17 Fellowship Proposal Tips
The following tips were compiled from the October 2015 CSSH Fellowship Workshop.
1) PLAN AHEAD
Plan ahead when applying for a fellowship. One year is not too far in advance. Talk the proposal through with colleagues. Brainstorm ideas for how to pitch the project. Draft early and often. The week a proposal is due, clear your schedule of other deadlines.
2) FOLLOW DIRECTIONS
Make sure you understand and follow exactly the proposal guidelines. If you have questions be sure to ask for assistance. The Dean’s Office is happy to help.
3) KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Make sure you understand the process by which your proposal will be reviewed. Does it go to experts from your field first, and then an interdisciplinary panel (or vice versa)? Do you know who currently serves on the review panel? Do you have any colleagues who have ever served as a reviewer for the funder? If not check with the Dean’s Office (we might know of someone). If the review panel includes scholars outside your field, be sure your proposal is addressing an intelligent person with no expertise in your field. If part of the review is by experts in your field, be sure you are addressing them. You likely need to speak to multiple audiences in the proposal.
4) IDENTIFY “BOUTIQUE” FUNDING OPPORTUNITIES
The big fellowships (NEH, Radcliffe, Guggenheim, etc.) are the ones everyone knows about, and since virtually anyone can apply for them, they are extremely competitive. Try to find fellowships that might be less well known or specific to your field or topic of research. Work your networks for this information (ask your colleagues for suggestions).
Foundations are a particular sort of funder. Be sure you understand their mission and demonstrate how your project would contribute to that mission. Projects can contribute to multiple missions: both your research goals and those of the foundation.
6) REVIEW SUCCESSFUL PROPOSALS
The genre of a fellowship proposal is not the same as a journal article or a paper abstract. One way to learn more about what a successful proposal looks like is to ask your colleagues to share their prior submissions and any comments they may have received. Many funders also provide samples. The Dean’s Office also has a list of successful proposals faculty are willing to share.
7) ASK FOR LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION EARLY
Asking for a letter of recommendation can be hard. Asking early (like a month or two before the deadline) might make it easier. Consider asking a “big name” in your field (this sometimes sways a review panel) as well as someone who knows you and your work well. Letters do not have to be “arms length.” Do some research. Does Dr. Y have a reputation of pointing out the flaws in other scholars’ project—even in a letter of recommendation? Then ask someone else. It is okay to ask same people to write for you again, even if you are not funded the first time.
8) HAVE A GOOD HOOK
What you say in your first paragraph will often determine if a panelist continues to read carefully. Consider beginning with a story or a paradox/question you are going to address with your research. Either way, the first paragraph should explain a problem/debate in your field, why this problem/debate matters, and how your research is going to contribute/intervene.
9) DO NOT GET LOST IN THE DETAILS
A proposal describes a research project (the question it addresses, the sources it uses, the argument it will make, etc.). It is important to provide enough details about your work plan to convince reviewers that your will be able to meet your research goals. However, you do not need to make the entire argument in the proposal—just whet the reader’s appetite. Needless details from deep inside the argument itself can be distracting and frustrating to a review panelist
10) BREAK YOUR PROPOSAL INTO SECTIONS
This helps the reader. Sometimes a funder asks for specific sections (do not be afraid to provide subheadings for these). A section that specifies your work plan during the fellowship year is almost always helpful. Look at the criteria for selection for possible subheadings. For example, if the fellowship you are applying for lists “impact in the humanities” as a criteria for funding, devote a section of your proposal to explaining the impact your work will have on the humanities.
11) USE VIVID LANGUAGE
Make sure your proposal prose is vivid and jumps off the page. Use “springy and exciting” verbs. On a sentence level, put the muscle in the subject and verb. No jargon. No weak sentences. Every sentence should have a clear purpose.
12) NO TRASH TALK
Do not trash anyone’s work in a proposal (you never know who will be a reviewer). Instead, talk about “building on” or “taking further” existing scholarship.
13) EXPLAIN WHY YOUR RESEARCH IS INTERESTING
Be sure you explain why your work matters (not just why you want to do it).
14) CONVINCE THEM YOU ARE THE RIGHT PERSON
Funders not only want to support a great idea, but also a great scholar. Explain why you are the right person to do this work (in terms of skills and background). Providing an account of how you became interested in the materials can be very effective. This is true even if you are a relatively new scholar or if you are entering a new area of research. A funder might be looking to fund the next generation of scholars.
15) GET FEEDBACK
Ask for feedback on drafts from both those in your field and those outside to make sure you are reaching an interdisciplinary audience.
16) FOLLOW UP
If you receive a grant or fellowship, follow up. Send a thank you note to the funder and anyone who provided you a letter of recommendation. Provide the funder with a copy of the work once it is published. Offer to serve on a review panel for the funder.
17) REVIEW FELLOWSHIP ADVICE PUBLICATIONS
There is a lot of advice about writing fellowships available online. Some is even published by funders. The following are links to publications that are recommended by CSSH faculty: