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Notes from a Writer's Desk: So You Want to Apply for a Research Fellowship Next Fall

You’ve reached the point in your PhD program where the next step is to conduct dissertation research domestically or abroad. In this piece, I’d like to provide advice for what you can do this summer to prepare to apply for research fellowships, many of whose deadlines are in the fall. Starting early—particularly with your thought process—can immeasurably strengthen your applications.

1. Familiarize yourself with the fellowship landscape. Use the summer to do your homework about fellowships that fit your research needs. Here are some tips for getting started:

Once you have a list of fellowships of interest, make a chart with the deadlines, type of essay/s required, and referees you’ll ask for a letter. Use this chart as a guide throughout your application process, and share a copy with your recommenders with the dates that their letters are due.

2. Find an affiliate professor. Like the Fulbright US Student Program, some fellowships require you to have an affiliate professor in the location where you’ll research. Whether or not it is necessary for the grant/s to which you are applying, if your research takes you away from Cambridge, it can bolster your candidacy to write that you will be working with a local scholar, who can give you access to university and other resources, including joining a scholarly community. (Such community will only benefit your work!) Start identifying and reaching out to scholars now to ask if they might be interested in mentoring you and potentially providing access to their university library or seminars while you are on location. For suggestions of whom to contact, ask your advisor or other mentors, or do an internet search and send cold emails. Both methods have proven successful. Once you find a scholar, you may even want to ask for feedback on your fellowship proposal if it feels appropriate.

3. Read the literature and craft a bibliography. Your research should be in dialogue with extant scholarship in your field. For this reason, in preparation to write your own proposal (in which you must cite relevant sources), read widely to familiarize yourself with research recently produced and the methodologies being used. This will allow you to determine where your work can fit in (filling a gap, arguing against the dominant trend, etc.) and how your contribution will support, contradict, or otherwise be in conversation with our existing understanding of your subject area. Note salient passages or ideas in the texts that you may wish to use in your fellowship essays. Reading these texts can also serve another purpose. Some fellowship applications ask for a bibliography; the summer is a perfect time to construct an incisive bibliography.

4. Map out your research plan. Every research fellowship proposal must include a description of the research that you intend to carry out. You’re essentially addressing how you will use the money you’re applying for, a key question for the funding agency. A good research plan answers the how (by what method), what (what you are looking for in your object of study), why (why choose this method of research or set of documents), where (which lab, location for interviews), and when (a breakdown of your time into groups of months that make sense sequentially). You’ll eventually answer these questions collectively in a way that demonstrates what is novel about your research.

So, what can you do this summer to prepare to write your research plan? Identify the sources you’ll consult by, for example, visiting online archival and library catalogs. Determine the individuals you’ll conduct interviews with, begin sketching out instruments, and think about the logistics of interviews (including how you’ll gain access to your subjects). Connect with the PI of the lab where you propose to research (whether your current lab or a new one) to discuss the problem and hypothesis that you will test. Legwork over the summer will help strengthen this crucial section of your fellowship proposal.

The Fellowships & Writing Center is available to offer feedback on your fellowship proposals and I am available for fellowships advising appointments throughout the year. Good luck!

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