Are you thinking of applying for an external fellowship or grant this fall? If so, summer is a great time to strengthen your application’s foundation. There are many things you can do over the summer to give yourself an all-important competitive edge.
The first thing to do is to research the awards you’re interested in pursuing. Our Fellowship Finder database is the best place to start your search for possibilities, but you’ll also need to visit the funders’ websites to make sure you know the purpose and benefits of the fellowship as well as exactly what’s required in an application. You can also see the kinds of projects funded in the past few years. Knowing all this will help you shape your narrative to target the interests of the funder, and it will position you to make great use of your time this summer.
Strengthen Your Hand
Many items that can make or break a fellowship application (as well as your sanity when preparing an application) are ones that you can do over the summer. Here are some ideas:
- Take a workshop or short course taught by a prominent scholar in your research topic. The experience can stimulate further development of your research proposal by allowing you to probe the mind of a leader in your field as well as meet other young scholars who share your interests.
- Make connections outside of your discipline. Funders are often keen on multidisciplinary projects, and summer may be a good time to branch out. Taking a course outside your field or working on a summer project or internship in a different lab, or at another institution, may help you to build such a connection and lead to a collaborative relationship.
- Take the lead in starting a summer writing group in your department to foster peer feedback and support.
- Push yourself to finish analyzing your data, submit a publication, or get a paper accepted to a conference. This kind of tangible evidence of your research progress might be just what you need to rank a tad higher than your closest competitor. Presentations and publications are outstanding indicators of productivity, and reviewers are very tuned into them.
- Some funders such as NSF, Ford, and Fulbright highly value activities like mentoring, tutoring, community outreach, and other service-oriented work, so you might look for such opportunities, especially if your CV is thin in this regard.
- Develop overseas contacts. If you’re applying for an overseas research fellowship, you’ll probably need to establish a working relationship with a scholar at a host institution and obtain a letter of affiliation. This can take months. Now is a good time to investigate the possibilities and begin nurturing that relationship.
- Improve your language skills. If you’re an international student, you might consider coursework or tutoring to improve your English. If you’re a native-English speaker planning to do international research, intensive language training during the summer can improve your research readiness.
- If IRB or IACUC approvals are needed for your project, go ahead and start preparing those documents. Getting approval can take time, so it’s good to get a head start in case revisions are required.
- Connect with your referees. The importance of reference letters can’t be overstated, so do everything you can to get great letters. This means giving your referees LOTS of lead-time and lots of key information. Tell referees about the fellowship’s purpose and review criteria. Tell them about your recent research and explain how this fits into your career goals. Give them copies of your application materials and get their feedback. This will help referees tailor their letters to your recent accomplishments, your goals, and the funder’s goals.
It’s the rare student who can whip out a winning application in a week, or even a month – so start writing early! Developing a competitive application is a very iterative process that works best when it’s not rushed because it typically involves many cycles of feedback and revision. Having your draft reviewed at multiple stages by your advisor, other faculty, peers, and a staff member in the Office of External Fellowships will help you submit the most polished proposal possible. Using the summer to refine your drafts will almost certainly increase your chances of success.
You Have Our Undivided Attention
At the Office of External Fellowships, summer moves at a slower pace, which makes it the perfect time for you to discuss your application strategy with us and send us your drafts for review.
Wouldn’t it be nice to start the fall with a well-developed application in hand? We’re here to help you with that. Check out details of our proposal review services and contact us at ExtFellowships@illinois.edu.
Colleen Vojak has worked at the U of I for over 22 years since moving to the CU area in 1988. For the past 6 years she has helped students win external funding as Assistant Director of External Fellowships at the Graduate College. She holds an MEd in counseling and a PhD in Educational Policy Studies. Colleen has been a runner for 42 years – 5 of those years running in Alaska.