‘Tis The Season to Apply for Research Fellowships

It’s that time of year… and no, I don’t mean for busting out the Holiday music (for that please refrain until after Thanksgiving.  Thank you.).  This, my friends, is the season to consider applying for research fellowships!  With so many thrilling archives around, full of material ripe for analysis, it would really be a shame for scholars like us not to use them in our research—especially because libraries often offer us money to do so!  Both short- and long-term fellowships are available at many major libraries and archives, and although some of these are reserved for scholars who already have their doctorate degrees, others specifically aim to help PhD candidates complete their dissertations or research for a specific article they plan to publish.

Of course, to get a fellowship you have to apply, and the competition is stiff—which is exactly the reason I’m posting about it right now.  If you’ve found a specific archive with which you want to spend some quality time, it behooves you to start NOW, drafting your application and asking people to write your letters of recommendation.  For the libraries I’ve looked at, most fellowship application deadlines fall between December 1st and March 1st.

I’m still new to writing research fellowship applications myself, but I’ll pass along a few pieces of advice I’ve been counseled to keep in mind.  They’re pretty intuitive, but worth mentioning nevertheless.

First, define your target.  There’s no sense in visiting a specific archive if it doesn’t have the materials that will be useful to you, or if those materials are also available somewhere closer to home. Also, libraries will see no sense in supporting your visit if you don’t have a specific project for which to use their materials.  Thus, it’s imperative that you clearly articulate both the nature of your specific research project, and what role the library’s holdings play within that project.  The former is (I think) one of the most challenging things we do in this profession, but the latter is pretty easy to manage: comb through the library catalogues and start making lists of items you would look at if you could.  Although many library catalogues are not comprehensive, searching them and making wishlists will help you get the lay of the land, so to speak, and plan future academic projects and research trips, whether or not you get the fellowship.  In your application, mention some of these specific items from your list (and check in Worldcat to make sure they’re not also at the library of your home institution!).

Second, know your audience.  Most committees assessing applications consist of librarians  whose job it is to match their knowledge of the library’s holdings to projects that will use these holdings to develop exciting new ideas.  Even if readers do have training in your field, it is unlikely that they will be experts in your specific area.  Therefore, your project description should eschew all jargon, so as to be lucid and interesting to an intelligent general reader.  Preserve your sense of the project’s intervention and be specific about what’s at stake, but craft it for people who are not necessarily Romanticists.  (This is a useful skill to hone for the job market as well!).

Third, write with authority. While avoiding jargon, show that you have a solid understanding of what your work will accomplish, as well as the competence to accomplish it.  Avoid passive voice: instead of saying “It will be demonstrated that…,” go for “I will demonstrate that….”.

Fourth, specify expected outcomes.  What will this fellowship enable you to do?  Finish a chapter? Complete an article for publication?   You don’t need more than a sentence or two, but you should show that your research will result in production of a tangible piece of scholarship.  Your readers aren’t going to pay you just to think about stuff—they need to know your work is going somewhere.

Fifth, organize, organize, organize.  Most of these applications are quite short, meaning you must pack a serious punch in very few words.  Have a thesis statement, clearly articulate your project’s intervention and importance in your field, and be as clear and precise as possible.  Ask colleagues and professors to read your proposal, and then be willing to revise (sometimes repeatedly).  Again, whether or not you get the fellowship, this process is useful just for your yourself! It will help you comb through the tangled web of thoughts and find the golden thread that holds it all together—the ultimate quest of any project, right?

There are big, comprehensive archives, and small, specialized archives, so I thought we could start building a list of favorites!  Below I provide links to three fellowship-offering biggies: huge institutions with something for everyone.  But there are so many others!  If you know of a great archive, or have experience using it (like Michele at the Huntington, or Jacob at the Yale Center for British Art, or Kelli at the British Library), please leave a note in the comments!

Newberry Library (Chicago, IL) – Dec. 12, 2011

Huntington Library (San Marino, CA) – Dec 15, 2011

Beinecke Library (Yale) – March 2, 2012 (also, they have a Fall application in October)

Others for you to look up, or comment on: New York Public Library, McNeil Center for Early American Studies, The American Antiquarian Society, Winterthur Library, the Library Company of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Dumbarton Oaks Library, the Getty Research Institute, Kew Library (Royal Botanic Gardens), RHS Lindley Library. . . .

Again, we’d love to hear your recommendations or personal experiences with any useful archives! Thanks for sharing.

Happy Application Days to All!


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