Dissertation Fellowships and Postdocs; Or, Getting More Money for Humanities Research

Research is best done when the researcher has the time they need to read, think, collaborate, write, get feedback, and interact with the broader scholarly community. Research and writing should ideally unfold on their own time, and should not be rushed. But, what the fuck, we live in a world of deadlines, of too many obligations, of mostly contingent labor, and of an increasing failure by educational institutions to support researchers in the ways they need most under capitalism. In a word: money.

Grad school is expensive. Most grad students get a stipend in return for work they do, whether serving as a lecturer, teaching or research assistant, sometimes as an editorial assistant on a journal, or occasionally in some other administrative role. But the stipends, especially in the humanities, are meager; even if you receive a fellowship of some sort, it rarely gives you more than two or three thousand extra dollars for the whole year. And most programs don’t have policies in place to pay grad students year round, so many are left scrambling to find ways to support themselves in the summer.

In short, it’s what you already knew: capitalism sucks and grad students aren’t exempt. So more money is always needed. This means that in between competing to get into a program and competing to get a job, grad students are left to compete again: for dissertation fellowships that give extra time for writing and relief from teaching duties, and for postdocs that give time for professional development, writing, research, and other needed activities to further one’s chances of “making it” in the next stage of the competition.

As part of my larger project to share some ways to alleviate the pains of grad school and the academy, I want to share a list of resources for fellowships and postdocs, as well as three majors pieces of advice. The advice first, then the resources.

A note: this is advice almost entirely for folks operating in the US academic system, and to a lesser extent in Canada.

The Advice

Obviously, universities with more money and prestige give graduate students more opportunities, not only competition-wise on the market, but often the name of the institution and the names of the professors students are working with help to shepherd those students’ applications one step closer to the TT dream. Those universities also likely have faculty who have won fellowships and postdocs, who know folks on the selection committees, etc. who are able to pass on those experiences and privileges to their mentees, whether through individual mentoring or through department-hosted talks/workshops.

While my university and program aren’t necessarily prestigious, we do have faculty with “names” who have a proven track-record of winning awards, grants, and fellowships. One such person gave a talk a few years ago with some advice that I find worth passing on. This is an early-career professor with a PhD from one of the most elite literature programs who has won money from, among other institutions:

the American Council for Learned Societies, the Mellon Foundation, the Wallenberg Foundation, the TEAGLE Foundation, the Stanford Center for Neurobiological Imaging, the Stanford Humanities Center, […] the Royal Bibliographic Society

So this person knows a bit about getting money for their research, and while their research tends to be at that “sexy” intersection between science and humanities, the advice applies to all of us, even us “boring” ones:

The secret rhetorical key to getting fellowships is to appeal the significance of any project to a broad audience, making it sound generally significant to all knowledge production. The people you are trying to get money from have “no fucking clue” what you are talking about and what the field-specific significance of your project is. Make your contribution something that matters to the rest of the world.

What does this mean for you? It means that if you’re writing a project on something seemingly obscure (and don’t protest that it’s not, because most dissertations are!), you need to find a way to connect it to bigger, more appealing conversations that anyone generally well-educated will understand, can see the “use” of, and will want to throw money at.

This is rhetorical, if not actual. This is also the essence of Karen Kelsky’s advice: we live in neoliberal times, and if you want to succeed in neoliberal times, you have to sell yourself. Thus, while my dissertation/first book is an argument for how a set of discourse joined together by the historical and political contexts of the Korean War may have influenced some science fiction in the 1950s in XYZ ways, the subtitle tells a much clearer story: How the Korean War Changed American Science Fiction. When I tell the “story” of my book and my research, that’s the story: the Korean War changed American science fiction. Is it 100% accurate? No. Is it a good argument? Probably (I think so, or else I wouldn’t be writing the damn book). Will telling that story as opposed to, say, one called “Prose Science Fiction and Some Themes Influenced by the Korean War in the 1950s” win me money? It’s certainly more likely.

Here I’m using something simple, a project title, as a gloss for a larger rhetorical going-on in these sorts of applications, so my flippancy should be taken with a grain of salt. No, a title won’t get you a fellowship, but telling the story of a project’s importance to the larger world, so that fellowship app readers can relate to and care about your project, will. It’s an exercise in marketing yourself, and one of the most difficult ones for grad students who by and large are incredibly self-conscious. Are depression rates are high for a reason. But it’s a rhetorical skill worth attempting to master.

The Resources

The most important places to find information about fellowships and postdocs are the annual, regularly updated pages on the Academic Jobs Wiki:

Of course, most universities (and many departments) offer dissertation fellowships and postdocs, so it’s worth checking directly with your department, college, graduate school, and research office.

Not all fellowships and postdocs are offered each year; some new ones emerge, older ones go away; but there are a few stable ones that offer some of the best support (and bring with them prestige):

Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship

Getty Pre- and Postdoctoral Fellowships

Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Dissertation Fellowship

Jefferson Scholars Foundation National Fellowship

Ford Fellowship Foundation Dissertation Fellowship

Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study Graduate Student Fellowships

Josephine de Karman Graduate Fellowship

Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship

NEH Fellowships

Some of these require residency at a particular institution, but most don’t. Many also have associated postdocs, especially those offered by private foundations. A few of the more well-known and (to me) interesting postdocs include:

President’s Postdoctoral Scholars Program, The Ohio State University

University of Michigan Society of Fellows Postdoctoral Fellowship

University of Michigan LSA Collegiate Fellows

Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship

Cornell University Society for the Humanities Society Fellowships

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Humanities

Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Postdoctoral Fellowships

Some of these, like the Cornell postdoc, are awarded according to an annual theme, but the theme is usually broad enough that you can fit your research in.

In addition, there are many early-career or junior faculty fellowships available to support research in ways similar to postdocs, allowing you to take time off from teaching and spent a semester or year reading, writing, whatevering. Many of the major institutes in the humanities offer these, but some of the particular useful ones include:

Early Career Residential Fellowship Program, University of Pittsburgh

First Book Institute, Pennsylvania State University

Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation Career Enhancement Fellowship

Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts

The resources are limited, but they do exist. You deserve time and money to do your work. Don’t second-guess yourself or your worth, even if the market does. Seek mentorship where you can and apply for what you can.

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