How to Get a Fellowship: Tips to Write a Kickass Proposal (Part 1)

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Writing fellowship/grant proposals and putting together applications for these can be both time-consuming and emotionally taxing. It’s a long process, success rates for the competitive ones are anywhere between 5-7%, and you have to make time for it during what would already be a busy semester or quarter. And there’s a good chance that you will not get it. I know… I have been there… a LOT.

If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I am a proponent of perseverance. 🙂 So it won’t come as a surprise to you that I have written more fellowship proposals in the last four years than anyone else in my PhD program. Even though I have not won most of the fellowships I have applied for, I still have the highest number of fellowships anyone has received in my cohort. So the first advice I have for you is to keep applying for fellowships with the confidence that your work is awesome and if anyone can get one of these elusive funding unicorns, then it is you!

In the course of applying for and winning fellowships (and also getting rejected over and over again), I have learned a few key things about writing a successful fellowship proposal. I am going to share this below. But before we go there, a few general pointers.

To get to tips directly, click here.

If you are in grad school and you are looking to work within academia, alt-ac tracks, or quasi-academic non-profits or think tanks, having external funding listed on your CV/resume is crucial to getting these jobs. Your employers will want to know that someone other than yourself thought that your project could be useful to people who are not you, your friends, or family. At least some of these jobs outside academia proper require grant writing expertise or some experience with fundraising and so your ability to successfully get funding for a project is a substantial expertise that you can bring to the table. So in the midst of coursework or teaching loads or that other side hustle or the part-time temp position that is helping you pay rent, it is important that you somehow make time to apply for fellowships.

Watches laid together

And when I say, make time, I mean, make a lot of time. It takes many, many revisions, to get a fellowship proposal to feel right, look right, and sound right. (More on this later.) It takes weeks and months sometimes to finish proposals.

Besides the proposal, there are other components that go into fellowship applications. It is best to adhere strictly to the guidelines the granting institutions provide. I am not going into the other elements of the application packet in this post but here is a good site if you want to check out general guidelines for fellowship applications put together by Yale University’s Center for International and Professional Experience.

These guidelines would also vary depending on whether you are applying for a STEM grant or a Humanities-focused grant. If you are in STEM, I would suggest looking at this useful article from Practical Neurology, BMJ Journals (2015). There are also some differences in approach if the funding is a ‘grant’ and not a fellowship. The tips in this post are geared toward fellowship proposals but grant writers can adapt these to their uses as well.

(Please note that the tips provided here are for emerging scholars and beginner grant/fellowship writers.)

Steps to a Successful Fellowship Proposal

  1. From the top… Give Yourself Plenty of TIME. I cannot stress this enough and I will probably mention it one more time in this post, fellowship proposal writing takes time, much more time than you anticipate. General rule of thumb: if you think it is going to take you 10 hours to write a draft, schedule 30 hours for it. (Yes, that was not a typo.)
  2. There are a couple of key aspects to writing a successful fellowship proposal:
    1. The proposal has to give the readers in the fellowship committee what they are looking for (here is where following instructions provided to a T is crucial) as well as get them EXCITED about your work.
    2. The proposal also has to give you something.

Without either one of these two aspects, you will not be able to convince people to fund your project. In this post, I talk about the first part on how to write a successful fellowship proposal geared towards the fellowship committee readers. Stay tuned for second part of this post that will be out next week!

How to get your fellowship committee excited about your proposal

First, your proposal/overall packet should satisfy at least one if not two or more of these factors listed below:

  • Your project is topical, i.e., it deals with the world that we live in right now in some ways. (My historian friends, do not panic. You can have a historical project that obviously deals with past events but the key here is to figure out how your project is relevant to the world that we live in. Expanding the boundaries of human knowledge is a given that is baked into every research project so that is not a reason why your project will stand out.)
  • Your project challenges the given categories, methodologies, or theories within the broader fields of humanities, social science, or sciences.
  • Related to the point above, your project goes beyond your discipline to provide something to the broader humanities/social sciences/sciences.
  • Your proposal is custom-tailored for the fellowship you are applying for. (Yes, you read that right.) You should NEVER send a proposal written for a particular fellowship, for consideration for another fellowship. Because, no two fellowships or fellowship-granting institutions are the same or are looking for the same type of projects. For example, if you are applying for a National Gallery of Art (NGA) fellowship, your proposal has to highlight your magnificent skills at expanding the boundaries of artistic and art historical knowledge because the NGA is specifically focused on art. But you can’t send the proposal that you wrote for a NGA fellowship to, say, a Wenner-Grant fellowship where the concerns are more broadly humanistic and social sciences friendly.
  • In 2019, it also helps if your project is interdisciplinary although you have to also consider the fellowship-granting institution’s ethos as well. Taking the example above, the National Gallery of Art is not looking for interdisciplinary projects (by and large) because they are concerned only with art and art history. They are not looking at other disciplines. So even if your project is interdisciplinary (which is awesome, by the way,) that is not what you need to highlight in a NGA fellowship proposal.
  • Your proposal demonstrates how your research is going to change the world. Okay, maybe not the world, but something. Committees are looking for your project to do big things. So show them how your project can do big things.Your proposal (and CV and other supporting materials) show your passion for what you do as a scholar. (Show, don’t tell. If you use words such as excited, passionate, obsessed, loved, even once in your proposal, you have lost it.)
  • Now this point is a little controversial but from my time in academia, I think it is at least a little true: your advisor and/or recommendation letter writer is a superstar academic, well-known across disciplines. (Note that I don’t have a superstar celebrity academic writing for me and I still won a couple of prestigious fellowships so it is not the be all and end all. You should not be discouraged if you don’t have a celebrity in your dissertation committee. And even if you have a celebrity scholar but your proposal and research project is crappy as shit, then you won’t get that fellowship. The superstar scholar is more like a cherry on top of your fellowship application cake. You have to make the cake well because your guests are not going to like munching on just a cherry after dinner. (Did I take that analogy too far?)

If I have missed anything here, mention it in the comments below?

Now to the meat of this post…

How to Make Your Proposal Look Right, Sound Right, and Feel Right (That’s right!)

  • A proposal that looks right will do the following things:
    1. The proposal is cogently and competitively written, well-structured, with all the parts of a rhetorical essay. It will adhere strictly to the guidelines provided. If the guidelines say font-size of 12 in Times New Roman and not more than 1500 words, you will write in 12-size and in Times New Roman as much as you hate that font. You can write may be about 1490 words but definitely do not go beyond 1500. (Okay, you can have 1505 I guess, but most definitely, nothing more than that.) Side note: do not make your proposal a lot smaller than the 1500 words mandated – shorter essays don’t make a good impression, it will look like you have very little to say about your project and that is a downer for your fellowship committee readers.
    2. Use rhetorical strategies to compose your draft. The Norton Reader’s Writing Toolbar website has information on rhetorical strategies and other helpful writing tips.
  • A proposal that sounds right will do the following things: first, what do I mean by sounds right? Your proposal must have a flow, a mellifluous quality in the way your sentences and paragraphs run into each other, and an ease with which it can be read even when you are discussing exceptionally complex concepts or grave subject matter. So here’s what to do.
    1. Read your proposal draft out aloud. If it doesn’t sound right, then it isn’t right. Make changes as needed.
    2. Use alliteration and other wordplay tactics effectively but sparingly. (It’s not that you can’t use them. Just make sure you use them efficiently to get your point across in a succinct but um… slightly poetic manner. Whatever else you do, don’t play with words in every sentence.)
    3. Ensure that your transition from paragraph to paragraph is smooth. The best way to test this is to copy-paste the first sentence of each of your paragraphs into a separate file and then read them out aloud. This can also help you restructure your draft efficiently.
    4. You can use transition words like additionally, simultaneously, and moreover etc. These words are not very exciting to the reader and they make the proposal sound clunky, but when you are writing an exceptionally short proposal (“no more than 750 words,” are you freaking kidding me?!!), they save you a ton on word count.Refrain from using the passive voice as much as you can. (I know, I use it a lot in my writing as is visible here, but come on you guys, this is a blog! I can!!)
    5. Say what you need to say in the shortest sentence possible. (This is also a good way to avoid the passive voice.) Verbiage is your enemy in a fellowship proposal for multiple reasons: it doesn’t sound right, and, your word count goes up unnecessarily. Long drawn-out sentences that run into 6 lines of your paragraph is not fun to read. (Neither are incomplete sentences.)
    6. Mix up short and long sentences. Just like a good gardener knows to mix different-sized plants with differently textured leaves and flowers to make a perfect garden, a good writer knows to bring in variety to the writing. Give your reader the excitement of reading your paper by mixing up sentence lengths, and how words sound.
    7. Related to the above, don’t be afraid to place questions within your proposal. That’s right. Nobody in your fellowship granting committee is expecting you to have all the answers. If that were the case, then you would not have to do the research! Well-placed and well-constructed questions help convey the relevance of your project effectively while breaking up the monotony of sentences that end in a period.
  • A proposal that feels right will have the following features:
    1. Your proposal should have all the usual parts that you need in a fellowship proposal. Pay attention again to the guidelines provided and the ethos of the fellowship-granting institution. Some may want to see more of your personality, others may be fairly old school and require a robust lit review. Peruse samples of winning proposals from your alumni or from the institution’s website to help you structure your draft.
    2. Your proposal must show the potential of your research project in a succinct manner. The best description for this process is how one of my professors put it: if you think of your research project as a bulb of broccoli, then your fellowship proposal is a miniature broccoli bulb. The proposal is a perfect index of what your project will DO once it is completed.
    3. Every fellowship writing workshop will tell you this: you have to have a HOOK. In the first page (if not in the very first paragraph), grab your reader’s attention with a snippet of your research project that piques their curiosity about your project. You can do this either with a question or an anecdote or an interesting research finding. You can also begin with the most significant contribution that your research will make. (Again, show don’t tell.)

In my post out next week, I will continue with rest of the tips and tricks to a successful fellowship proposal and what YOU need to get out of writing these badass proposals (and no, it’s not the money!) Now, go write that fellowship proposal y’all!

Access Part 2 of this post here. If you want to skip and still get the FREE fellowship checklist, subscribe to Productive PhD Ninja below.

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