Advice for Graduate Students: To What Fellowships and When Should You Apply?

This is the second in a series of new posts on professionalization for PhD students in the humanities and social sciences. In the previous post, I offered five key reasons to apply for (and win) external grants and fellowships. So that was the “why” post. This post focuses on two other important points that often fall into the category of “no one tells you because you’re supposed to know already”: what and when. What kinds of fellowships are out there and when should you apply for them?

My reason for writing these posts is simply that I think a lot of important information about how to excel at graduate school is needlessly unclear or hidden. This lack of clarity certainly plays a disciplining and professionalizing role itself, but it also can make life unnecessarily stressful and cause students to waste time. In an era of austerity and continual speed-up, no one has time to waste. I hope to offer a chance to arm yourself with some fairly basic information that for a variety of reasons, including the rapidly shifting fellowship-opportunity (and graduate-education) landscape, is not always easy to track down.

There are two categories of fellowships, internal and external. I am not going to discuss internal fellowships per se, though the basic rules apply in the same way for these as for external fellowships. By internal I am including your department, your graduate school, your university’s Title VI centers, and its research centers or clusters, etc. Getting a grant from your department or graduate school is important, but it does not rate as highly in terms of prestige as a grant or fellowship from an external source. An internal year-long completion fellowship, however, can be important and prestigious. As a rule of thumb, enter any possible competition or random drawing for internal grants because you should never complete your degree without having exhausted every possibility for internal funding beyond a stipend.

So that leads to the more important category of external funding opportunities. Within it are several types, which apply at different points in your doctoral career. All should be considered competitive. Further, the expectation is not that you will have fully figured out your project in the predissertation phase. A good rule of thumb is that the more general the fellowship and the later in the process it is awarded, the higher the prestige (and smaller the chances of winning). But, as I mentioned in the previous post, it is tough to win the later ones without having previously won the earlier and less competitive ones.

Here are the types of external grants and fellowships (within these are opportunities specifically for underrepresented people):

  • Language study (may be run through your university with external funding)
  • Travel grant
  • Graduate fellowship (eg, NSF, Ford)
  • Predissertation
  • Dissertation research/fieldwork
  • Dissertation completion


Here are the primary sources of external grants and fellowships:

  • Government
  • Foundation
  • Research organization
  • Professional association
  • Fieldwork site
  • Other colleges/universities
  • On-site completion fellowships


Here are some major fellowships that I and friends of mine have applied to/won. This list is not exhaustive, and I’m not including links to save myself some time. The best way to find out about fellowships is to ask fellow graduate students in your program or whom you meet at conferences, particularly those who are near finishing and have been successful. 

  • NSF (graduate fellowship; must apply in 1st year)
  • SSRC DPDF (predissertation)
  • SSRC IDRF (research)
  • Wenner-Gren (ethnographic research)
  • Fulbright-Hays (research)
  • Mellon-CLIR (archival research)
  • NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (research)
  • Mellon-ACLS (completion)
  • Charlotte Newcombe (completion)
  • Miller Center National Fellowship (completion)


Other than the major sources that are the most prestigious to win, here are other sources to investigate, given your own particular situation (methodology, prior experiences, etc.). Again, this is an incomplete list, based on my own experience and that of friends:

  • Your college/alumni association
  • Topic-specific grants, such as Harvard’s Program on the Study of Capitalism
  • Archive-/library-specific grants, such as at Presidential Libraries or Huntington Library
  • Professional associations to which you belong/conferences at which you present
  • Journal foundations, such as Antipode Foundation or Foundation for Urban and Regional Research
  • Workshops, such as Clinton Institute of American Studies or Futures of American Studies Institute
  • On-site completion fellowships in particular fields, such as UC Santa Barbara Black Studies


That covers the “what.” Now, the related question of “when” must be considered. It is difficult to generalize because many PhD programs have different schedules and requirements, though the basics are the same across the board in the United States. First, you do course work. Then you take exams and write your dissertation proposal (occasionally, this order is reversed, which seems strange to me). Then you do the bulk of your research. Then you write. Then you defend. Then you switch careers and become a bee-keeper or race-car driver. I mean, get a tenured-track position at a research university.

My timeline here assumes a five-year trajectory, with the hope that winning a year-long fellowship or two extends the time-to-degree with additional funding.

When should you apply for external funding? In a word, yearly. You should apply for a fellowship or grant every year of your doctoral career. You should apply early, meaning in your career and in terms of deadlines. That said, do not waste time applying for fellowships for which your project is not an appropriate fit. Time spent on applications is time spent not working on research or writing, and it can be a huge time commitment. Be strategic. If you receive a rejection, it may include a brief discussion of the reasons for rejection. Take these seriously. 

There are two important timing issues to consider across the board, IRB approval and letters of recommendation.

First Year

In your first year, or even before beginning your first year, you should consider applying to the Ford or NSF, both of which offer multiyear fellowships. You cannot apply for the NSF after your first year. You might also consider applying in your first year for a FLAS if you need to learn a foreign language other than the usual European languages for your research.

Your first year is also a good time to begin thinking about attending conferences and winning travel grants to attend. You should also take a look at the various summer schools to see if the faculty or themes in a given year are of interest to you. Most of these summer schools offer travel support or tuition waivers. You can attend at any point in your graduate career.

Second Year

In your second year, you should begin thinking about predissertation research funding, commencing in the summer after your second year. Although predissertation research funding can also be appropriate after your third year, it is most appropriate after your second if you plan to defend your proposal in the spring of the third year. The reason is that this funding is for preliminary research toward your dissertation proposal, to determine if your plan is feasible.

The most well-known predissertation fellowship is the SSRC DPDF, which used to be thematic but beginning this year no longer is. I don't know the rationale behind the switch, but accompanying it is a much earlier deadline. That may make it very tough to apply for it in your second year for the summer before your third. Another recently announced predissertation workshop/fellowship on the DPDF model is the Penn Summer Institute on Inequality. In general, you are ineligible for predissertation funding once your proposal is accepted and you obtain ABD status, but there may be some flexibility. Read the fine print.

Third Year

The third year can be tricky in some programs. You should have done preliminary research before it begins, but you may not have a full dissertation proposal finished in time for applications in the fall for research fellowships that commence the following fall. In my program, students are expected to finish their two comprehensive exams before the beginning of second semester, and they are to defend a dissertation proposal by the end of the third year. It may be tough creating a winning application in advance of the proposal development/refinement/defense/approval process. Planning ahead and consulting with your advisers can help. If your program does not have you finishing your proposal before your fourth year commences, you should politely ask your faculty why the heck that is the case! You should be thinking about your dissertation research and beginning preliminary stabs at it in the summer after your second year. Don't delay! In addition, you can still apply (or re-apply) for research fellowships in your fourth year, to cover your fifth year. But you should not be waiting until your fifth year to commence research. 

Remember that any proposal is an instrument for moving forward your thinking and research, not an end in itself. If you think you might want to tailor the format of your dissertation proposal to a fellowship application, such as the IDRF, which is currently accepted practice in some programs (and should become much more widely accepted, in my view), consult with your advisers on how to do so.

Given that most research fellowships require extended stays at field sites, one way to prepare for your application and make it successful is to visit your site in a predissertation mode so that you can demonstrate familiarity and preparation for a longer stay. Note that most research fellowships, such as the SSRC IDRF, require you to undertake research overseas and they prefer that it be in the Global South. The IDRF may be combined with research domestically but the majority must be overseas. If your project does not entail overseas research, you will not be eligible for many year-long research fellowships. But there are fellowships of many kinds available for shorter research trips within the United States, including from historical archives, from various scholarly institutions, from your alma mater, etc.

Both internal and external fellowships are typically awarded to those students who have demonstrated the most forward progress and are on track for otherwise rapid time to degree. The rationale “I need more time because I still have a lot of work to do” may seem legitimate, but it is unlikely to win a fellowship. 

Fourth Year

In your fourth year, if you have not won a year-long research fellowship, you are either teaching or in the field anyway (or some combination thereof). You should, therefore, apply again or apply for different, smaller awards. And even if you have won a year-long research fellowship, you can always apply for further small grants, particularly for the summer after the fourth year. Be careful: if you win a new fellowship whose period coincides with one you already have, you may violate the terms of the fellowship and be required to return some funds. Read the fine print and consult with your advisors.

Your fourth year is also the time to be thinking about presenting your initial dissertation chapters at major conferences. Although you will not likely have any of your chapters written at the time applications to the conference are due, you will hopefully have written something by the time of the conference. Therefore, you can also be thinking about applying for conference travel funding (which you should have already been doing).

Fifth Year

Applications in the fifth year for completion fellowships can be the most consequential and most competitive, but these fellowships may also constitute the widest pool into which you jump and be the most intensive in terms of application requirements. If you do not succeed the first time around and you are still in the trenches, so to speak, a year later, re-apply.

Completion fellowship applications typically require a writing sample. As a result, you need to have completed at least a substantial portion of one chapter (not the introduction/conclusion) to be able to apply.

Completion fellowships are awarded only to PhD candidates who demonstrate that they will be able to complete their dissertations within the award year. Insufficient progress prior to the award year will sink an application. Your letter-writers must attest to the likelihood of your finishing on time. 


Hopefully this advice about timing is accurate for most PhD programs. I should emphasize that teaching does not figure into this schedule very much, for two reasons. First, at my university, to break our graduate employee union, the graduate school made teaching optional not required, which means that I, and most of my friends, did not have to schedule our fellowship applications or research around teaching requirements. Second, no amount of excellence in teaching will help you win external funding. It simply is not part of the calculus.

In the next post, having now covered why, what, and when, I will begin to cover the crucial “how” question.

Note on Human Subjects: If your research involves human subjects, you need to get IRB approval in order to conduct the research. Do not allow this need for approval to delay your applications for research funding, but be aware of whether you need to demonstrate IRB approval in order to receive funding from a particular source. Discuss with your advisers how to negotiate the timing of IRB approval, if necessary.

Note on Letters of Recommendation: Almost all applications for fellowships (and even some travel grants) require a letter of recommendation from your primary adviser, and some require two or three. You will need to request these well in advance. You will also find that your advisers need to be certain of your own readiness in order to write a positive letter of recommendation. It can be difficult for a letter-writer to be confident in you before you have completed some of the work of writing. Importantly, a letter must be commensurate with your own project description; a disparity will raise a red flag. It is best to be open and honest with your letter-writers and to give them as much lead-time as possible, as well as to provide them with all the application materials you will be sending, in addition to very specific and detailed instructions about how to send their letters. Missing letters can ruin an application, but it is easy to avoid this problem by maintaining clear and honest lines of communication with your letter-writers.


Submitted by Stuart on Sat, 11/01/2014 - 11:40

This post on Tropics of Meta has a ton of useful information about a variety of grants and fellowships, geared toward, but not exclusive to, historians.


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