Director, Division of Fellowships and Seminars
How does one, in fact, get an Endowment fellowship? What is the mysterious process by which some 9,000 applications a year are narrowed down to about 2,600 awards? These are two of the questions most often asked by college and university faculty members during NEH proposal writing workshops.
Unfortunately, the answers are not as simple or as neatly put as the questions. Nor are there any answers that can guarantee success. Yet the process itself is one with which the scholarly or academic mind is thoroughly familiar and at home. Basically a peer review, the process is described in each set of application guidelines. The criteria for selection are also listed in the guidelines and again on the back of the reference letter forms. Perhaps it all looks too simple to be factual. But the guidelines accurately depict the whole review process. Furthermore, they lead to some answers to the questions posed above, answers in the form of tips, or "Do's" and "Don't's." These may seem to over-simplify, but they are at the core of all successful and unsuccessful applications. Review panelists as a body would offer the following advice to potential applicants.
DO read the application guidelines. Too obvious? Not at all. Too many applicants tend to skim through the opening prose--looking at the first two or three paragraphs, checking the amount or the stipend, then filling out whatever forms there are. Next they dash off a description of their proposed research. But how that research is clearly linked to the stated objectives of the fellowship program is seldom articulated.
DON'T ever give this narrative description of the proposal short shrift. Remember that this is the heart of what the panel has to go on in evaluating the application. Previous prizewinning works that have emerged from your probing research are not now at issue; what matters here is the present proposal.
DO write the proposal in as succinct and interesting a style as possible. Somehow the application process manages to bring out the worst in prose style. Faced with writing the description of a research project, writers ordinarily fluid and graceful manage to come up with turgid, lifeless prose. It may help to think of the project description as though it were an article for a professional journal, as though it were meant to be read for its intrinsic interest and worth.
Before you submit, DO give the proposal to a respected colleague to read and criticize. DON'T select a devoted admirer who never fails to applaud all your efforts, but rather find someone knowledgeable in your field who not only can give an objective and balanced appralsal but will also be in a position to make helpful suggestions. He or she will be the equivalent of a preliminary review panelist.
DON'T throw around fashionable jargon in the description; write plainly, clearly, and as persuasively as possible.
DON'T be vague about what you have already accomplished or what you propose to do. The comments most often found on the evaluations of applications not recommended for funding are "unfocused" or "vague."
DO proofread your application carefully. Typographical and minor errors may not be deadly sins, but they fail to inspire confidence in the quality of the proposer's research.
DO stop and consider the selection of your referees. Be sure to include experts in the field of your proposal. It your project spans disciplines, literature and art for example, you need letters from scholars in both fields. DON'T ask friends or colleagues who are likely to write fulsome letters commenting on your outstanding service to the community or on the superb quality of your gourmet cooking rather than the substance of your proposal.
If you are not fortunate enough to receive an award, DO ask for a summary of the panel evaluation. Like readers' reports for publishers, these comments can tell you a great deal about reaction to your project, and what you may be able to do to improve both the project and your presentation next time.
DO remember that your greatest effort should go into the project description. Once that has been honed to your satisfaction, DO apply to as many programs as are appropriate: for fellowship support, to the American Council of Learned Societies, tor example, or to the Guggenhelm Foundation. For smaller research awards, the American Council of Learned Societies grants-in-aid program and the small grants program of the American Philosophical Society come to mind.
DO remember that you know more about this particular proposal than other scholars; your job is to show them-how interesting and significant it is.
The final DON'T is perhaps the most important: DON'T be afraid to try. Even if your proposal is not funded you will learn from the experience and your project will be improved through the process.