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Writing a Fellowship Proposal or Statement of Purpose [cont]

Significance of the Project in Broader Terms

Another important component of the contribution argument is to explain the significance

of the project in broader terms, showing its relation to larger theoretical issues or to the larger scholarly dialogue. Since this is such an important part of the contribution argument, it could be included not only as you present your paradigm, but also later in the proposal, as you make your closing arguments. The following two examples illustrate the use of broader arguments. Note in both cases, the use of active words, stating the potential significance in terms of

expected or predicted outcomes ("The study will contribute . . . ." or "must provide a significant test case").

  1. "My work on the state of Veracruz, the first properly historical study of Mexican agriculture after 1940, will test the explanatory possibilities of this novel perspective, and will contribute new sources and fresh approaches to the fields of modern agrarian history and rural development."
  2. "I could say, then, that my project is justified in that working out the intricacies of the Old Norse verbal system constitutes a formidable intellectual challenge. But I feel that much more is at stake than that. First, if the facts are as intractable as they seem . . . then they must provide a significant test case for the descriptive and explanatory power of current linguistic theory, and bring issues into clear view which have hitherto lurked in the background."

Feasibility of the Project: Developing Specific Objectives or Hypotheses

The fellowship selection committee will want to know that the project is feasible, as well as important to the field. An essential step in showing feasibility is to translate your major goals into a series of well-defined hypotheses or specific objectives, making sure that the specific objectives are a logical outgrowth of the major goals. For each stated major goal, there should be at least one corresponding specific objective. The feasibility argument will be stronger if you avoid having too many objectives or hypotheses—after a certain number of questions the project's feasibility sounds less convincing. Similarly, it is important to state all of your specific objectives in a single place in an orderly fashion. If they are scattered (and there is a common tendency for writers to pile up new questions on almost every page of a proposal), then it is impossible for the reader to know exactly what is being proposed, and how or why it fits with the major goals or contribution paradigm.

Research Design in Relation to Feasibility

The feasibility of the project also hinges on the research design or methodology—and especially on how closely it mirrors both the major goals and the more specific set of hypotheses to be tested. For each specific objective, there should be at least one matching methodological procedure. The presentation of the research design or methodology should include the following:

  1. overall design and why it has been adopted—once again, with an emphasis on how closely it reflects the stated major and specific objectives (your method may be comparative, longitudinal, qualitative, quantitative, participant observer, sample survey, a case study, an experiment, or some combination of these methods).
  2. type of data to be used—the principal variables and their control
  3. how data will be collected
  4. how data will be analyzed
  5. timetable for implementation
  6. available resources for implementation

Personal Importance of Project - Candidate's Relevant Background or Qualifications

Often the application includes instructions for discussing the applicant's qualifications as part of the proposal, or there is a separate essay question asking for relevant personal background. If there are no specific questions, it is nevertheless important to include some of your strongest qualifications or preparation for the project in the proposal itself, once you have described the project. This discussion also gives you the opportunity to convey a sense of your commitment and enthusiasm for the project. (Conveying your own enthusiasm may well generate a corresponding enthusiasm from the reader.) If there are no instructions, the following items should be addressed:

  1. how the project fits in with long-term career goals of candidate
  2. special background or skills or preparatory work for the project (languages or other skills mastered, prior fieldwork or research related to topic, etc.)
  3. any other evidence of your promise to carry out the project successfully.

Some applications seek a more extended biographical essay—for example, the Fulbright Institute of International Education application includes a c.v. in essay form that asks for such personal history as family background, intellectual influences, enriching experiences and how they have affected you. (Samples of c.v. essays appear in /Scholarly Pursuits/, Appendix B.) Others simply ask for a standard c.v. (Samples appear in /Scholarly Pursuits/, Appendix D.)

Who Serves on Fellowship Selection Committees — Will Your Proposal be read by Specialists in the Field, or by Generalists?

Most people want to know the answer to this question so that they can address their proposal to the appropriate audience. The problem is that even in competitions that are judged by people in your own discipline, you cannot or should not assume that they are fully knowledgeable about your own specialized topic. Indeed, even specialists need convincing, and may in fact view your proposal with a more critical eye. The safest course is to provide enough background in making your contribution argument, so that both generalists and specialists will view the background as a necessary and logical part of your contribution argument. It is also wise to avoid jargon or un necessary technical terms.

Paying Attention to Fellowship Descriptions - Adapting the Proposal When Applying for Several Fellowships

It is wise to apply for as many fellowships as possible, as long as they are appropriate for your project. Most fellowship announcements include a description of the fellowship, stating selection criteria and providing some details about the type of projects that the granting agency seeks to support. You may find that there are a number of fellowships which are appropriate for your project, but that the fellowship descriptions vary, both in large and small details. While it is important to pay close attention to the wording in the individual fellowship announcements, it is also important to write a fellowship proposal that presents the most persuasive and logical argument in support of your project, following the principles outlined above. How can you write a proposal that does both?

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.