Advice for Graduate Students: How to Win External Fellowships

This is the third and final in a series of posts on applying to and winning external grants and fellowships in the humanities and (humanistic) social sciences. In the first post, I covered why you should apply. In the second post, I covered to what and when you should apply. In this third post, I am covering the most difficult question: how to create a successful application. I apologize for the delay in between the prior posts and this one—I was too busy sending out applications.

I assume you have identified what type of applications you will be sending and what the deadlines are well in advance. You will therefore have no trouble working on the various aspects of the applications well in advance as well. It is not advisable to leave anything to the last minute. The advice here is focused on applications for research and completion fellowships, which are the two most consequential for your advancement. They are also the two that have the heftiest requirements in terms of the applications because they assume you have done some or most, respectively, of the work toward your dissertation. For research fellowships, you must typically be ABD, meaning you have already proposed a dissertation project and had it accepted by your faculty. For completion fellowships you must have some portion already written and, as I said previously, you will be more competitive if you have written more rather than less.

How to Reduce Your Work Load

Typically, each application for a completion fellowship will consist of a replicable set of pieces, meaning you can reuse what you write, with some modification, for multiple applications. In general, applications are specific in requirements but flexible in formatting. Although you may not be asked for it by name, it is generally expected that you provide an overview of your dissertation, a description of its significance, and an outline of the actual chapters. You will also be expected to describe what work you have already completed (in terms of research/writing) and what you still need to complete within the parameters of the fellowship. If you have received prior fellowships, that will help you to demonstrate your preparedness and eligibility. For that reason, as stated in the prior post, you should apply for something at each stage, if not in each year, of your graduate education.

It is generally accepted that applicants should pay close attention to previous winning applications for a given fellowship and try to replicate them in form and style (obviously not in content). Some fellowships/organizations freely circulate samples of winning applications. You should also ask your friends and colleagues who have been successful to share their applications with you so that you can get an idea of what they look like. Although I should not have to say this, I will say it anyway: do not plagiarize.

What Makes a Winning Fellowship Application?

Applications are formulaic. They are a genre unto themselves. Once you figure out the expectations of the genre, your applications will likely be successful. The single most important aspect of a winning fellowship application is a clear, cogent demonstration of what might be called portability. Another way to think about it is the demonstration that there are great stakes in your work. Although your work is empirically grounded in a specific time and place, it must contribute to theoretical thinking that is more broadly applicable.

Theoretical portability means that readers who are not interested solely in your time and place will gain something from your work. The best way to ensure that this criterion is fulfilled is by thinking of your work as answering a question based on a real-world problem, not a problem with the scholarship. Just because there is a gap (people have written about y and people have written about x but no one has written about x and y together, or about z) does not mean that filling the gap is useful or necessary. Instead, a better way to think about the approach would be that existing scholarship poses a dilemma, contradiction, or paradox for one’s real-world case, which necessitates one’s new approach. For example, b and c are both occurring; we can theorize a relationship between their occurrence based on evidence from some prior scholarship; when we look at b and c through a lens based on your preliminary research, it becomes apparent that their explanation is not what we thought it was if we looked at either on its own—and, if we’re really lucky, this relationship might also shed light on d, e, and f. These real-world problems/questions indicate what is at stake in your project, and if the stakes are not high and also transparent to reviewers, you will not be successful.

Important Points to Keep in Mind

Do not leave your application until the last minute. Like every aspect of graduate school, the earlier you start and less you procrastinate, the better. Deadlines are firm and excuses are unacceptable. Set aside a discrete period of time for each piece of the application, and do not exceed it. You can write your whole application quickly; what takes a lot of time is the interminable effort to perfect it. Don’t succumb to the temptation to make last-minute changes, as you may introduce mistakes. Get the easy stuff done first (eg, filling out the required forms, requesting transcripts, etc.).

Do not exceed letter/word/page count limitations. Some applications automatically cut extra text; others rely on you to heed requirements. Do not play games with font-size/spacing requirements.

In general, imagine that readers and fellowship staff are looking for easy ways to disqualify you, based on not following guidelines or other obvious mistakes. Don’t give them reasons to do so.

Avoid jargon. Although your readers probably know what the jargon means, they will petulantly pretend that they do not in an effort to see whether your proposal makes sense without the reliance on jargon. If it doesn’t, or if they think you couldn’t explain your work without the specialized language, they might reject it. Tell yourself that your readers could be mathematicians, which is actually a possibility for internal completion fellowship competitions! And it’s best to assume your readers’ politics do not match yours. 

The opening of your proposal is the most important part, along with the theoretical portability/stakes portion. Readers must read dozens of proposals. If they cannot figure out why your project is interesting and original within the first two or three sentences, they are unlikely to read past the first paragraph. You must communicate what your project is and why it matters (ie, the stakes) quickly. The first paragraph must be specific, compelling, clear, and concise. You need a “hook,” and almost all successful applications follow a structure of stating one or two interesting points but then driving forward to the unique aspect of the project with a “however” or “yet” statement.

Do not rely on others’ work to justify your own. It must stand on its own foundation. No one cares about Marx or Foucault in your application; neither Karl nor Michel is applying for funding. (And they would likely not get it in today’s environment, anyway.) At the same time, you must demonstrate your up-to-date expertise in relevant literatures. Think about the distinction between figuring out what literatures your project addresses and what theoretical texts it relies upon. Emphasize the former, not the latter.

The connection between your research questions, theoretical framework, and methodological pursuits (including field site) must be clear, and they must align. The “what,” “why,” and “how” must have a transparent and organic connection. This aspect is the greatest challenge of the application, and it is something that gains refinement with time and rehearsal (and with the actual proposal writing and defense process of a dissertation proposal).

Think of your project as organized around keywords. These keywords must appear in your title, in your first paragraph, and then pop up throughout the application. They connect your research questions, your theory, and your methodology.

Be extremely parsimonious and conscientious in your word choice, especially in your title and first paragraph. What are you implying with your words? The type of questions to ask yourself as you re-read what you’ve written: Does the word “and” mean or imply what you intend it to mean? Is there a theory behind it or is it just a bit of connective tissue? Do you know the difference and could you articulate it if necessary? Such questions illustrate how fine the comb is that you should apply to your writing.

Be declarative and forceful. Do not say “I wish to find out” or “I want to argue” or “I might” or “I seek” or “I hope” or anything of that ilk. Say “I will investigate” for predissertation or “my [preliminary] findings are” for research and completion. Similarly, a research question is not the same as an argument. Although applications for research funding are necessarily written more in an interrogative vein than are applications for completion fellowships, you must demonstrate that you have a definitive idea of how you will arrive at answers to your questions and it must comport with your theoretical framework and your methodology. If you have preliminary findings, state them. At the same time, do not come across as certain of what your findings will be prior to doing the actual research. You should not already know the explanation before you begin.

It can be useful to show your draft application to a faculty member whom you trust and have an established relationship but who is not on your committee and works in a different subfield/time period/etc. Such a reader will approach your application much as the reviewers will and may give you advice that a committee member, who is familiar with your work (and has a stake in its success), may not think to give you.

There are certainly other pieces of advice that would be beneficial. My voice is one among many giving advice about fellowships. I write from the trenches, so to speak. Perhaps the best advice is not to follow any single person’s tips too closely but to synthesize advice and do your own research on what is available and what works for what is available in your particular situation. 

Some Useful Links (there are millions more):

THE MOST IMPORTANT HOW-TO ESSAY ON PROPOSALS: Michael Watts, “The Holy Grail: In Pursuit of the Dissertation Proposal

THE SECOND MOST IMPORTANT HOW-TO ESSAY ON PROPOSALS: Adam Pzreworski and Frank Salomon, “On the Art of Writing Proposals

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