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10 Tips for Writing a Successful International Research Fellowship Proposal

I've had the pleasure of chairing research fellowship panels for over a decade. In these years I’ve heard debate surrounding nearly 3,000 applicants, both junior and senior scholars, all trying to secure very limited research funding.  A while back some colleagues in the academic community encouraged me to pull some tips together from my experience in these meetings and also having worked with so many different peer reviewers over the years, from a variety of disciplines. Here it goes:

1. What’s your research question? This may seem simple enough, but we still see proposals occasionally that either don’t have or are unclear about the hypothesis. Ask a colleague to read your proposal before you turn it in, preferably someone not intimately familiar with your topic and see if they can pick it out and describe it clearly back to you.

2. Make sure the title speaks to a wide audience. First point of tough love. It’s not a contest for the most obscure title. Make it clear, easily understandable to a wide audience of both academics  and non-academics. Think about policy makers, journalists, non-native English speakers, etc.

3. Bibliographies are still important. You don’t have to agree with every source you cite, but you need to demonstrate that you are well-read and have a thorough understanding of your field/question and how what you are doing is new and builds upon respected and established work.

4. Show the panel you really need to get on a plane. With advances in technology and broader access to information, when applying for an international fellowship you really need to show that you can only get the project done on the ground, in country. If you could answer your question with some Internet research and a more thorough reading list, you probably won’t get funded.

5. Show the panel you are ready to get on a plane. If you are asking for research funds to go overseas keep in mind that peer reviewers have a number of additional questions. Do you have the language skills? Do you show the proper depth in cultural understanding? Do you understand political and other potential limits to your access and have you thought them through? Have you thought through your operational costs (survey collection, back translations, etc.)? Do you understand any potential security risks and challenges to yourself or those who may be subjects of your research?

6. Who cares? Second point of tough love. Given the economy you need to make sure you can make a really strong case for why you should be invested in as a researcher and why your selected research is going to have broader implications to the academic and policy communities. I can’t tell you how many times peer reviewers had a better answer to this question than the applicant. This needs to be clear from the beginning and carry through the proposal.

7. Does the timeline make sense? Can you really get done what you plan to in the amount of time you have proposed and have a quality product? On the flip side, does the plan have you sufficiently busy as a full-time researcher for your entire fellowship?

8. Show your preparation.  If you’ve been on the ground before let us know. Be sure to spell out what you are going to do differently this time. How does this project build on your previous work and take it to the next level.

9. And a word to our established senior academics, your peers on the selection panel want to feel like you respect them and their time enough that you put your best effort into your proposal. They get persnickety if they feel you are trying ride on prior accomplishments and just “threw it together."

10. Read those selection criteria carefully. IREX always lists the selection criteria for our research fellowships in the application materials. I highly recommend putting your own personal panel together before you submit your proposal and ask them to grade your application against each criterion, letting you know which are strong and which need some work. We do this when we write our own proposals for funding at IREX and have great names for them like “red teams” and “murder boards”. Word to the wise—stack it with critics and not cheerleaders—you’ll get a strong product in the end.