Advice for Graduate Students: Why You Need External Fellowships

This is the first in what should be a series of new posts on professionalization for PhD students in the humanities and social sciences (update: 2nd post here, 3rd post here), based on my own experience and advice I have collected along the way. (A prior post in this vein concerned how to embark on archival research.) The meaning of professionalization can be somewhat unclear until you're actually doing it. Moreover, the reasons to do it are also often opaque: there may be no direct reward for success other than good vibes, nor a direct penalty for failure other than feeling glum. We know, in general, that successful graduate students become successful academics by adhering to certain norms and expectations, though we don't always know what they are. My focus here is one domain, however, in which there is a clear reward for successfully following the guidelines: winning external fellowships and grants.*

My broad goal is to explain some aspects of professionalization, particularly around fellowships, that are not often explicitly articulated. Beyond the typical requirements, many expectations in graduate school are unstated, making it even more difficult to know why and how to fulfill them. It's not that anyone is trying to mislead students, it's that many aspects of graduate school are thought of as things that "go without saying." They're second nature for people who have been doing this a long time, like our advisors. And there's also the unfortunate reality that learning how to discern unspoken expectations and educate oneself about how to succeed, rather than relying on advisors alone, is itself part of the disciplining and training students are undergoing. 

In addition, to make it more confusing, there may also be competing justifications for doing the labor of professionalization. A fellowship means money for the awardee, which is an obvious reason to apply. But a more diffuse yet probably even more important reason is that winning one smaller fellowship or grant can then lead to winning a larger fellowship or grant, which can then lead to a job. While a student is worried about paying the bills, an advisor might be worried about whether the student is constructing a solid CV. These are not incompatible, but their stakes and temporal horizons are clearly different.

Why You Need a Fellowship (in rough order of importance)

1. Money, especially in the summer: Some graduate stipends are generous, but paying the rent during the summer can be difficult. Fellowships and grants offer the easiest route to extra funding. In addition, unless you are independently wealthy or extremely frugal, it can be difficult to fund additional years after your allotted stipend time. A year-long fellowship either at the research or completion stage is the best guarantee of post–fifth-year of funding. In addition, travel for research can be expensive; small research grants or a research fellowship defray these costs. At universities like my own where teaching is not included as a requirement for the stipend, that extra money from teaching can provide summer funding or hypothetically can be saved for use in a sixth year or later. Yet teaching throughout earlier years can/will also impede research and writing. Different programs have different expectations in terms of teaching, but a research or completion fellowship will almost always absolve a student of having to teach during the fellowship year.
2. Peer Review: Academic success is measured through peer-based evaluation. Winning an external fellowship indicates that you have demonstrated to a committee of experts (your future peers) that your work is promising and worthy of support. Once you have won a fellowship, further fellowships are likely to come your way because you have already been evaluated and stamped with approval by some collection of trustworthy reviewers—and because a fellowship enables you to devote your time to working on and improving your research. The line on your CV with a nationwide, general fellowship, most of which receive between 500 and 1000 applicants and award less than 75, will indicate widely recognizable excellence, possibly even more than a publication in all but the most prestigious journals.
3. Translation: Although some fellowships are field-specific, it is difficult to win a fellowship unless you can communicate the importance of your research to a broad audience. The practice of describing your project, its guiding questions, methodology, and stakes, to a broad audience is necessary for future success. In addition, many predissertation and research fellowships include an in-person workshop component, in which you get to meet other fellows and discuss your work, often with extremely supportive mentoring faculty. These interdisciplinary spaces foster but also require an ability to converse across disciplinary and methodological divides. Not only might you make long-lasting friendships in this context, these encounters may also lead to collaborative research and publications in the future.
4. Rehearsal: Every time you write a description of your project for an application, it gets better. Thinking clearly, concisely, synthetically, and broadly about your work and its place within existing literatures is useful in itself. The application process can be daunting, frustrating, and/or exhausting, and you will inevitably get stuck on minor details, but if you approach the application not merely as a means to a financial end but also as a means of refining your thinking, it will be much less painful. Experience with describing your project in applications will ease the process of writing cover letters for jobs and postdocs later, and it may even ease the preparation for a job talk.
5. Exposure: Every time you apply for an application or grant, your name and your project are crossing the desks of important scholars. They may be far from your own field, but you should not underestimate the importance of this exposure. In addition, winners of fellowships have their names announced in press releases, on websites of funding organizations, etc. Do not take this opportunity lightly, but also do not fret if you do not win a fellowship: one reviewer may think your application is fantastic and another may not for a reason beyond your control. In situations of split decisions, applicants tend to get turned down simply because there are so many applicants.
Those are the five top reasons to apply for fellowships. All of them are relevant at each stage, and there are important though distinct reasons to apply for different fellowships at different stages, from predissertation, to research, to completion. I hope to discuss further aspects of applying to fellowships, such as how to find out about fellowships, how to apply, what makes a winning application, etc., in future posts.

* A caveat: I'm writing this advice as someone who has had decent success in the world of fellowships, who is beginning a sixth and final year of my doctorate, currently funded by an externally awarded dissertation completion fellowship. I am applying for jobs and postdoctoral fellowships now, and I don't know what the future holds. I hope I'm not jinxing myself by giving advice!

I should also note that this advice is based on a workshop I and some colleagues conducted at NYU, for graduate students in History, Sociology, and American Studies. Thanks should go to those NYU colleagues: Christy Thornton, Abigail Weitzman, Professor Marisol LeBrón, and Professor Sharon Heijin Lee. Thanks must also go to Professors Ananya Roy and Helga Leitner, from whom I learned so much about fellowships while participating in the SSRC's DPDF. (Perhaps one of my posts should be a dictionary of grant- and fellowship-related acronyms!)



Submitted by Hector Agredano on Sat, 09/20/2014 - 16:16

Thanks for your advice. I found your post really helpful. Especially because sometimes it's difficult to see the point of fellowship applications besides the financial rewards. I have found that libraries and archives also have small fellowhsips and awards. However, many people don't apply for them. But as you mention, peer review and translation are importnat parts of the fellowship process. Best of luck with the job hunt! I myself am waiting to hear from an external fellowship. I'll let you know what happens.Cheers,-H 


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