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Developing Graduate Fellowship Proposals

A Guide for Students


  • Study all descriptive material provided by the funding organization or agency.
  • List the goals of the program to which you are applying, as described by the agency or organization.
  • List the characteristics of a successful candidate to that program, as described by the organization or agency.
  • List the goals of your project.
  • List experiences you have had, courses you have taken, personality traits, etc. that qualify you to carry out this project.

Elements of a Fellowship Proposal

  1. Summary / Introduction (write this section last)
    To orient your readers, it is a good idea to very briefly introduce:
    • yourself: what one or two characteristics do you want the reader to know about you as he/she begins reading your proposal (for example: biology major; spent a semester doing field work in Alaskan rain forest).
    • the general question(s) or problem area you plan to explore: deforestation in Latin America.
    • specific objectives: compare economic development opportunities available to indigenous communities in rain forests of Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela and their connection to deforestation in Latin America.
    • methodology: you will visit three states - one each in Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela - in which rain forest is being cleared for farming or other economic purposes and interview developers, government officials, and the local population. You will also photograph the process of deforestation and individuals involved/affected.
    • outcome(s): you will produce a journal, documenting, with both excerpts from interviews and photographs, the forces behind deforestation and its effects on the local cultures.

  2. Introduction to the general questions or problem area
    You need to provide a meaningful — personal and/or scholarly — context for your specific project. You also need to demonstrate reasonable familiarity with these questions or problems.

  3. Objectives
    What specific questions do you plan to address during the course of your investigations? Do you want to find out what accounts for certain behaviors, past or present? Are you interested in certain physical phenomena and why they occur in a certain way? What experiences do you want to have?

  4. Methodology What activities will you undertake that will help you find answers to the questions you have posed? Will you administer questionnaires? make specific observations, measurements, etc? interview people? keep a journal with detailed personal responses to specific settings, events, etc.? Who will fill out your questionnaire or participate in your interviews? What instruments will you need to make your observations? What is the schedule for your project?

  5. Outcomes How will you know if your questions have been answered? What will you have to show for your efforts?

  6. Qualifications You must convince the funding organization or agency that you have the skills, experience, knowledge, and interest to carry out your project. In short, you must "sell" yourself, persuade the funding agency that you are a good "investment."
    • Are foreign language skills necessary to carry out your project? Do you have them? If not, do you have plans to acquire them?
    • Have you ever devised and administered a questionnaire, conducted a series of oral interviews?
    • Must you have had experience with certain laboratory or collection techniques? Do you have that experience?
    • Have you completed an independent research project?
    • Do you have any relevant experiences living, working, and/or studying abroad?
    • What particular course work is relevant to the proposed project?
    • Is any of your work experience relevant to the project? co-curricular experiences?

  7. Itinerary / Site Some fellowships require you to specify the institution at which you will carry out your project; in other instances the program itself designates the institution. What do you know about that institution? Why is it an ideal place for you to carry out your project? Are there specific individuals with whom you want to work or unique academic programs available at that institution? Have you made contact with any individuals or programs at the institution? Will you have access to needed facilities?

    The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program, for example, requires you to be abroad for an entire year. Have you got a plan for the full year? Are you spending a reasonable amount of time at each site? Have you taken climate and seasons into account in planning your itinerary? Given the site(s) you have chosen and the activities you have planned, can you carry out your project for $22,000?

Do Not Forget Your Audience

Your proposal will be your first and perhaps only contact with the individuals who will be making a decision about your application. Ask yourself the following questions in preparing the final draft:
  • Do I describe my project in a manner that demonstrates how it meets the goals of the funding organization or agency?

  • Do I describe myself in a way that fits the criteria the organization or agency set forth as characteristic of a successful applicant?

  • Will an educated lay person be able to understand my project?

  • Will the reader know that I truly care about this project? Have I answered the "so what" question?

  • Do I lead my reader through the document in a manner that will make it easy for him or her to follow? Have I eliminated truly extraneous material? In many cases, readers will be asked to consider 25 or 30 proposals in a short amount of time. How would my proposal stand up to that test if it were number 30?

  • Is my proposal free of all typographical, spelling, and grammatical errors? (Have your proposal proofread by at least two people who know nothing about the subject.)