Guide to Preparing Fellowship Applications

Receiving external funding to support research travel is not only essential for finding the archival material you need for your work but also represents a valuable addition to your CV. Depending on your field of study, you should think about research travel as early as your first year in graduate school.

The Preparation

  • Get to know faculty across departments at your home institution. Ask for advice about how to make your project resonate with scholars from multiple disciplines.
  • If you will pursue fellowships to support international work, cultivate relationships with academics and institutions in the country or countries where you plan to conduct research. Forming these relationships will not only support your work, but also strengthen the letter of institutional support that some fellowships require.
  • If your home institution offers grantwriting workshops, seminars, advising, or related programs, make time to attend these early in your graduate career and continue attending them as your project changes. Begin developing a general working proposal and revise it at each stage of your project.
  • Early in your graduate career, check the language requirements for fellowships that could support your work. Make a plan to show how you would meet language requirements, and note if there is any special consideration given to projects that use less-commonly-taught languages.
  • Keep your CV current. If your work crosses disciplines or fields, consider keeping multiple CVs that emphasize your skills and experiences in different ways.

The Announcements

  • Search far and wide for potential funding opportunities. Ask advisors, faculty, and peers in your field and related fields. Check with your institution, which may have a database of fellowships and other funding secured by students in the past. Monitor any message boards or e-mail lists in your field. If you are actively searching for fellowships, consider setting up an RSS feed to notify you about changes or new postings.
  • Read announcements carefully for the most important concepts and stipulations of the competition. If the call for proposals notes the importance of transnational studies, for example, then address this and any other key terms in your proposal.
  • Create and maintain a spreadsheet or other list of funding opportunities, including deadlines, required components of the application, and related details.

The Proposal

  • Be aware of the structure and language of the fellowship call for proposals. Make the information it requests easy to find in your proposal. If the application asks for a research objective, methodology, and research already completed, then create section headings calling attention to each of these. Be aware of readers’ expectations for a specific structure or set of section titles.
  • Follow the announcement’s guidelines for length and format. Deviations may not disqualify you, but you should never give a reader an easy way to sort your proposal into a separate pile of those that did not follow the rules.
  • Remember that the committee members will read many proposals. Make sure yours is compelling and easy to follow at first glance. It should be to the point and organized in such a way that a reader skimming it over breakfast or on a bus will quickly grasp the information you want to convey.
  • Be aware of the audience: Who will be members of the committee? Is the fellowship intended for someone in your narrow subfield? Your discipline? Across many disciplines? The answers to these questions will determine the kind of language you should use. The very specific terminology that shows a reader in your subfield that you are at the forefront of the hottest methodological trends may seem like obscure jargon to someone from a different field or discipline. If you must use specific, technical terminology, make choices about what is absolutely essential and explain each term clearly. When in doubt, write for a committee composed of educated nonspecialists.

The Process

  • In compelling language, describe your project with clear questions and objectives. Identify the broadest supportable implications for your project. How does your project intervene both in your field and across multiple fields?
  • Start early. Give yourself time to work on the proposal. Walk away for a time and return to it with a fresh perspective.
  • Get examples of successful proposals from friends or colleagues. Find out if your home institution maintains a database of successful proposals from previous or similar competitions. If possible, acquire examples for the specific competition to which you are applying. Consider what makes them stand out. Why were they successful? Have a friend or colleague read your proposal and offer feedback on both substance and style. Use all of the writing resources available at your home institution. Find out if your university has a Writing Center that supports graduate students, and if so, make multiple appointments. Thoroughly edit your proposal using whatever methods work best for you.
  • Your proposal must be flawless, so proofread it multiple times over the course of several days. Print it, and read it aloud. Ask multiple readers—academics as well as family and friends—to read it for typos or inconsistencies. It should contain no misspellings, grammatical errors, or typos. Even if such things will not disqualify your proposal, an attractive and easy to read proposal will stand out from the crowd.
  • Be aware of the deadlines and processes for submitting any necessary letters of recommendation. These may vary widely. Be sure that your recommenders know about these deadlines well in advance. Provide them your CV, the details of the competition, and your proposal. Do not delay sending them materials because you are afraid they are not “good enough” yet; most advisors would rather have more time with a less than finished draft of your proposal. Ensure that they receive these far enough in advance. Your faculty recommenders will be busy, and if you do not give them enough time, they may not be able to write the strong recommendation you need.

The Result

  • Do not give up if you do not win the competition, but keep applying elsewhere. Even the best scholars in your field do not win every fellowship. Many variables determine who wins any given competition, many of which are out of your hands. Take the advice above and submit the best possible grant proposal. Rest at ease knowing you have done everything you can do, and keep applying.

By Aaron Hale-Dorrell (UNC–Chapel Hill) and Jennifer Schaefer (Univ. of Michigan)
Approved by the Graduate and Early Career Committee, September 21, 2016