Some Tips for Writing a Strong NEH Proposal

With the deadline for the National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship program a little over a month away, I thought I’d share some insights from a talk that my department chair, Jurgen Buchenau, gave to faculty members at UNC Charlotte a couple weeks ago. Jurgen has won two NEH fellowships and served on the selection committee twice so is very familiar with the process.

Fellowship Program

This portion of Jurgen’s talk dealt solely with the standard NEH fellowship application due on April 30. There is also an NEH Public Scholar program application that is due earlier in April but we did not focus on that at all.

For those interested in a fellowship to revise a dissertation, the NEH can be difficult to get. This is of course true for winning an NEH at all. If you are trying to revise your dissertation, it is not impossible to win a fellowship, but your revisions must be of a very extensive nature to justify the year of funding. The committees examining the proposals know that your dissertation is usually a pretty good draft of your book and that most people can complete the manuscript either while teaching or with a semester of leave. So you really need to make a strong case for why revisions are necessary and for the extensive nature of these revisions. If you fit into this category, you might also consider applying for the ACLS fellowship in the fall, which has specific categories for faculty members at different levels in their careers.

In terms of who should write for you, it is fine to have a letter from your doctoral advisor as long as her or his expertise also covers the topic of your new project. You should have full professors or people very well known in their fields writing for you, and both of your letters should not be from people too close to you. So if your advisor is writing, don’t have someone else from your dissertation committee or a colleague at your own institution write you a letter. You also want to avoid letters from your grad school friends, unless that friend has gone on to be a full professor, endowed chair, or someone very well-known and respected in their field. If they are still a junior faculty member or recently tenured, ask someone else.

Jurgen noted that for both fellowships he won, he applied three times each. The NEH committee will provide you feedback on your application to help you improve. A good practice is probably just to apply every year, incorporating their feedback each time. From personal experience, I know this can be difficult, as it is hard to motivate yourself to apply for something that you are continually rejected for, but persistence can really pay off. I actually had a similar experience as Jurgen with the NEH fellowship that I won at the Massachusetts Historical Society. I applied for both their long and short-term fellowships in the fall of 2010, 2011, and 2012. I was rejected for both the first two times I applied but ended up winning an 8 month NEH the third time around, which allowed me to take the 2013-2014 year off from teaching. And I did not have the benefit of feedback from the MHS, just comments on my proposal from a few colleagues. So stick with it, be persistent, apply every year, and you will have a much stronger chance of winning a fellowship.

One major criteria of selection is how important the leave is to the person applying. If you have heavy administration duties in your department, either as chair, vice chair, program director, or some other position, you should note this in your application. Extensive service to the university or work in an administrative position such as a dean should also be discussed.

In addition, you want to make sure you have enough work left to do to justify the fellowship. If you are completely finished with the research and only need to write a chapter or two, your proposal is less likely to get funded because the committee will assume you can write that during the school year or summer. However, if you still have to conduct archival research for a chapter or two and need to write a couple chapters, this will look much better to the committee. They do not want to give you money to just stay where you are and complete a chapter or two. So you need to find that sweet spot between just beginning a project, which they will not fund, and finishing a portion of the project that can be completed without a year off.

Some people think that your proposal is less likely to be funded if you are not at an Research 1 or Ivy League institution but this is not the case. The NEH awards roughly 80 fellowships each year, and this is split between Ph.D. granting institutions and non-Ph.D. granting institutions. This is probably one of the main reasons that faculty members in my department have won a number of these over the past decade. If you’re at a regional school or liberal arts college you probably have a better chance of winning a fellowship than someone at the flagship campus or other school that grants doctorates.

There are four parts to each proposal that I will now discuss in turn.

1. Research and Contribution

The biggest mistake that many people make here is spending too much time on the historiography or literature review. You should mention no more than 3 or 4 authors and keep the scholarly discussion focused on the essential pieces of your project. Do not start with a long spiral discourse that leads to your topic. Instead, start right off with your contribution in the first paragraph. The fewer main ideas you present, the better. Think of the most important 1-2 ideas about your project and discuss those. With a total space limit of three pages, this portion of the proposal should be about a page.

2. Methods and Work Plan

Avoid technical jargon at all costs and tell your reader very specifically how you will spend your time. Are you conducting archival research? Great, tell which archives you will be at and for how long, and mention the number of collections you will use. I would also suggest listing some of these specific collections, but if you will be looking at 10, don’t list them all. You want to be very clear about how much time you will be spending at home versus away, and keep in mind that the committee might be swayed more by those who need to travel for their work. The time on this fellowship should allow you to finish all your research and then spend the rest of your time writing. It is also a good idea to provide a brief chapter outline, and when mentioning specific archives and collections, note which chapters that research will help you complete. This portion of this proposal should be about a page, maybe a little less if the last section ran over a bit.

3. Competencies, Skills, and Access

This should be a paragraph at the most. Discuss what you have done before and how it will help you in the work you will undertake. For my NEH, I noted that the current project grew out of my interest in religion and slavery developed while writing my first book.

You should also note here what kind of access you have or will need to conduct your work. If you are traveling to an archive in Bolivia, do you need special permission from a governmental body? Have you secured it? The people reading your application will be experts in your field and will have knowledge of what kinds of access and permissions are needed for specific archives so take this part very seriously.

4. Final Product and Dissemination

There are a few important components here. First, will there be any other deliverables besides a book? Maybe an article, or the germ of an idea for a next book? The NEH wants to get the most bang for their buck, so if you mention that not only will your research help you complete this one book, but it will also inform your next project, your proposal is more likely to be funded.

Also, what presses will you send it to? Have any expressed interest in the project at all? For the purposes of grant applications, it is not a bad idea to secure an advance contract, as this shows a level of commitment to your work from a press, albeit a small one.

Once again, whether you win or not, ask for feedback because you will usually get it from all of the 3-5 reviewers. Not only will you see their original comments, but you will see how their view of your proposal changed after that sub-committee’s discussions with the larger committee. Observing how their view of the project’s strength changed can be very valuable in your revisions for next year.

Summer Stipends

Jurgen also briefly discussed the Summer Stipends program. The NEH annually awards a number of summer fellowships of $6,000. For these, you will not apply directly to the NEH but instead must go through your institution. If your institution nominates you there are a couple things to keep in mind for your proposal. One, you do not want to apply for this to finish an entire manuscript. Instead, your application should briefly discuss the whole project, but then focus much more on a specific portion for which you need to conduct research.

Also, just like the regular NEH, or perhaps even more so, you are unlikely to be awarded a summer stipend if you are staying put. So a philosophy project where you need to spend a summer thinking through important questions is much less likely to be funded than a philosophy project that requires you to travel to Germany to visit an archive.

I hope these tips were helpful. If any of you have other pieces of advice that I left out, please leave a comment, as I am sure our readers will greatly appreciate anything that gets them closer to winning one of these fellowships.

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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.

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