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Writing a Fellowship Proposal or Statement of Purpose

by Cynthia Verba

Most fellowships must be applied for during the academic year prior to when support

is needed, with many fellowship deadlines occurring during the fall of the previous year. (Fellowship tenure roughly coincides with the academic calendar.) This means that it is essential to plan ahead, both in terms of identifying fellowship opportunities and in thinking about the application process. For the proposal itself, it is important to keep in mind that a fellowship proposal is a projection of what you expect to accomplish in the future, rather than a statement with definitive conclusions. This should make

it easier to write a proposal in advance. The task in the proposal is to offer sufficient reason for why your plans or project are promising why you deserve support.

Applying for Fellowships in the Early Stages of Graduate Study: The Predissertation Proposal

Some fellowships, such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships, are intended for students at or near the beginning of their graduate study. At this early stage, fellowship application materials (letters of recommendation, transcripts, Graduate Record Examination scores) will closely overlap those used for graduate admission. Writing the Proposed Plan of Study or Statement of Purpose, however, can be a more challenging task. First-year graduate students generally are not yet ready to write a detailed research proposal, and yet they must be prepared to write an informative and focused essay about their research, study plans, and future goals. The question is how to do so, conveying interests in a concrete and even personal, way while still having perhaps only tentative ideas.

Much of your knowledge at this early stage may still be related to undergraduate research, or to other scholarly experiences gained between college and the graduate program. It is considerably easier to present a focused and well-informed discussion on what you have already done than on what you are about to do (a condition common to all proposal writers). In using past experiences in a Proposed Plan of Study, however, it is essential to present them in terms of their impact on your future direction. A discussion of your senior thesis or major seminar paper, for example, should not just focus on your procedures or findings for their own sake, but on what you learned from them that influenced or shaped your goals in graduate school. The impact may have been negative (directing you towards new methodologies and issues) or positive (encouraging you to continue working along similar lines). Using concrete examples from the past is primarily of value in allowing you to talk about future plans with greater assurance and precision.

In organizing the essay, you may choose to focus on a single, culminating research project (for example, the senior thesis), or you may prefer to discuss a series of intellectual experiences and show their cumulative effect. If you choose the latter, it is usually more effective to start with your most important experiences and then proceed backwards (a principle that works effectively in preparing a curriculum vitae). Whether you decide on a single project or a cumulative series of events, it is important to organize the material tightly and not to get too bogged down in descriptive detail. Each sentence or paragraph about past experiences should help to advance the single theme: your future goals and how they took shape. (Note: The NSF application has a separate question on past research experience. Even after answering the research question, you should still incorporate your research experience in the Proposed Plan of Study essay in the manner suggested here.)

The essay is also an important display of your writing skills. You should be sure that it is a highly polished piece of work. When you have completed a draft, read it over and have others read it. With a final draft, be sure to have someone else read it for typographical errors.

Funding the Dissertation: Writing the Dissertation Proposal

Learning to write an effective fellowship proposal at the dissertation stage has implications that go well beyond the process itself; it is a skill that is essential to a scholar throughout his or her career.

The Nature of a Proposal: How a Dissertation Fellowship Proposal Differs from a Dissertation Prospectus

A fellowship proposal is essentially a persuasive argument for why your project deserves to be funded. Most dissertation fellowships—and fellowships in general—involve a highly competitive contest, judged by an anonymous fellowship committee. This is in contrast to a dissertation prospectus, where you are simply asking your own department to decide whether your project is /acceptable/ or not; this is normally an easier task, more like "preaching to the converted." Many departments have their own rules as to what a prospectus should be—how long, what to include, what format to use, and other requirements—but in general the prospectus is a fairly detailed explanation of your project.

In a fellowship competition you are asking an anonymous fellowship committee to decide that you deserve to /win/ and—yes—that someone else deserves to lose. In this situation, it will not do simply to describe a project that is acceptable; instead, you must develop a highly persuasive and polished argument that will convince the reader that your proposed project will make an important contribution to the field, that it deserves to be funded. The argument should be constructed so carefully that each sentence and each paragraph advances your contribution argument in the most tightly-knit and logically coherent fashion.

Constructing a Polished Argument for How Your Project Will Contribute to the Field: Three Possible Paradigms

Before you can construct a tightly-knit argument, you must first decide what your contribution argument will be. There are three possible paradigms—or three logical possibilities—for defining how a study will contribute to the field:

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About the Author: GSAS director of fellowships, Dr. Cynthia Verba is the fellowship director of Harvard University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. she provides students and alumni with feedback on drafts of fellowship proposals, strategies for clearly articulating the significance of the fellowship project, identifying appropriate fellowship opportunities, and getting effective letters of recommendation and faculty advice.