lion” (1777) and other works featuring horses, there’s a lot more there.
  6. Kelli wrote another post that I will be using to help me navigate researching at the British Library. I am planning to research and “dissertate” there this summer from late May through mid-June.

Forthcoming for this Collection: I am drafting one post on working in the Musées d’Art et D’Histoire and another one on the BGE (Bibliothèque de Génève) in Geneva, Switzerland. Each of those institutions/libraries had their own conveniences and challenges related to research.

Do you have plans to work in a library or archive soon? Maybe a summer research fellowship or a research trip abroad scheduled? Or have you worked in a library or archive that has particularly wonderful materials for Romanticism research that you would like to report on? I’m thinking that perhaps we should write about home institutions as well — they all have a lot to offer that tends to be less visible because right under our noses.