By Krysten Blackstone |


Key to any PhD is the research.  Obviously.  Chances are, unless you are lucky enough to have all your sources in the same place as your institution, you will need to go on at least one research trip.  As PhD students are not exactly known for being flush with cash, finding funding for these trips is often crucial.  One of the best ways to get funding for research is fellowships.  Institutions give you a stipend, and sometimes housing, for you to use their sources in your research.  Fellowships are particularly useful if you have to conduct research abroad, like I do.

My research is almost all in the US, which means I’m very dependent on outside funding to help facilitate my research.  Because of this, I have a lot of practice writing fellowship applications, some more successful than others. Below are some of the things I have learned amidst the masses of fellowship paperwork over the past few years.


Plan in Advance

Fellowship applications are not the place to pull the ‘I’m going to write the conference paper on the train to the conference’ type of procrastination.  They often have multiple steps, need to be mailed in advance of the due date, and all require research into the institution you are applying to.  When I apply for fellowships I make a detailed spreadsheet that includes everything I need to know when applying: why I need it, what the requirements are, when it is due, when it would take place.

Details help: the more you know, the easier the application process is.


As PhD students we spend a lot of our time editing papers, so I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that after you write your fellowship materials you also should edit them.  Maybe even have someone else look them over for you.   But before you get to that stage, you have to choose what fellowships to apply for.   It is in this area, that the self-edit is most needed.  For your sanity, and time, if nothing else.  When you make your first list of fellowships you could apply for, it will probably be quite long.  In an attempt to hedge my bets, I had a list of over 10 fellowships in my first year that I was going to apply for.  Most had some sources I could use, but only a handful were truly crucial to my research.  Thankfully, I was convinced by my supervisors that it was a bad idea.  Fellowship applications are time consuming – applying for only the most important ones, is a better idea than wearing yourself thin applying for all relevant ones.



PhD students need references all the time and your supervisors probably have one on file for you.  However, and I cannot stress this enough, just because they’ve written for you before, doesn’t mean they can do it quickly again.  Give your referees plenty of warning, a month if possible.  I always give them a copy of my spreadsheet so they have a rough time schedule and exact details.  Having said that, fellowship due dates vary wildly by institution, and expecting your supervisors to remember months in the future is unrealistic.  When needed, don’t be afraid to send a reminder email.  Do not hound them, but an email a few weeks before the deadline will be appreciated.


Highlight What They Can Do For You

Research proposals for fellowships depend on the institution, but normally consist of 1/3 you and 2/3 them.   What I mean by that is, the start of the proposal should tell them what your research project is, in no more than a paragraph or two, unless specified otherwise.  This could be an overview of your full project, a specific chapter you are working on or a combination of the two.  The rest of the application should relate directly to their resources.  What do they have that you need?  Why is their institution and their resources crucial to your research?  When doing this, try to choose a variety of source types – diaries, letters, material culture, online databases, etc. Having said that, don’t overdo it.  Even if you need to look at every single thing in a collection, a long list of their sources isn’t what they are looking for.

My understanding of it is that they want to see that you have done your research.  That you have looked through their collections and finding aids and considered how they will impact your research.  Take the most important things in their collection you need and write about them specifically as they pertain to your research.  Do not just say ‘I need to look at this source’, say ‘This source will illuminate my research in this way’.  Approach these proposals as if they are a persuasive essay, which essentially is what they are. Spend the two pages arguing for why this fellowship is beneficial for both you and the institution.

Mount Vernon

Fellowships sometimes come with additional perks. Wandering around the Mount Vernon estate is one of mine this summer.

Acknowledge Potential Problems

Be honest about your research in your application. For example, if what you need to look at is online, be sure to acknowledge that, especially if there is still a reason to look at it within the context of where it was published.  Briefly acknowledging the limitations of the sources or your research shows that you have put a lot of thought into the application and more importantly your project as a whole.


Stick to Every Specification

 I do not care if they want the whole thing in size 36, comic sans font – follow their directions.   The places you are applying to could get hundreds of applications, not following their instructions, or having a part of your application missing is a sure fire way to get yourself eliminated.  Due dates are part of this, for you and your references.  Ultimately it is your responsibility to be sure everything gets to them on time.


Professionalism Matters

Be professional in every form of contact you have with the institution.  Often people treat email contact as impersonal and unimportant. But with fellowships, this may be the only contact you have with them.  When you are asking questions, or sending in your application, be professional and kind. This seems minor, and I am sure that it is, but better a good impression than a terrible one.


Krysten Blackstone is a second year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and the Chair of Pubs and Publications.  She is currently spending her summer completing two of her fellowships in the United States and dying from the humidity.   You can find her on twitter.


Image 1: Pexels, Image 2 & 3: Krysten Blackstone