Questions to Ask When Applying30 May 2023 Posted in:
This post is primarily meant to be a resource for students interested in applying to one of the Scholars’ Lab Graduate Fellowships. I often speak with people 1:1 about their applications to our Praxis or DH Fellows programs. These solo meetings are usually the best way to get to know someone and learn about their work, and I hope students will continue reaching out in this way. But I also always want the process to be transparent for everyone applying, and I want every applicant to have access to the same resources. So in what follows I try to collect the most useful information about how to apply successfully for one of our programs based on what repeatedly comes up in those conversations and at our information sessions (directly pulled from one piece of that slide deck). We always have more strong applicants than we can take into our programs, and asking the following questions of your application can help you to ensure you’re representing yourself in the best light. I also think several of the principles here are relevant to funding applications in general, so I’ll try to flag those moments where specific examples might be abstracted for a generalized approach to grant applications. For more grant-writing advice you might check out Thomas Padilla’s post or one of the NEH ODH’s posts on the topic. If you’re unfamiliar with our student programs, you might take a quick look at the CFPs for the Praxis Program and the Graduate Fellowship in Digital Humanities (referred to below as the DH Fellowship as is our local practice). In what follows I write with the understanding that you know something about them already.
Do you go beyond your research?
It’s not unusual for graduate students to spend a significant portion of their application describing their research. This is, of course, an expected part of your submission. It’s worth knowing, though, that I cannot recall a graduate student whose research was not interesting in its own way. You cannot take that interest for granted, of course, but the determining factors for our application committees rarely tend to come down to the nature of the research itself. Too much extended discussion of your own research in the abstract might not leave enough time to actually make the case for funding your work. In many cases, it can be valuable to develop a succinct way to describe the impact of your work that leaves plenty of space for the rest of your application. It’s often common practice for graduate students to develop elevator pitches for their work. It can be a good exercise to describe the urgency and impact of your work in writing in a similar mode. How would you cover your work in a page? A paragraph? A sentence? Then scale accordingly to the length of the application. Attention to this factor will give your application space to connect your work to the specific questions, values, and categories requested by the grant–you have room to go beyond a mere description of your project. More information below on this.
Do you know what you’re applying for?
One of the clearest ways you can strengthen your application is by rereading the call for applications and checking to make sure you understand the parameters of the opportunity for which you are applying. Then, demonstrate this by speaking to the nature of the experience in your application. This might feel like obvious advice but mismatches between applications and opportunities can often feel like low-hanging fruit for search committees struggling to make a range of difficult decisions. To give a concrete example: the Praxis program is a yearlong, collaborative fellowship. The students work on a range of activities every year. Much of those projects are co-designed by the cohort of students in consultation with and within parameters set by the Scholars’ Lab staff on a variety of topics. The program does not really contain a space within it to develop an original, individual research project. When writing a cover letter for Praxis, though, sometimes students pitch a research project they want the cohort to work on. No matter how interesting such a project might be, applications like these can raise concerns that a student knows what they are getting into. How will such a student feel when they don’t work on what they expect in the fellowship? Another application that directly speaks to the offerings of the program will look stronger by comparison. A better approach might be to describe future research projects that strike your interest while making it clear you are aware your work in Praxis will take you in directions you don’t anticipate.
If you know the opportunity well, you might be able to pitch something more out of the box. I once had a student, for example, pitch a pedagogical experiment for the DH Fellowship that fundamentally offered a critique of how we framed our CFP in a way that excluded research on teaching. This student was successful because they did a good job of demonstrating that they understood the fellowship and its goals, even if the CFP itself didn’t articulate them in the same way. But I would take such an approach with care: turning an application like this successful relies on you having done your homework and probably clearing the approach with a contact for the application (as this student did).
Do you have a plan?
In contrast to Praxis, the DH Fellowship project specifically asks students to propose a digital project to work on with us over the course of the year. Many students are used to describing the research interventions of their project but less familiar with how to describe the execution of a proposed digital project. Much of the CFP is directed towards guiding students through the process of describing how they anticipate that work going, and the strongest applications demonstrate a plan for the year, the technologies they might use, who in the lab will help them, projected outcomes, and more. Take these different hypothetical descriptions of the same project:
- I want to make a website for my dissertation.
- I want to make a digital archive based on a chapter in my dissertation.
- I want to make a digital archive about American protests using Omeka. This project connects to a specific chapter in my dissertation.
- Over the next year, I want to build a digital archive about American protest since the 1980s. Specifically, I plan to archive photographs from three important protests using Omeka. I plan to spend the first two months gathering materials and the next three assembling them into a proof-of-concept archive. If I manage to finish this in the time allotted, my future goals are to add new cities. I also think Dr. Nicolas Cage in the Lab could help supervise this work.
You could go far deeper, of course, but hopefully these quick examples show the varying degrees of specificity an application might contain. You do not, of course, need to know everything. If you did, you wouldn’t need us! To some degree this is a question of rhetoric: you can be honest about gaps in your knowledge while also showing that you have made your own best attempt to sketch out a strategy for carrying out the work that you have proposed. Sharing a plan for your work with us, however in-progress that plan might be, will go a long way towards letting the committee know that you know how we fit in and where to start. The DH Fellowship also asks for a review of relevant technology and literature, all of which is by way of asking for evidence that the applicant is already working to prepare themselves for a successful fellowship.
Is the proposal well-scoped?
Different funding opportunities call for different scales. The DH Fellowship in the Scholars’ Lab, for example, can be a bit flexible as outcomes go. We hope to prepare students so that, by the end of the year, they possess a proof-of-concept project with significant milestones as well as the skills to continue working in the future. Every DH shop in the world has been pitched projects that could be the work of a lifetime. Conversely, we’ve also all heard project pitches that estimated they would take a year but could actually be done relatively quickly (the dream!). The best applications are the ones that fit the amount of space and energy that the opportunity will give them, that don’t take a giant square peg and try to fit it in a small round hole. Ask yourself: am I planning on too much? Too little? These questions can often be difficult for students to ask of their own proposed projects, and it’s often best to consult with more experienced folks able to identify parts of a project proposal that might need to be reworked. Scholars’ Lab staff are always happy to help you scope your project before you apply. If you’re new to scoping projects and developing timelines for them, DevDH.org might prove to be a useful resource for basic lessons in project design. One option is to be honest about these difficulties in your application and offer tiered objectives, with some sense of a minimum viable product as well as stretch goals. It’s more difficult to fail if you have reasonably flexible expectations.
Do you address the terms of the application?
The Praxis and DH Fellowship CFPs both offer specific criteria to address in their respective applications in the form of a bulleted list. In each case, there are no tricks–these criteria form the evaluation rubric we use as we read cover letters. To use the Praxis application as an example, here is what we ask for:
To start, we ask for a letter of intent (roughly 2 pages single-spaced). The letter should include:
- What brings you to us? - a description of the applicant’s curiosity in the program, (could include a description of proposed use of digital technologies in research if relevant, but interest and curiosity can be valid starting points as well);
- How do you work? - a narrative about how the applicant approaches collaboration and learning;
- What do you bring to the table? - summary of what skills, interests, methods the applicant will bring to the Praxis Program;
- What do you want out of this? - summary of what the applicant hopes to gain as a Praxis Fellow, both in the short and the long term;
- When can you meet? - your availability on the days and times we’ve identified for group interviews…
To go back to the earlier point on going beyond your research interests, note that research interests only directly pertain to one of the several categories we hope to see addressed. Too much space spent on any one category leaves less room for the others. The best applications are the ones that actually address each category in the way that we ask. We have, for example, sometimes gotten a CV or Resumé instead of a letter of interest. That genre mismatch often does the applicant a disservice, as there is less room to reflect on your experiences in those other genres. It’s often a good idea to go back to your materials after you’ve written them to compare them to the CFP as written. Did you address everything? Did you leave anything out?
Lastly - how can we help?
Every funding opportunity is going to have limited resources to go around. We want to make sure that our funding is as transformative as possible for those who receive it. This impact can take many shapes, and to some degree all of the above points are meant to help the committee determine how meaningful we will be for you. The fellowship might extend your research in new and interesting ways only possible with our support. You might need specific digital help with a particular project that you have been unable to get off the ground on your own. You might envision the fellowship as valuable training for careers off the tenure track. All of this points to what is, perhaps, the most salient point of this post, one in which I betray my background as a literary scholar. Grant and fellowship applications are acts of imagination. You are trying to write a particular future into existence. The committee, in its own way, is also trying to look to the horizon with your writing as a guide. When reading applications we try to project a future for the person in our community: will they be successful? How will their time with us prepare them for what is next? The way you structure the application itself can help or hinder this envisioning. Careful attention to the above categories can help make it easier for the committee to align their imagination with yours.