Writing Research Proposals for Fellowships

July 28, 2015

In the Office of Fellowships, we often read essays for fellowship applications that have been copied and pasted from dissertation proposals. While the copy and paste function is one that we ourselves utilize and view with great affection, the use of it can be a barrier to being awarded a fellowship. Below you will find some tips for revising a dissertation proposal, or any research proposal, into a proposal for a fellowship application.

Before beginning the narrative, consider the answers to the following questions:

Why do I love this project?

You have a reason for doing the project that you chose – for some reason you feel that it is meaningful to you. Spend a little time considering why you are passionate about the project. Rarely should you explicitly state why you are passionate about the project, but your excitement should come through implicitly as you describe it.

Why do I consider it important?

As well as being important to you, the project should be important to the world at large and/or your discipline specifically. Graduate students often do not realize that reviewers need to be persuaded of the importance of the project on a more global scale than professors need to be persuaded. Ideally, when the reviewers finish the narrative they will feel that this project must be completed, that it will fill an important gap either in the world or in your discipline.

If I could distill my research into one question, what is that question?

Like most advice, this is easy to suggest and challenging to do. Often, researchers are halfway into their research before they fully understand their question. Sometimes it can be helpful to consider the type of question that you are asking and to find examples of similar studies that have been conducted. I find that graduate students tend to be too general and overly ambitious in their research proposal. Work to keep the research questions specific and manageable. If you think your project might be too broad, it probably is.

How and why is the research project problematic? Why is it still worth pursuing?

Your project will have weakness – be sure that you are aware of them. In some cases, you will want to directly confront the issues with your project and in other cases, you will want to confront them indirectly.

Why am I the right researcher for this project?

In some way, you are uniquely situated for the work you plan to do. This can be challenging to articulate. Consider your coursework and previous experiences. Demonstrate that you have the knowledge and skills necessary to carry out the research. You may find it helpful to discuss this with your advisor and/or colleagues.

How can I make the literature review into an argument?

Whereas the literature review in your dissertation proposal is usually a summary of what you know, the literature review in the fellowship proposal is a continuation of your argument that your project needs to be completed. Pare down this section to only the most relevant and necessary literature to support your proposal. Use this section to demonstrate how and why there is a need for your research.

What methods am I going to use and why are these methods the best way to conduct this research?

While students are generally clear about how they will go about their research, fewer students articulate the connection between their research methods and the research questions. The connection is probably obvious to you, but needs to be outlined clearly for the reviewers.

What other methods could I use? Why are my methods better? What are the problems with this approach? 

The answers to the questions above may or may not fit into the research proposal, but answering them for yourself will help you make the argument for the methods you have chosen.

Once I get the information, what am I going to do with it? In other words, how will I interpret the data?

Rarely will the data directly answer the research question. In most situations, you will need a method or an interpretive lens to connect the data to the research question.

What exactly is the question asking?

Study the instructions for the application closely. Be sure that you understand the broad goal of each question. If there are sub questions, read those closely but be sure that you understand them within the context of the larger question.

What is the purpose of this fellowship? How does my research project fit into (or advance) this goal? In other words, how will I help the funders achieve their goals?

Immerse yourself in the language and the worldview of the funder. Try to understand the ways in which you and your work would be viewed by the organization and, further, how you can articulate the ways in which could advance the goals of the organization.

While the process of applying to fellowships can seem daunting, reframing a project for a new audience provides many benefits. The application can help students fully develop their operational plan for their research. Additionally, many graduate students find that communicating their ideas to an interdisciplinary audience gives them a new perspective on and new energy for their work. And, finally, the fellowship application takes students another step closer towards being an independent scholar doing the work that they want to do.

The GradFunding Newsletter is a service of the University of Arizona Graduate College, Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement. You may reuse this article but please acknowledge Shelley Hawthorne Smith and the University of Arizona Graduate College Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement.

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