20 Steps to Successful Fellowship Applications


There are excellent reasons to write graduate fellowship proposals. Funding. Prestige in winning a national competitive fellowship award. The ability to support your research independent of your P.I. or advisor’s project. And with each completed proposal and application, whether successful or not, you are developing your skills in grantsmanship, a highly valued ability when you are on the job market.

Here are 20 steps to get you started.

  1. Just do it. The one guaranteed way NOT to win a graduate fellowship is not to write and submit an application.
  2. Identify funding sources from among government, private, and corporate sources. How? A good place to start is one of the searchable fellowship databases here.
  3. There are fellowships for pre-dissertation funding, for dissertation research funding, and for dissertation completion. At what stage are you? Make sure you are truly ready and competitive for the fellowship you seek.
  4. Get on the listserv of major funding agencies and organizations. You will receive announcements of new funding and any changes to requirements or deadlines this way. (For the example, a competition may announce an extended deadline to those who reside in an area where a natural disaster has occurred.)
  5. Read the Request for Proposals (RFP) or Request for Applications (RFA) carefully. The first stage rejections occur when applicants miss a deadline, use the wrong font size, send too many pages, send too few references, and in other significant or minor ways do not follow the instructions.
  6. Develop a plan to help you meet your deadline and to help you submit a complete high, quality proposal. See Figure 1 below. Not all applications will require all these elements. Design a schedule and plan specifically for your applications. Robin Walker has designed a very helpful task list and schedule for the NSF application.
  7. “Start early. Have many people review your essays, and give your reference writers the appropriate information. The most frequent mistake applicants make is not putting in the effort and time needed to make their applications competitive.” ~  Gisele Muller-Parker, Program Director, NSF GRFP, remarks from presentation at Columbia University, September 13, 2010
  8. Read others’ proposals for this or similar competitions. Even unsuccessful proposals can be instructive, particularly if the competition is one in which applicants receive a copy of the reviewers’ comments. NSF provides these, for example.
  9. Review the web site of the funding agency. Then ask questions of the program officer or the contact listed on the web site. But ask only those questions that can’t be answered any other way and certainly not questions whose answers are on the web site for careful readers.
  10. Many of the competitions will post advice, checklists, and even sample applications on their web site. Search for and read thoroughly all the good information available to you.
  11. One of the most important components to locate in the guidelines is the review criteria that will be used by reviewers to evaluate your application. Make a checklist to determine that you have addressed all the content and quality elements they will look for in the proposal.
  12. Anthony Coelho at NIH suggests you have good ideas, good timing, good presentation, good reviewers, and good luck. What does this mean? Good ideas are significant – they address important problems, they advance scientific knowledge, they are innovative, they expand the existing knowledge base, and they are capable of making a difference. A good presentation is well-organized – it answers the questions: What do you want to do? Why do you want to do it? How are you going to do it? What is the expected outcome? Why is it a good thing?  And it addresses the review criteria. Good reviewers are on your side when you make the review of your proposal easy on them. Don’t make them work to understand your ideas, to know their importance, and to determine that your proposed research is do-able. Make your reviewers “happy.” Good timing is two things: You start early enough. And the timing is right for the research you propose. Your ideas will be understood by others because they build on existing knowledge and are supported by preliminary data if possible. Your ideas should be the next big thing – neither behind nor too far ahead of current, cutting-edge research and scholarship. Good luck happens when you understand and apply all of the above.
  13. Time to start writing. Follow the guidelines. No exceptions.
  14. If you are writing your first proposal, start by using the template. This will get all your ideas in writing pretty much in the order that will be expected for most applications.
  15. Know your audience. (Coelho says: “Write it for yourself if you intend to fund it yourself.”) Are the reviewers all in your subfield or specialty? Likely not. They will be brilliant people, but you need to write so that generalists or people with other specialties will understand your ideas.
  16. Make sure that your reviewers know something important about you or your project in the first sentence or two. Your proposal must have a very strong start. Get your reviewers’ attention. Pose a question. State your central thesis or hypothesis in an imaginative way.
  17. Ask your faculty, peers, and friends to read your application/proposal. Let them ask you questions, which you answer in a conversation with them, so that you can refine your ideas and your writing. What are the most interesting and intriguing questions your readers ask? Maybe you need to add those answers to your proposal.
  18. Then revise. Make sure you proposal is clear, original, do-able, and has a reasonable budget if one is required. If you’ve submitted this application before, use the reviewers’ comments to guide your revisions.
  19. Your application is more likely to be successful if:
    ·      You meet all technical specifications/requirements.
    ·      It is written for the intended audience/agency.
    ·      Your introduction is specific, clear, and gets the readers’ attention.
    ·      Your ideas are both original and significant. BOTH.
    ·      You build on previous research and show that your research is in an innovative, emerging area.
    ·      Your writing is strong, clear, and coherent.
    ·      Your proposal clearly relates to the funding agency’s programmatic areas.
    ·      You show that your research has broad interest and impact for scholars, the field, and society.
    ·      You have a reasonable budget (not too much, not too little).
    .      You demonstrate the ability to pull it off.
    ·      Your drive (or passion or obsession) shows.
    ·      You have very strong letters of support.
  20. Anthony Coelho reports that the major reasons fellowship proposals submitted to NIH are not funded are the weakness of the applicant, weakness of the applicant’s mentor, and a poorly prepared proposal with weak research design.

Figure 1: Strategic plan template for fellowship proposal (DOWNLOAD PDF)

Successful Columbia University Fellowship Recipients Offer Their Suggestions

  1. Read multiple previous applications from successful fellowship awardees. Even unsuccessful applications can offer insight into fundable projects, approaches to persuading the reviewers, and technical requirements of the application process. 
  2. Start planning and writing with plenty of time – both for you to write a strong proposal and for your committee members to write stellar letters of recommendations.
  3. Before deciding to apply for a fellowship, check the funder’s web site or contact a program officer to get as much information as possible. For example, last year Fulbright funded 50 percent of graduate applicants to Germany but only two percent of applicants to New Zealand. With a choice between the two countries, chose Germany. That said, write a strong proposal and you can apply for even the “stretch” fellowships.
  4. Know the application requirements.
  5. If you view your application as a “shot in the dark,” then determine a way for it to “emerge from the shadows.” Demonstrate its originality and innovation – but make sure you describe a project that the reviewers will perceive as possible, do-able.
  6. Cultivate relationships with faculty based on your shared intellectual enterprise. Don’t let faculty’s busy schedules or slight differences in interests deter you. Faculty can write glowing letters. Know which faculty “has the clout to write one sentence that has [the impact] of an eight-page letter” written by anyone else.
  7. Start your application with a captivating contradiction or puzzle. Ask yourself, “How bored might the readers be after reading dozens or hundreds of application?”  Make it interesting. (Several years ago I read a fellowship application that began, “Think of Walt Whitman. Now think of Walt Whitman dancing.” I won’t forget that successful application – the student competed successfully for Northwestern University’s top fellowship for doctoral students.)
  8. Describe your project with a concise and engaging phrase. Reviewers will recall and refer to your project in a memorable way as they discuss it.
  9. Write a persuasive story, coherent with your background. Be realistic; demonstrate that your project is feasible. “And you know this why?” Show that you have the skills needed to complete the proposed project. Show that you have preliminary research that serves as foundation for the proposed project.
  10. Write a basis, even generic, fellowship application; then rework it when specific fellowship RFAs (request for applications) come along.
  11. Highlight your preliminary efforts on the proposed project and how your subsequent work will build on the initial work. Clearly show how the requested funding will contribute to the project. 
  12. Consider the audience; if yours is a small subfield, readers may be in your discipline but not in your specialized area. Some applications require a personal statement; others a cover letter. In these two documents use less technical, “jargony” language in your writing. In the initial review stages and especially with large numbers of applications, a broader audience will all read the personal statement; in later stages of review, you’re more likely to have specialized readers reviewing your proposal.
  13. Make sure your application conveys your passion for the project. Describe how you will contribute your unique background or experiences or talents to this project to persuade the reviewers to award the fellowship to you. Demonstrate that you are the best person to do this research.
  14. Technical requirements often include a page limit for the application. Observe the rules but be creative in ways to incorporate additional information. Often the budget is not counted in the total page limit, so include additional information with a budget explanation. You’ll gain space for more substantive details of your project in the narrative.
  15. Fellowships that let you travel to do research also want to know that you’ll be a good ambassador to the countries you visit. Come across as a good person to represent the funding agency and the United States. It doesn’t hurt to sound “appealing.” (After I won my fellowship I attended a reception for successful applicants. The selection committee mentioned unsuccessful applicants whose attitudes or personalities would not have made them “good ambassadors.”)
  16. Some fellowships have additional purposes and criteria. NSF, for example, asks you to respond to this: “How will your research promote diversity in the field?” So be prepared to write about more than just your research.
  17. Be confident in your writing and interview – but not cocky.
  18. When you complete a draft of your application, ask as many of your committee members and previous fellowship award winners as possible to read it and offer suggestions. The more feedback the better --especially from colleagues not in your specialty. These early readers will catch the “nonsense” in your ideas and writing.
  19. Schedule writing for your best hours of the day. Don’t still be writing “when you are dying.” Get it done early enough to be able to revise later.
  20. Some fellowships have a two-part selection process that includes an interview after the initial review of written applications. If your application makes it to the interview stage, be thoroughly familiar with what you wrote. I wasn’t -- and it was embarrassing. (Also be prepared to describe how your project has evolved since your submitted the application. All projects change to some degree over time; the interview committee will expect that you have progressed in your thinking if not actual research and will ask about any changes or new ideas in your project.)
  21. Get some funding. (It’s good experience to write applications, and being successful will bring recognition – as well as the appreciation of those who would be funding you otherwise, i.e., your program or the graduate school.)

The students listed below successfully competed for Ford, Fulbright, Javits, Mellon, National Science Foundation (NSF), Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and Wenner Gren Fellowships. They were panelists at a fellowship application writing workshop at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Art and Sciences and offered their advice to fellow graduate students in the social sciences and humanities. Their suggestions have been compiled and edited, including some additional information, and then reviewed by the panelists. I thank them for allowing their suggestions to be shared.

Gregory Baggett, History; Erin Hasinoff, Anthropology; Justine Hoffman, Music; Patience Kabamba, Anthropology; Laura Paler, Political Science; Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, History; Jyoti Raghu, Religion; Anna Ratner, Art History; Chiara Tessaris, History; Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro, Political Science; Lindsay Weiss, Anthropology.