Fellowship application tips, part II: writing the essay

CDG_moneyTwo weeks ago I wrote a post with a number of tips for early stage US graduate students applying to fellowships. I realized after I pressed “publish” that I didn’t address what the essays themselves should look like. Today’s post fills in that gap. How do you go about convincing the review committee that your application deserves to be funded?

I’ll be using examples geared toward qualitative social scientists applying for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Many entering graduate students in the social sciences hear “National Science Foundation” and think (1) that they’re not in a field supported by NSF and/or (2) that qualitative approaches are not eligible. Neither is the necessarily the case, though do be sure to check the list of eligible fields to be sure that your field is in there. My own application used interviews and qualitative comparative-historical methods, and other grantees I know applied with ethnographic and other non-quantitative project designs. Regardless of what fellowship program you are applying to and how you are approaching the research question, however, these general keys to success should apply.

1. Flag the juicy bits

You should examine very carefully what it is that the application prompt is asking of you. Make sure that you address everything in the prompt, and make it as easy as possible for the reviewers to find what they’re told to look for.

Reviewers are given a small list of criteria on which to evaluate applications. For the GRFP, these criteria are covered under two umbrella terms: intellectual merit and broader impacts. Keeping in mind that reviewers have very little time to evaluate your application, make it as easy as possible for them to match your essays with their criteria. Use their language in the same way that they do. Sprinkle in “intellectual merits” and “broader impacts” when appropriate. Don’t be afraid to point out that you are helping the funding body meet its specific goals. If your broader impacts include things that NSF is especially and specifically concerned about (e.g. participation of women and minorities in science), spell it out that way. And if you’re repurposing the essay for another application, keep in mind that other funding bodies or other programs care about different things!

2. Make sure you’re actually speaking their language

Fellowship review criteria often use punchy umbrella terms to cover a number of sub-criteria. It is imperative that you figure out these sub-criteria early on. This will help your application stand out because you will have addressed the things that the reviewers are told to rate in a much more specific and concrete manner.

For instance, if you look carefully at the evaluation criteria for the GRFP, it becomes evident that “broader impacts” is about action:

Broader impacts may be accomplished through the research itself, through the activities that are directly related to specific research projects, or through activities that are supported by, but are complementary to, the project.

Note the words “accomplished” and “activities”–they want to see specific active verbs, with you as the subject. Don’t say that your study of migrant farmworker organizing will “inform policies.” Instead, spell out how it is that you will take your research results and get them to the eyes of policymakers. Are you going to write policy briefs? Publish op-eds? Give presentations? Lead a march to Washington? Give some details.

3. Be specific about your methodology

As Katherine Firth at Research Degree Voodoo argues, you can’t over-signpost your argument. Walk the reviewer through what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and why you’re going to do it this way. Give sufficient detail for them to evaluate whether or not the study design is analytically useful and humanly possible.

It is not enough to say that you will “do participant observation among restaurant workers in Los Angeles.” That doesn’t say much about what it is that you’ll actually do, nor does it say much about why you’re doing these things in certain places and with certain people. You must justify your methodological choices and explain in detail how they will help you answer your question. It may also help to think about alternative ways to answer the question, and why those alternatives are not as useful for meeting your objectives. Perhaps through this process of methodological specification and justification, you will find that one of the alternatives is in fact a better choice for your question. In that case, you’ve got a bit of rethinking to do.

4. Be frugal with your limited space

I mentioned this in the last post, as well, but it bears repeating. Space is a precious commodity in a fellowship application. Try to minimize the number of citations and the amount of background information so that you can put the spotlight on your new ideas and why they’re awesome and fundable.


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