If you’re a humanist looking for a yearlong fellowship in the academic year after this one -- as in, 2021-22 -- you should know that application season is about to begin. The process can be daunting, especially if you’ve never pursued one of these opportunities before. But the rewards are more than worth it. Who couldn’t use a full year off with funding, devoted entirely to research and writing, and possibly access to an archive or center with a supportive cohort of like-minded scholars?
Quick sidebar before we continue: most of what follows was written in a pre-pandemic time. Yet amid the current chaos, it can’t hurt -- and in fact, could be therapeutic -- to put some optimistic energy into the future of your research. If nothing else, the long lead time for these fellowship deadlines means that life may have returned to normal by the time you’d be accepting any awards. And applications are always exercises in hope anyway.
Although the competition for fellowships can be fierce, it’s worth putting yourself in the running. Even if none of your applications work out, there’s a good chance you’ll end up receiving valuable feedback about your project. And at the very least, writing up a proposal will help you clarify your goals and work plan.
For those who plan to apply, the time to start developing your proposal is now. The National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship deadline is April 8 for projects beginning between Jan. 1, 2021 and Sept. 1, 2022. Other opportunities -- like the Guggenheim, the American Council of Learned Societies and residencies at local archives and research institutions -- are due later in the fall through early 2021. But you probably know what tends to happen when you plan to work on things “over the summer,” let alone once the academic year is underway.
So you’ve decided to go for it. What’s next?
Review the rules. Most fellowships require that the entire award period needs to be free of teaching and service obligations. That won’t be hard to finagle if you’re someone without a continuous academic appointment, but what if you’re a tenure-track faculty member? Your institution should have policies that govern the timing and financial arrangements for research leaves. But even if they don’t, the administration will undoubtedly have opinions if you unexpectedly inform them that you’ll be gone for an entire school year. If you opt for the “ask for forgiveness not permission” route, you could be complicating things for yourself. Most fellowships can’t be deferred, so if your leave doesn’t get approved, you may be forced to decline an award that you could’ve otherwise accepted with a bit of administrative buy-in.
If there’s nothing official in place that explains the right way to do things, get a chair (or better yet, a dean) to commit in writing to supporting your plans, so that you don’t find yourself fighting an uphill battle if your fellowship comes through. As an added perk, some institutions have staff members who can help you identify promising opportunities and assist with proposal development -- I know this because I am one such person. Making inquiries about the appropriate process will help you connect with these helpful types, giving you a clear path forward for navigating the administrative details as well as the application itself.
Get a head start. Once you’re cleared to apply, you need to figure out where to send your materials. In addition to the open-ended opportunities listed above, there are countless field-specific fellowships, usually residential stints at humanities centers or archives. After you’ve developed your first proposal, you can easily tweak it for submission elsewhere, but you’ll still have to get letters of recommendation for each new application. You’ll make life easier on yourself -- and your letter writers -- if you come up with a schedule of deadlines for the months ahead. As you’re undoubtedly aware, writing letters of rec isn’t the most delightful task or the easiest to find time for. Folks are much more willing to agree when the deadline is months away and they can pretend that they’ll be miraculously caught up on other work by then. Once someone’s already agreed to provide a letter of support by a given date, you’ve basically granted yourself permission to send a check-in email a few weeks prior. (And if that email is accompanied by a draft of the application itself, so much the better.) Speaking of multiple submissions …
Cast a wide net. All fellowships are competitive, but some are more competitive than others. The more niche the opportunity, the smaller the applicant pool and the greater your chances of success. Don’t limit your chances by ruling out residential fellowships, even if they’re far afield from home (and even if the prospect of travel feels unthinkable right now). It can be overwhelming to contemplate a year spent living in a different city, so it might be useful to simply bracket the logistics at this stage. Even if you have kids, trust that it is possible to transplant your family -- challenging though it may be, scholars do it with some regularity. But rest assured, you can figure that part out later, especially considering how adept we’re all getting at dealing with uncertainty. Worst-case scenario, you get offered an award you can’t accept, and then it goes on your CV as “declined” while they move to the next runner-up on their list. Everyone wins!
Maximize your options by applying to anything that seems even remotely appealing. Ask for recommendations from colleagues in your field, google “[name of archive you’d like to scour] + fellowship,” peruse the CVs of folks who do similar work, or hit me up on Twitter if you’re totally lost for leads. Some universities offer fellowships for external scholars, so ask friends with appointments at other institutions and poke around the websites of anywhere you’d like to be in residence.
Just make sure you tailor your submissions. For residential awards, your proposal should engage with the specifics of the place (the materials you hope to consult if it’s an archive, or a nod to the research center’s focus or annual theme) which requires a bit of investigation. Even if you’ve got a solid set of draft materials, they’ll be more effective if you take the time to adapt them for each opportunity.
Beware bedeviling details. While many fellowships have similar guidelines, their particularities can foil anyone who’s not paying close attention. You will not want to be surprised by unexpected requirements at the 11th hour, so review all guidelines thoroughly and well in advance. That includes formatting. I once realized at the last minute that a single-spaced proposal (already teetering on too long) needed to be double-spaced, and my heart rate is still recovering.
Here are some other potential pitfalls: there may be constraints on letters of recommendation (e.g., writers from or not from your current institution, prohibitions on asking anyone from your dissertation committee). The fellowship organization might require three letters instead of the more typical two. You could encounter prompts for abstracts and other short-answer blurbs buried deep within the application form. Some programs require hard-copy submissions with firm receipt deadlines, while others have mandatory writing samples with strict length limits. You might have to pare down or reformat your CV -- some places prefer a publication list, and others don’t want anything longer than two pages -- or provide a bibliography.
Write early; revise often. Start preparing your project narrative and all other written components of your application as soon as your schedule allows. That will give you time to send it off to your recommenders, who will then be able to write more specific, and therefore more compelling, letters. If you’re lucky, they might even provide some useful feedback that will help you to refine your argument before you submit. Getting a draft out early will also give you more time to wrangle your writing within the length requirements.
Cut, condense, repeat. The fact is that most fellowships have rigid limits on proposal length, and those that don’t will probably be fielding an influx of bloated applications that impose on reviewers’ time. Either way, it’s in your best interest to be as concise as possible. Still, while it’s good to be aware of the limit at the outset, don’t feel overly constrained by it when you’re developing a first draft. Put down everything you want to include, and then see where you end up.
Some tips for trimming: if you’re dealing with a word-count limit, don’t worry about the title or any other header content and go after adverbs first. Chances are you won’t get disqualified if you’re only a few words over, but taking that gamble depends on your risk tolerance.
To keep things within a certain number of pages, start by looking for paragraphs that end with only a word or two on the final line, and find places to trim upstream. Subbing in shorter synonyms will help tighten things up (and if you do need to cut, again, adverbs remain the most expendable part of any sentence). You can also eliminate blank lines between paragraphs and include any subheadings within the run of text.
For character limits -- less common for proposals, but ubiquitous for abstracts and other blurbs -- find the shortest words capable of communicating your intended meaning. Consider creative formatting, like having an em dash run right into the words on either side. (Formatting like so—which is approved by the Chicago Manual of Style—saves you four whole characters when compared to a pair of commas plus spaces. That adds up!) Use numerals instead of writing out centuries, or even shorthand like “C21.” More extreme measures include slashes between terms instead of “ands,” and abbreviations if you’re certain they’ll be clear to nonexpert readers.
Above all, avoid baggy, equivocating language. Your book doesn’t aim to intervene in your field; it intervenes. Your scholarship doesn’t try to draw new conclusions; it draws them. And so on. Which brings me to my next point.
Be confident, clear and concrete. Don’t say anything you can’t stand behind intellectually, but be forceful in declaring the value of your work. Academic writing often lends itself to thoughtful equivocation, but proposal narratives should be bolder -- don’t waste precious space tiptoeing around the importance of your project. When and if referencing other scholarship, keep your focus on what you have to offer your field and not the other way around, and don’t be shy about mentioning your own accomplishments where relevant. You don’t want to overclaim, of course -- not everything needs to be a pathbreaking, transformative study -- but you don’t have to name check all your predecessors or anticipate every criticism, either. It’s a proposal that in all likelihood will discuss your intention to write a book, but it’s a different genre than the book proposal you’d send to a publisher.
Another reason to avoid a bunch of field-specific signposting is that not all reviewers will be familiar with your exact discipline, and even those who are familiar might have a significantly different perspective. Decontextualized references to authors, terms or concepts that aren’t widely known may undermine the strength of your narrative. Plus, most reviewers are evaluating numerous applications as quickly as possible -- if they don’t immediately understand what you’re saying, they might not have the time or inclination to reread.
Finally, make sure that you explicitly outline the goals and outcomes for your project, accompanied by a detailed work plan. While it may evolve in the execution phase, you should articulate a vision for how you expect it to unfold. You might not have room to get too granular (again, limited space) but “draft chapter three, revise chapter four, do further research and incorporate into chapter five” is preferable to “finish manuscript,” even if the latter is shorter. It’s also helpful to mention the publishers you plan to pitch to -- bonus points if you can say you’ve had early interest from a specific editor -- along with your intended audience (ideally one with some disciplinary breadth, including the potential for use in undergraduate courses). All that being said …
The best proposal is the one you actually write. You’re the sole expert on the distinct interventions your scholarship makes within its field(s), and only you can decide how best to convey that to reviewers. Some projects need a lot of background or benefit from a catchy example or anecdote; others are better served by an exhaustive chapter breakdown accompanied by a list of archives that will be consulted in developing each section. By all means, make use of online resources and sample narratives, but see them as suggestions, not edicts. As with any writing project, you should rely on your authorial expertise and develop a proposal that best reflects your particular project. Trust your instincts, marshal all the necessary materials and apply.