“Identifying and Applying for Grants and Fellowships in the Humanities” workshop notes

Below are my notes and several handouts from a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Office of Graduate Studies-sponsored workshop I attended last week geared toward offering tips for locating and writing successful grant and fellowship applications. The workshop was led by panelists Katherine Walter (Co-Director of UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and Professor and Chair, Digital Initiatives and Special Collections), Margaret Jacobs (Chancellor’s Professor of History, UNL), and Colin McLear (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, UNL). Each panelist began with a brief introduction of themselves and their entry into grant-writing, then the workshop progressed into discussion of specific prompt questions, and concluded with a Q & A session.

Identifying and Applying for Grants and Fellowships in the Humanities

Dr. Jacobs: applied for first grant not long after getting her first job, had small children, a 3-3 course load, no time to write at length (book chapter, article) BUT had time to write a grant proposal

  • started small & local –> great way to gain experience, build the resume, less competition than a national grant, university = eager to help one of its assistant professors with international travel for research
    • small grant won, helped build knowledge to write better applications for larger grants
    • rarely get a large grant the first time –> be persistent, rejection isn’t the end, revise, be attentive to reviewer comments, and resubmit

Dr. McLear: first grant = a Heidelberg exchange grant

  • admits he “didn’t plan very well and did everything last-minute” & learned this is not a good idea
    • e.g. Fulbright application takes about 18 months of advance planning
  • get to know people in other departments –> there may be something that comes up elsewhere that can help you with your research

Dr. Walter: first grant = not a university fellowship, was related to urban planning and based on federal guidelines

  • this grant required her to help administer smaller grants –> showed opportunities for funding in other places

Prompt question: What are some of the hallmarks of a successful grant/fellowship application?

Dr. McLear: don’t start late, plan ahead, learn to communicate with non-specialists effectively –> why is it important? make this clear in your application. what projects can you pull out of a dissertation?

  • network – especially with host institutions or persons –> can help if you are in good standing with the people behind grants/fellowships
    • can even e-mail them “out of the blue” or make contact through another party

Dr. Walter: working well in teams is crucial

  • Does your research fit the category? If you aren’t sure, call the grant specialist
  • echoes McLear’s recommendation to start as early as possible –> give yourself more time for dealing with snags (getting in touch with people you need to ask questions of, your letter writers, …)
  • pay attention to the various components of a grant too –> narrative isn’t the only important part
  • let other people read your grant
  • if rejected, read reviewer comments and reapply!
  • if get a grant, be sure you do all the required follow-up work (very often a component of federally-funded grants)

Dr. Jacobs: served on NEH panels reviewing applications

  • good applications = crystal clear in the 1st paragraph, written in non-specialist language (resist theoretical jargon) –> be straightforward
    • show that you have a realistic plan –> don’t overstate what you can do in the time given
    • how does your work engage with other scholarship? –> be humble and respectful of other scholarship, show yourself as a collaborator, give credit to the shoulders you stand on
    • demonstrate that you have the skills to accomplish the work –> reference specific examples from your c.v. in your application

Prompt question: What advice would you offer to graduate students writing their first grant proposal?

Dr. Walter: Jacobs’ suggestion to start small = good

  • also look at the UNL library website under e-resources for a section on further advice for grant/fellowship applications
  • keep in mind that often you must request reviewer comments –> do so
  • work with faculty on grants when you get the chance, suggest it –> gives you experience to propel you forward

Dr. Jacobs: “show, don’t tell” when you write –> model these things in your grant proposal

  • be sure you write impeccably
  • find ways to make yourself stand out & then quickly move into what you are doing, why your project is important
  • YOU know how important you research is, but others don’t: show the readers why your work is important – don’t just state it

Dr. McLear: know who, in your department, is/has been successful in writing grants (especially in your area, but outside too)

  • they = your most likely draft readers & they’ll know about the process
  • be prepared to revise your proposal several times
  • be aware that the norms of writing conference proposals, journal articles, dissertation proposals = very different from successful grant-writing
    • in some ways, you must learn to live & communicate in two worlds

Q & A session:

Tips for figuring out more about the audience for your proposal/application? Concerns about backgrounds of different reviewers, academics versus funders, investors, members of the business community

  • Dr. Jacobs: pay attention to their mission, language
  • Dr. Walter: federal agencies won’t tell you a lot, other than reviewers = from a lot of general disciplines
  • Dr. McLear: look at and e-mail award winners from previous years

Tips for how to choose the best letter of reference writers?

  • Dr. Jacobs: people who know you really well, dissertation advisor = really important, want the letters to be very specific, long-term relationships are important
  • Dr. McLear: people who know you and your project very well
    • give your writers a copy of your proposal so they can integrate that into their letter (+ this = a good way to show potential writers you will follow through)
  • Dr. Jacobs: agrees with McLear –> make it easy for your letter writers and it will pay off

Handout, “How to Win a Graduate Fellowship”

Handout, “Grant-Writing Tips for Graduate Students”

Handout, “Preparing Fellowship Applications”

“Writing a thesis or dissertation,” UNL History grad student retreat workshop notes

Grad Student Retreat, Fall 2013

Notes, 8.23.2013, “Writing your thesis/dissertation”

  • starting with M.A. thesis
    • Dr. James Garza recommends beginning writing in your 3rd semester
    • defense dates come in March or early April
    • need time for revisions
    • gave his students about 3-4 weeks to write a chapter
    • some people on your committee will want the entire thesis all at once
    • don’t worry too much about the organization at first b/c you can change the organization around
    • the earlier you start the writing cycle, the better it will be
      • write a “skeleton” first chapter if you need to
      • hang your primary sources on it as you go
      • anything you write for a prospectus will eventually be part of your thesis/dissertation in some form – don’t think about it as a “throw away” writing exercise
    • remember that you’ll be preparing applications for the PhD programs too (and your professors will also have deadlines related to these)
      • M.A. thesis will be part of your application SO leave time to do corrections
    • be aware of all the technical things you have to do for your thesis
      • all the formatting is your responsibility to figure it out
    • Graduate Studies wants a copy pretty early –> doesn’t have to be finished
      • they are mostly checking the formatting
    • your M.A. thesis is also “for your future advisor”
      • it will reflect on you AND on your committee members
    • even if they aren’t all completely developed, write a few paragraphs per day
  • Dr. Carole Levin on dissertations
    • writing anxiety = something most academics suffer from (even at professional level)
      • “one of the most difficult obstacles to finishing a project”
    • she’s telling us how to write the “good enough dissertation” NOT the perfect dissertation
    • two mantras: (1) “It does not have to be great. It just has to be good.” (2) “You can always revise it for the book.”
      • you DO need to get publications out of your dissertation: either book or series of articles
      • chapters do NOT have to be ready as articles; nor does your dissertation have to be ready as a manuscript
      • dissertation = “a step, not the endgame”
    • finding a topic early in your grad career = good but it’s important not to latch onto a topic just to have a topic
      • you have to be excited about your topic, you will spend a lot of time on it
      • what are the questions you want to start digging around in?
        • think big, then narrow over time
        • think about how you can add to the scholarly conversation
    • “get a committee you can work with”
      • who will read drafts and give feedback
      • who will discuss your/their ideas with you
      • want to get the most out of your committee –> it is a multi-year committment
      • stay in contact with your committee and especially your advisor
      • don’t be avoidant even, especially if you are behind and feeling guilty about being behind
    • dissertation prospectus
      • Department requires this
      • preliminary bibliography, chapter descriptions
      • think of it as the first draft
        • you haven’t done all the research yet
        • no one ever writes exactly the dissertation they prospose
        • your committee is not going to pass/fail you on basis of this –> it will be about the dissertation
      • okay to pretend you know exactly what you’re doing but know that it will change
        • your material, as you do your research, will tell you where to go
    • recommends start writing within a semester of submitting your proposal
      • yes, research is so much fun – could do it for years
      • you won’t stop doing research, but start writing
      • often you won’t see the holes in your ideas until you start writing them down
      • if can do the dissertation by holding off then writing full-time for months at a time, okay – do what works for you
    • keep very careful notes on all of your research
      • helps get rid of anxiety come writing time
    • it’s tough, but “just start writing”
      • keep a notebook with you specifically for writing ideas that occur out of the blue, when you don’t have your computer with you
    • find a writing rhythm that works for you
      • figure out what rituals you need to write, what time of day works for you
      • if feel overwhelmed, break it into small parts
      • even if you only wrote a page a day, you’d have a dissertation in a year
      • even if can’t write an actual draft, write ideas, make outlines
      • Dr. Levin made herself write 5 pages per day on writing days
        • could stop whenever she finished writing 5 pages (early or late)
      • if get stuck in beginning, jump to another point
      • look at other people’s dissertations, get a sense at how they got started
        • good historians in your field
        • how did they set up their argument’s
    • form a dissertation support group
      • between 3-5 people
      • work out commitment of how often you will meet
      • will you read one another’s work?
      • figure out what will be most helpful for you
      • don’t necessarily have to be in your field
      • making a committment to your colleagues as well as to yourself
    • talk to your friends about your ideas
    • make appointments with your committee members
    • send an abstract to a conference
      • trying out your ideas
      • sets a deadline for getting a conference paper done
      • new people to talk with your ideas about
    • look at fellowships to support your work
      • is there a specific archive or library that you need to visit? they may well have travel grants
      • important on practical level, improves your c.v., helps with professional networking
      • Warren & Edith Day travel dissertation award = UNL award of $500
        • floating deadline
        • write proposal, letter from advisor
        • her student’s have had great success getting this award
        • means more on your c.v. than you might think, goes further than you think
      • UNL has Presidential, Fling, Dean’s fellowships
        • are incredibly competitive
        • but if you don’t try, you won’t get it
        • handful of students in our department have gotten these
      • UNL Department also has some fellowships
      • be open to applying for everything you can find
      • even the act of writing the proposal is significant – gets your ideas down
      • National Endowment for the Humanities has summer seminars with slots for graduate students
        • deadline = March 1
        • call posted in January (ish)
        • longshots, yes, but not impossible longshots
    • think about audience in your dissertation
      • don’t use competitive, combative approach to fellow scholars
      • not civil, bad habit to get into
        • and these will be people you will encounter later in your professional career
        • you want to think about your career in terms of building on work of those who came before you – not trampling it/pushing it out of the way
    • when get to 300 pages in your dissertation, think about stopping
      • if what you have yet to write is still valuable, you can return to it later
      • can put hopes of where your work can go further in future in your conclusion
      • no press wants a 600-page dissertation & you need to move forward with your doctorate
      • recommends reading Univ. of Chicago Press’s From Dissertation to Book
  • Dr. Jared Leighton
    • try out different writing strategies, be flexible
    • structure was important to him
      • certain amount of time dedicated to writing each day
      • kept track of this carefully
      • deadlines for each chapter – even if you don’t meet them, aim for them, know where you want to be at a particular time
    • “write through your process”
      • even if it doesn’t make it into the dissertation, it will be helpful
      • will give you momentum
    • keep your Grad Studies deadlines in mind or they will cause you AND your readers trouble
      • sessions for those planning to graduate held regularly
      • recommends going to these even if you aren’t graduating soon
      • construct backward calendar of your graduate goal date & deadline
      • you have to attend these once anyway before you can graduate
    • can register for 1 dissertation credit full time but only for 4 semesters
      • ONLY do this if you are confident that you can graduate in 2 years
    • leisure time is not a luxury when writing your dissertation; it’s a necessity
      • taking that leisure time will help you write, as will sleep
      • must think of these things as necessities for your writing time to be quality time
    • keep up on any new developments in your field
      • read programs of your major conferences
      • read most recent reviews in journals in your field
      • continue this process after you complete your prospectus until you are finishing
    • reading anyone you think is a good writer is a good idea
      • not just outside your field, maybe fiction too
      • best work is that which is also accessible to the general public
      • think about: who influences you as a writer?
    • dissertation bootcamps
      • can google and get idea how these are structured
      • perhaps Office of Graduate Studies needs to start doing these
      • 1-2 weeks of writing dissertations each day, usually 8:30-4:30
      • talk at end of day with fellow attendees where you are at

Back from the Bosch and back in the saddle again

Gene Autry, Back in the Saddle Again
Gene Autry, Back in the Saddle Again. Click and it’s in your head. You’re welcome.

Traveling for weeks at a time can be pretty disorienting. It takes you out of your normal routine, places you in unfamiliar situations, demands a lot of physical and emotional energy, generally means your free time is out the window, and can lead to a big game of catch up when you return home. All of this was true for my experience at the 2012 edition of the Bosch Archival Seminar for Young Historians, which I attended from September 2nd to the 16th, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The Bosch was an immensely valuable experience that I will carry with me throughout my academic career, and I’d like to use my next few posts to share some of the details, insight, and information I gained. To begin: what the seminar was about and a tour of the Manseuto Library at the University of Chicago.

The seminar is a yearly cooperative venture between the German Historical Institute (GHI), the University of Chicago’s Department of History, the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, and the Robert Bosch Foundation. The 2012 iteration of the seminar brought together doctoral students from a wide variety of backgrounds with the aim of (1) encouraging transnational collaboration and (2) providing participants with an “inside” look at how an array of historical institutions function and are organized. The seminar was led by Dr. Misha Honeck, a Research Fellow at the GHI, whose hard work and enthusiasm kept us all afloat as we made our way through libraries, archives, and museums in Chicago, Madison, Boston, and Washington, D.C. One of our first official stops after becoming acquainted with one another and allowing the international scholars to shake off some of their jetlag was the Mansueto Library.

One of the highlights of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library (aside from its swank architecture) is its automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS). 

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Not only is this system very impressive from a technological standpoint; it’s also a prominent experiment in ways libraries and archives can confront the problems of preservation and storage while still providing scholars ready access to research materials. The ASRS allows the Mansueto Library’s patrons to access materials much more quickly than they would be able to at a library or archive that has been forced, for spatial or financial reasons, to store some of its collections offsite. While a request for materials can take days at an institution with offsite storage, it usually takes about 15 minutes or less at the Mansueto. As impressive as the ASRS is though, both it and offsite storage pose browsability problems for patrons. Whenever direct access to the materials is cut off, serendipitous discoveries and connections made via “wandering the stacks” become endangered. A “nearby on the shelf” button in the catalog search results makes up for part of this experience, but not all of it. Still, it was exciting to see the Mansueto’s work to confront a significant problem facing many historical institutions today.

In my next post, I’ll discuss our Bosch group’s thesis workshop and our day with the archivists and curators of the Newberry Library.

“Getting That Grant,” UNL History Department Workshop Notes

These notes are from a workshop I attended yesterday on the subject of grant writing. It was a lot more informative than I expected it to be, with some of the best content coming from the Q & A session. I’ll definitely begin delving deeper into funding opportunities for my dissertation research. Apologies that the formatting is a bit clunky here. I’m looking into ways to make it more aesthetically appealing and readable.

Department Workshop on “Getting that Grant”


  • Friday, December 9th will be the last workshop on “Getting Hired”
    • will focus on the interview and new forms of interviewing being done now, in the changing market

Dr. Amy Burnett

  • very first paragraph in the grant is the most important → why your research is important enough to be funded
    • need to consider the audience here
  • grant is similar to writing an application for a job → reviewers are very busy, taking time out of their schedules to read your application
    • may be from your field but may not (often are not in your field)
    • already have an idea in their mind of what a strong proposal is → tailor your proposal to what they are looking for – enter the first paragraph
  • first paragraph– make your thesis clear immediately
    • explain what you are doing to someone outside your area
  • follow directions – mistakes are an easy way for them to eliminate you
    • instructions generally up on their website
    • make the reading of your grant as easy as possible – make it easy for them to find things with headings; don’t use jargon
  • if you are going to go through the time to write a grant proposal, apply for as many grants as possible (tailoring, of course, your proposal to each grant’s specifications)
    • ask advisor, friends, and colleagues for information on what grants are available to apply for
  • consider what kind of grant you are going to apply for
    • residential fellowships – spend a semester or two working someplace (beneficial in making connections to other scholars)
    • Fullbright grants – away from home, many different countries to apply to; should speak to people who have had Fullbrights in those countries
    • dissertation grants – UNL offers some as do other academic organizations
    • NEH summer seminars for research; grants-in-aid to work in a state historical society or a research library (lots of small grants out there that people don’t know about) (also a good stepping-stone on your c.v. for getting larger grants)
  • need to think about when to apply for grants
    • major versus small – many major grants are only for the last year of your studies
    • give yourself enough time to gather all of the information you need
    • see ACLS guidelines for writing grants (online)
    • a “good proposal should take a couple of months to write” → write several drafts, approach it as you would a paper (EXCEPT keep your audience in mind); give it to other people to review
    • line up letters of recommendation (says using conferences as a way to get to know senior scholars at conferences that can later potentially write a letter for you)
    • give the letter writers plenty of time (and be sure to give them a copy of your grant draft and c.v.)
  • don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get anything → in the humanities the odds are very low
    • always consider revising and re-submittting the next year AND submit to other grants

Kelly Buford (PhD candidate)

  • winner of the Fling Fellowship (through UNL), $20,000 to research and write her dissertation
  • google to find out what is out there
  • believe in yourself and take a chance to apply for something (everything that you can)
    • know “your own significance” → needs to be clear that you understand why your work is significant
  • look at your audience as scholars looking to invest in a person and a project that will give them big returns (e.g. at a research one university, she emphasized research and publishing)
    • tell them how, exactly, you will “pay them back” for their investment in you → recognizing your responsibility to your investors and being specific about what you will do in the future with their investment
  • agrees that the more fellowships you get, the more you will get in the future
  • How do you get stellar references for applications? → “be stellar yourself”
    • seize all of the opportunities that you can
    • ask which references will stand out the most

Q & A session:

  • How did you prepare your c.v. for the Fullbright?
    • a lot ask for a shorter c.v. → remove the excess and leave the most impressive (peer reviewed)
  • How to find grants?
    • find the best ones by talking to other people
    • reading the Graduate Newsletter UNL puts out; e-mails that are sent out; google searching (for “dissertation grants” – go figure); H-NET; look in the front and back of journals for yearly awards and dissertation fellowships
    • let your advisor know that you are looking – they often have access to resources you don’t (or that you aren’t aware of)
  • Dr. Will Thomas confesses to being a dissertation fellowship application reviewer and states that, at a national level, your audience generally IS within your field
    • true for NEH and ACLS
    • Dr. Thomas notes that, as a reviewer, he is also more alert to applications that come from different places (e.g. UNL as a public, research one university stands out from applications from Harvard, Yale, Princeton)
  • Kelly Buford notes that she included a schedule of research in her statement of purpose and emphasized the importance of interdisciplinarity in her research
    • states that each person needs to evaluate the tone of their application to be sure they are not overstating the significance of their research (another reason it’s good to get multiple people to review your application)
    • your c.v. is important to this process as well – will let the reviewers know your skills even before they get to your statement of purpose (be sure to bump most impressive achievements to the top of your c.v.)
  • PhD student notes that should also state in a statement of purpose why one needs the funding, agrees that should have multiple people, from multiple perspectives read your application
    • try to narrow down what your research is within one sentence, then can move on to articulating this within a paragraph → Dr. Tim Borstelmann calls this “telescoping” and thinks it is a good exercise to talk to others about what you do (especially non-academics)
    • Kelly Buford adds that one can try talking to oneself as a way to practice articulating what it is you do (good for comprehensive examinations as well)
  • Dr. Will Thomas returning to my question about how to find out about grants
    • visiting websites of foundations you are interested in and requesting regular e-mails about funding that they have available (something that was not possible even 10 years ago)
    • PhD student Mikal Brotnov recommends getting to know the archivists you work with; the archivists talk to one another on a regular basis; send thank you letters to archivists who help you
    • Dr. Jeannette Jones states that she always looked at the bulletin boards, doors of colleagues – can often find out about things you missed from H-NET or other listserv that you aren’t aware of → subscribe to the listserv of your particular discipline (what they send out is often mostly for graduate students); going to conferences and visiting booths of certain organizations (historical societies, academic societies) and sign up for their e-mail lists – same for librarians
    • Dr. Tim Borstelmann – think about who you would like to be most like (your colleagues, your advisor, your professors, large people in your field) and pay attention to their c.v.s to see how they started, what fellowships they received
    • Dr. Alex Vazansky says should also pay attention to opportunities outside of the U.S. EVEN if you do U.S. history – there are still many institutions and organizations that are interested in U.S. History (and many times they are less competitive)
    • Dr. Parks Coble notes that Perspectives on History and the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Review of Books (all available, per Dr. Thomas, for grad students to read in 607 Oldfather) → all have information about fellowships in them
  • Dr. Tim Borstelmann notes that an announcement about the Fling Fellowship will go out in January; the application is due in February
  • Dr. Jeannette Jones suggests looking at short-term fellowships now to see what you can apply for in the spring
    • Dr. Will Thomas notes that the endowments for historical societies and libraries are actually getting larger – some in the thousands of dollars now; not just hundreds of dollars (e.g. Virginia Historical Society)
  • Dr. Amy Burnett states that it is also a great idea to write to libraries and archives you know have resources you need and seeing if they have anything
    • Dr. Tim Borstelmann urges consideration of presidential libraries
    • Dr. Jeannette Jones brings up New York Public Library