Fellowship Application Best Practices & Methods of Survival

This week, Professor Ryan Cordell held a workshop on applying for fellowships in the humanities for grad students in the English department at Northeastern, and he asked me to offer some feedback based on my fellowship application experience. I was happy to do this, especially since humanities graduate students at Northeastern have to rely almost entirely on outside funding for research opportunities (as opposed to grad students at other R1s who have more internal funding for the humanities). Additionally, History students typically apply for research fellowships for archival purposes, whereas English literature students are less likely to apply. I ended up writing a short novel, but wanted to share it here, as well as Ryan’s feedback for applying for fellowships.

Here is a link to Ryan’s post: https://ryancordell.org/teaching/fellowships-workshop-2018/

And below I’ve shared my narrative on fellowship application best practices:


Fellowship Application Best Practices & Methods of Survival

November 2018

Why apply to fellowships?

  • Writing fellowship apps as a grad student in the humanities gives you the opportunity to figure out why your dissertation matters and to whom it matters. This is something humanities grad students need to be well versed in, not only for the job market, but because most of us will likely be defending the humanities / our research for the rest of our lives (if we stay in academia after graduating). My fellowship applications gave me a framework and language that I could re-use across a variety of job materials (research statements, diversity statements, dissertation abstract, and the cover letter). Even if you don’t end up getting the fellowship, you will have spent time refining the claims of your project and can re-use those ideas / that framing in a variety of other genres of writing.
  • If the fellowship you are applying for is archival or location specific based, it gives you the opportunity to meet scholars in your field, understand the larger concerns and questions in your field, and generate new ideas that could never be generated if you were only working within your department.
  • My personal experiences with short-term archival based fellowships were the highlight of grad school. Spending a few months in different archives opened up my dissertation in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. It can be a magical experience!

What is the writing process like?

  • Let your letter writers know at least a month in advance that you are applying, and share your drafts with them. If applying to multiple fellowships, create a spreadsheet organized by deadline and share with your letter writers. This is also all good practice for the job market.
  • Double check that you are eligible for the fellowship. Do extra research on the institution funding the fellowship so you understand its values and mission—think about how you can align your own values as a scholar with the institution’s values. This should be clearly stated in your application, not implied.
  • You should have a full, clean draft of the application at least a month in advance of the deadline so you can workshop it with as many people as possible. Ask your colleagues in other departments to read drafts. Your committee should help you, but it is also important to share your draft with colleagues who don’t already know your work.
  • Try to find a model fellowship application by someone who was awarded the fellowship in the past. If you know someone who has had the fellowship you are applying for, ask them questions about their experience, what worked best in their application, and try to get some insider knowledge about the funding institution. This is something that grad students at elite R1s don’t have to think much about because all of their colleagues get the same top fellowships and they are already tuned into these networks. But as humanities students at Northeastern—which only has two graduate departments in the humanities—you will likely have to do some digging to find colleagues who have had the fellowships you are applying for. Sometimes faculty will share their successful fellowship applications, which is also great. But I do think seeing another grad student’s application is useful because the power dynamics are very different when applying as a grad student versus applying as TT faculty.
  • Give yourself way more time than you think to revise the application. This is not something you can start a week before the deadline.
  • If the fellowship is location based, try to visit the institution or archive before applying to get a stronger sense of the values of the institution / the collection. Each archive has its own personality – you should have somewhat of a sense of that before you apply.  
  • Look at the profiles of current fellows on the institution’s website to get a sense of what kinds of projects are typically funded.

Who is your audience / what is the tone of the application?

  • It makes sense to apply to fellowships when you are in the later stages of refining your prospectus, but your language for fellowship apps should be radically different than prospectus-language. Fellowship apps are (as cringe-y as this sounds) like a TEDtalk version of your project. Your audience is not your committee—instead, think of yourself as writing to a musicologist or an anthropologist, someone who is likely only somewhat familiar with your area of research. Avoid jargon. Spend most of your time articulating why the project matters in very clear, concise language. This will require like, 4,000 drafts.
  • Your task is to articulate: what the project is, why the project matters, who cares about it, what difference it makes and to whom. Expect to include a paragraph in the application that briefly explains how your project intervenes into previous scholarship on the subject. Opening the application with a snappy example / brief close reading is a great way to draw your audience in. Think carefully about what makes your work exciting outside of generic, cliched language about diversity and inclusion.
  • In other words, be able to clearly demonstrate the need for your research in the present moment / for the institution / the field.
  • Avoid cookie cutter statements about interdisciplinarity or experiential learning or other university jargon that could appear in any student’s application—your goal here is to stand out.
  • Assume your reader is spending about 90 seconds on your application: your language must be incredibly easy to read.
  • In crafting your narrative, think about how your work would benefit the funding institution so it isn’t a one-sided relationship. You are trying to form an alliance with an institution in your application that is mutually beneficial.
  • If applying for an archival-based fellowship, you must list the sources you would be looking at and make it clear what you would be doing in the archive—why do you need to see these objects in person? Are you digitizing texts? Transcribing manuscripts? Are there any sources that aren’t digitized that you need to see? Having a long list of objects you want to look at in the archive will also be useful if you actually get the fellowship. That list should probably be twice as long as you think – but not so much that it would be impossible to complete the proposed research within the temporal boundaries of the fellowship. Make it clear that you cannot complete your research without seeing these archival objects in person.

Once you’ve received the fellowship…

  • If you are going to an archive to do research, before you leave make sure you have a system down for organizing your writing and photos of objects and for documenting what you find. You will always find way more than you think, so having a strong information organization system is incredibly important. Experiment with Zotero, google docs, spreadsheets, Evernote, etc.
  • Take the time to read all the specifics of the fellowship requirements, ask the fellowship coordinator questions if you have any, and make a budget for how your fellowship stipend will be spent. Often this means thinking about taxes.
  • If you haven’t already, create a schedule outlining how each week on the fellowship will be spent.
  • It can be useful to keep a blog to document your research and writing practices, the interesting things you discover in the archives, the sources that new colleagues introduce to you. Sort of like a fellowship diary. It is very easy to forget new discoveries in the archive, so documentation is everything.
  • If completing a short term fellowship, most often those are taken in the summer – which is ideal because you will meet the most people. If you choose to spend your short term fellowship in late fall or winter, you might end up being the only person in the archive, which can be somewhat less useful.
  • Once on site at your fellowship institution: go out of your way to meet people, attend the institution’s events, introduce yourself, and ask questions. This is an obvious networking opportunity for the job market, to find interlocutors for your dissertation, but also a place to form colleagues & friendships outside of the bubble of your own department and institution.
  • If you didn’t receive the fellowship, try again next year. Email the institution to see if they will offer any feedback on your application. Often it looks good that you’ve tried to apply multiple times! Rejection can be painful, but think of any early experiences with rejection as good practice for the job market, which is like 99.9% rejection. Don’t let rejection kill your dissertation momentum – fellowship committees are often made up of a random assortment of individuals who are looking for something specific, it can be based on luck and timing. Grad school is often about managing imposter syndrome and anxiety, and fellowship applications are part of that cycle.


Email me [polcha.e@husky.neu.edu] with questions, or I’m happy to share any of my fellowship applications as samples!