Putting together an application for a (Postdoc) Fellowship in the Humanities

A couple of my friends (thanks Ange and Pey) have asked me recently how to put a fellowship application together and I thought after such a long hiatus this topic might make for a good post. However, I need firstly to qualify what follows with the caveat that whilst I have applied for many fellowships, I’ve come close just twice before landing the one I now hold. Also, as stated this advice is not intended for those looking for a position in a science or engineering area. Here it goes:

Generally, we pursue fellowships in order to do the kind of research we want to do but we also need to understand most institutes have a set of research priorities that as a researcher you need to fit in with in order to win the fellowship.

Frequently, institutes will prefer to build and invest in fields of research they are well known for or try to be the early establishers of emergent areas of research. Differentiating between which can be key as an established research priority means you might be able to tie your work to other scholars already at the institute and identify a mentor/area of theory/larger project your work fits in with. Even if that’s not the case, many research centres still ask that you identify a senior scholar already working with them who will ‘sponsor’ or mentor your application.

So the first thing to do is understand is to thoroughly understand the nature of the fellowship. Best way to do that is to read through successful past applications as they are a good indication of the research direction the institute is willing to fund. Some places are more practical, focused on concrete project and other outcomes and others are more philosophical, theoretical or historical. Having said that, such aims can change from year to year so don’t just read one year’s successful applications, try at least 3 years to gain a good grasp of what works.

Think through all these and then carefully select the fellowships you pursue as they can mess around with your own project aims if you try and adapt your proposal so much it loses its form. It is important to be responsive but you need also to have a sense of what you are willing to amend and/or bend and what you will not.

Someone at a workshop the other day said, “don’t jump onto the bandwagon” of the latest and greatest in research but do pick up on the zeitgeist. If you read enough calls for applications you soon find there are certain areas/theories/issues that are ‘sexy’. If your proposal fits in with it, well and good, if not see how it might, if it does not, do not bend over backwards to jump onto the bandwagon. Most reviewers can spot that a mile away.

So what kind of outputs do they (research institutes) look for?

Again, that comes back to the kind of institute they are. In the humanities/social sciences areas, universities and related institutes still tend to go for the traditional research outputs of journal articles and books or book chapters. Although there are increasingly those that will fund non-traditional creative practice projects too. Unfortunately, that’s not my area so I cannot offer any advice here.

To continue, be aware that there are all kinds of hierarchies that apply to research outputs. Specifically in Australia, it would be useful, if you don’t already know, which of Australia’s FOR (field of research) codes your work fits in with as that will help you target  the right fellowships.

Generally speaking, American University presses like MIT, Duke University Press are regarded as top of the tree as monographs and chapters go, then come the Oxford Uni Press (OUP), Routledge and so on and so forth. Lists of publishers can be found but as far as I can tell there is no definitive list for publishers in the Humanities let alone specific disciplines.

There are other ways to understand such bibliometrics. One method is to look at how the journals are ranked. This information is not always available but some, like New Media & Society here, state it on their websites:
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Another way is to understand where most of the people you look up to in your field publish. That is a good indication too of where you should publish if you want to be in the same company.

Much of this knowledge will come from workshops and seminars held at your university. If you’re still able to, attend these events, listen, ask questions and then investigate. Sites like the research whisperer will also contain much of the relevant information.

Given the stiff competition for fellowships these days, you should try to have at least a article published in one of the top journals in your field, a couple more in A rated journals and a research monograph contract with a reputable publisher if not a completed monograph.

Non-traditional outputs like creative work have different matrices that I am, unfortunately, not familiar with.

However, the basic thing institutes look for is prestige in terms of publications, talks, scholarships, exhibitions, awards, reviews, editorships, growing reputation and increasingly, (social) media profile. The extent to which these things matter will vary from fellowship to fellowship and uni to uni.

Depending in your area of research, industry links can also be highly desirable. Experience as a research assistant or associate on someone else’s project is also valuable and should be mentioned.

How to prepare research project budgets

As for project budgets, have a look at the Funding Rules and Sample Application forms for the Australian Research Council’s DECRA (Discovery Early Career Scheme). Together they should give you a good idea of what is allowed or not with fellowships and the kind of detailed information each demands.

These are fairly standard with minor variations here and there so read the funding rules that come with every fellowship scheme thoroughly. Reviewers hate sloppy applications. Note page and word limits, scopes, kind of detail required and proof read carefully before submission.

To sum up:

1) prepare a proposal along the lines of a DECRA and then use that as a base for other applications. Give yourself plenty of time and prepare to draft and edit multiple times.

2) Ask for feedback on your application from people whose scholarly judgement you trust and incorporate the feedback that makes sense (even when it hurts)

2) study the fellowships you want to target to understand their rules, requirements and importantly, their timing. These vary widely because of the academic year differences in north and south hemisphere and systems.

3) realistically look at your publication and other track records to gauge your competitiveness at this stage. If necessary, formulate a plan towards being more competitive by a certain period and draw up a long-term plan. You have 5 years as an early career researcher use that time constructively.

4) ask experienced researchers to mentor you, request a number of senior people (you can include your supervisor) to be your referees (almost all applications require at least 2 or 3 of those) and always notify them when you’ve send something in for which they might be contacted.

5) if you are in a field where online and/or media profiles are necessary, take the time to craft and build them so it presents your talents at their best.

6) Finally, recognise how competitive, dog-eat-dog academia is (at least in Australia) and why you want to be part of it. It can be soul destroying if you are not sufficiently armored against it. Academics spend a lot of emotional energy fighting against cynicism, managerialism and apathy. Be quite clear on why you want this and then go for it!