How to Apply for a Fellowship

How to Apply for a Fellowship

Fellowships are competitive. 

Not only do applicants have to present clear and compelling descriptions of their intended work, including methodologies, bibliographies, and budgets, but they also have to prove that they have the skills and dedication to achieve their goals all the while arguing that their project is a worthwhile one. Applications are scrutinized down to the last detail. The quality and thoroughness of the application itself is taken as a sign of a student’s competence and attention to detail. As such, any misstep—from a misremembered date, to a key text absent from the bibliography—can take an otherwise solid candidate out of the running. 

So, how do you put together your best possible fellowship application? 

Keep in mind that you have to achieve three goals:

  1. Convince the committee that your proposed research will make an important contribution to your field;
  2. Convince the committee that your approach is sound;
  3. Convince the committee that you have the requisite skill and experience to carry out your proposed research.

While working towards these goals, there are three factors to keep in the forefront of your mind: 

  1. The selection committee has specific criteria for judgement. Read the fellowship criteria carefully and be sure that your project meets the standards set out by the committee. Explain your project’s fit with the fellowship if it isn’t obvious at first glance. 
  2. The committee members may have differing backgrounds and limitations. Don’t rely on discipline-specific jargon, and explain your research question and methods as plainly as possible.
  3. You are asking for an investment. This third factor is potentially the most instructive; you would never invest in a company that had a poorly-conceived product with no market, or in a management team that has a poor track record of success. The same goes for a fellowship proposal. The selection committee needs to know they are making a good investment, so explain your project as clearly as you can, demonstrate that you’ve done the requisite legwork to get the project off the ground, and provide evidence of your qualifications through your past work. 

In your research description, grab your committee’s attention by proposing your research question at the start. 

Provide some scholarly context as well; this does not need to be a full literature review (unless one is explicitly requested), but rather, it should give them background on the current state of the field. Then, convince them why they should care about your proposed work. Point out how your proposed research would fill a gap in knowledge, provide a new and necessary perspective, or use new technology or source material to revise established research. Describe, in detail, how you will go about answering your question and proving your conclusions. The methodology section of your description should draw on established research methods, the work of your advisors, and potentially your previous work. Next, delve into your qualifications for this research: have you done work in the field before? Have you used these research methods before? What successes have you had in the past that are relevant to this new proposal? How does this project fit into your larger academic trajectory? And, finally, describe the end results of your research. Will this project contribute to your dissertation, an article, or a book?

Remember that your CV, recommendations, previous publications, and previous research experience will also provide evidence of your qualifications. Don’t repeat your CV verbatim in your fellowship proposal, but certainly do highlight experiences and accomplishments that will help your case. Start early on this entire process, and workshop your proposal with people in your field and with those outside your field. Your research description should make a compelling and clear case to any reader. 

Applying for fellowships is an art. 

It takes nuanced, thorough research just to describe the research you want to do. As always, we’re here to help. We have fellowships experts on staff, like Jovonne B., who can help you navigate these murky waters. You don’t have to go it alone!

Picture of Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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