by J J Cohen
Later today I'll be speaking at a faculty panel organized by GW's Vice President for Research on "How to Successfully Apply for Prestigious Research Awards" (the follow-up to last year's ill fated "How to Apply with Mixed Results for Dubious Research Awards"). I am fortunate to be holding an ACLS and a Guggenheim right now, so I don't mind taking some time from my leave to present at the roundtable. Here is some of the advice I'll offer. I'm posting it on the blog thinking it may be useful to some readers.
1. The application is its own reward.
It is great to receive a fellowship, of course, but don't compose your application thinking that you have that as your single objective. Hundreds of scholars compete for these awards and the chances of getting one are not favorable. Given the improbability of success, think about what useful things you will gain from the process regardless of how it ends. Typically you will have a clear articulation of your next project, and maybe even a book proposal, as well as an application that you may submit to other funding sources.
2. Once is never enough.
There is nothing wrong with submitting your application, with revisions, for several years in a row and to multiple funding agencies. The peer review panels which vet these applications change annually and you may find an advocate in 2013 who was not present in 2012. Your ACLS application can be adapted for the NEH, and so on.
3. Don't be shy.
Fellowship websites invariably list the projects that have been funded over the past few years. Do not be afraid to contact a recipient, especially if they are in your field. It helps if you know them, but even if you do not don't be afraid to politely ask if you could see their application, or even if they would be willing to glance at yours. If the scholar is too busy or retentive she will tell you so; you lose nothing in the attempt.
4. History repeats.
Study the paragraph description of funded projects that are offered on fellowship websites. Patterns of what kinds of projects receive awards typically emerge and will help you to pitch your own. Also look carefully at how these descriptions work: they are often lifted from the successful applications themselves and will give you a good idea of how to frame your own research.
5. Scholars don't like to feel stupid.
Your application will be evaluated by some very smart people, most of whom are unlikely to be in your precise field. Using technical language, citing theorists and critics, and assuming that the value of your project is obvious are great ways to make your evaluators skim a little before placing you in the Big Stack of NO. You want to capture a reader's attention through crisp language, engaging examples, and a tight formulation of why your research matters outside your small specialty. If you make a person feel excluded because they don't understand your jargon or don't get why what you're proposing is important to all humanists, you will pay a price. Do you really want to doom your application to the Big Stack?
7. Share and share alike.
Despite the fact that scholars are supposed to be lonely, the best projects are often the most gregarious -- meaning, share your work! Have several trusted friends read your application. You don't have to take all their advice, of course (you don't want to workshop your writing to death) but a pattern may emerge in their feedback. Articulating your project repeatedly also helps you to speak clearly about it; that's why it is easier to get funding for research you've made significant progress upon already. I personally believe that collaborative structures foster the best research, not archives and other solitary spaces. The latter are the start of a project, but for scholarship to come to life requires conviviality, vulnerability, and community. Your work in progress doesn't deserve to be kept under lock and key.
8. Everyone hates haters.
You know the type of person who writes review essays about everything that is wrong with the field? The scholar who can at great length talk about what's insufficient in other peoples' work, and conflates negativity with rigor? Nobody likes to hear that kind of dyspepsia in a fellowship application. If you are not doing something affirmative -- if you are set on critiquing rather than composing -- then go write a cranky book review, but no one is going to fund you to give you the time to tell everyone else how wrong they are. And really, cheer up.
9. You're in it for you.
There's no magic formula, and not even a good likelihood of success. That's why from the start it is important that you be clear to yourself about what you hope to gain from the process. Yes, a year off is wonderful, as is money to accomplish important things. But write as if that were one outcome among many. Write so that applying for fellowships is a way of doing scholarship rather than a potential waste of time. Write because your project deserves its best articulation, one through which (no matter what the fellowship outcome) its future will be more assured.