Landing a Postdoctoral Fellowship

While securing one is becoming increasingly difficult, Keisha N. Blain offers several strategies to improve your odds of success.

June 28, 2017
 
 
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Securing a postdoctoral fellowship at a time of declining funding is becoming increasingly difficult for academics. But obtaining such a fellowship before starting a tenure-track position, or even after starting one, is a sure way to catapult one’s academic career. A postdoctoral fellowship provides valuable time for research and writing, as well as an opportunity to expand one’s academic network.

Since completing my Ph.D. in 2014, I have applied for dozens of postdoctoral fellowships and been fortunate to receive offers for several prestigious ones -- including those from the American Association of University Women and the Ford Foundation. In the process of applying for them, I have developed several strategies that I think will be useful for other early-career scholars who are seeking postdoctoral fellowship opportunities.

Do your homework. Before crafting a proposal or deciding to apply for a fellowship, you should spend considerable time doing research far beyond looking up details on the fellowship website. It is not a bad idea to contact previous recipients to ask questions about their experiences and if they would be willing to show you samples of their proposals. In some cases, scholars will not be interested in sharing these materials, but I have been surprised by how willing many have been to assist me -- including people I’ve never even met.

The key is not to assume that every fellowship is the same. For some, having a senior mentor at the institution will largely determine if you land the position. For others, final decisions are largely based on the fit of the proposal and perhaps how it adheres to a specific theme. Once you have done significant research, you can then devise an effective plan of attack.

Ask other people to read your proposal. Regardless of how much time you spend on a proposal, there will always be room for improvement. In most cases, you’ll find it difficult to identify the weaknesses in your proposal, and that is where the advice of other people can be most useful. Once you have a solid draft, share it widely. Share it not only with close friends but also with people who have little interest in sparing your feelings. Share it not only with people in your field but also with those in unrelated fields -- and with nonacademics, too. If a nonexpert can grasp the significance of your project, you’ll probably be a step ahead of those who bury their interventions in academic jargon.

Ask your readers to identify the parts of the proposal that are strong and also the ones that are weak, and then revise accordingly. Expect to go through many drafts before you have a version that is polished and compelling. And don’t forget to copyedit and proofread.

Develop a clear, feasible writing and research plan. In most cases, fellowship committees will ask applicants to explain how they intend to use the fellowship year. Here is where many academics overreach. Plans that are too ambitious often signal to committees that the applicant has not carefully thought through the fellowship year. While it sounds great on paper, the idea of simply “completing a book” during a fellowship year is much too broad. It is also unwise to suggest that you will write six journal articles and revise a book for publication. Even if you could actually make that all happen, only indicate what sounds feasible. Saying that you will complete revisions for two book chapters and conduct research for a third sounds a lot more doable in one year.

But don’t stop there. Be very specific about how you are revising. What exactly needs to change in those two chapters and why? Have you received readers’ reports, or are you revising based on recommendations from your dissertation defense? What kind of research needs to be done for a third chapter and why? What kinds of resources are available on the campus to which you’re applying that would aid in your efforts? Are there specific archives in the area that you intend to visit?

Answering those kinds of questions in the proposal will aid fellowship committees significantly in their decision making, and it will also help you should you land the fellowship. The writing and research plan can serve as a blueprint during the year, even if you end up making some adjustments along the way.

Think carefully about your recommendation writers. In my own experience, I’ve found it most useful to ask for recommendation letters from a range of scholars, including former members of my dissertation committee, senior colleagues and scholars with whom I have collaborated in the past. By having several letters on file, you will be able to identify the ones that work better for some fellowships than others.

Here is where you also have to be strategic and think carefully about your letter writers. If you are applying for a fellowship that one of your references has secured in the past, you will want to include that letter in your application. That will not guarantee that you’ll receive an offer, but it certainly can’t hurt. If a letter writer has a specific connection to the institution to which you are applying, you might also want to include that letter.

Above all, you want to send letters from people who know you very well and can speak confidently about your research and writing. Be sure to share your proposal and writing plans with them ahead of time so that their letters are consistent with the details you provide during the application process.

Don’t be afraid to work your contacts. Once your application materials are ready, it is time to begin working your contacts. Here is where you must take initiative and reach out to people in your network. If you are applying for a fellowship at an institution where you know a scholar, make sure that you inform them of your intention to do so. Get in touch with people with whom you’ve collaborated in the past and let them know about your plans.

If you don’t know someone but have a friend who does, ask that friend to introduce you by email. Perhaps the person contacted will have insights into the fellowship that will aid your application. Or perhaps they will know a member of the fellowship committee and say a good word on your behalf. In one instance, I found out that someone I knew made a call to encourage members of the fellowship committee to take a close look at my application. That may have been a deciding factor in my receiving the fellowship offer several months later.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Despite following all of these strategies, you may be unsuccessful in your quest. With funding limitations, the fellowship application process is increasingly competitive.

But there is much value in trying -- and trying again. As you apply for more and more fellowships, you will sharpen your writing skills, for example, and devise new ways to convey the interventions of your research project to a diverse audience. The ability to clearly articulate your argument and the significance of your research to a general reader will certainly prove useful, especially when you write your book proposal and eventually your first book. The key is to try to secure a postdoctoral fellowship. This may be the year you receive a positive response.

Bio

Keisha N. Blain is an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the co-editor of Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism and Racial Violence (University of Georgia Press, 2016). Her forthcoming book Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in spring 2018.

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