Some practical thoughts on short-term research fellowships

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I’m currently on a Short-Term Research Fellowship at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, and next month I’ll be on another at the Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Austin, Texas. These are my fourth and fifth short-term fellowships/research trips sponsored by an institution, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some thoughts and advice about the process of applying for and undertaking these kinds of fellowships.

*n.b. lots of institutions also offer short-term fellowships for maker/creators, although the advice here will probably be most relevant to historians and scholars of english literature undertaking research fellowships in American collections.

Before you go

Although short-term fellowships have been amongst some of my favourite things I’ve done as a scholar, they’re often quite complicated, so plan early.

Applications

Like other kinds of research fellowships, often you apply for short-term fellowships for the following academic year, meaning that you need to think about the process as early as possible. Keep a running list of potential institutions, with the dates that their fellowship competition closes, handy. For example, I applied for my current Huntington Fellowship in November 2016, which feels like a lifetime ago (n.b. I could have taken up my fellowship anywhere from June 2017, although accommodation would have been harder to get and travel would have been more expensive at shorter notice).

Also bear in mind that applying for these things can be a relatively substantial undertaking. Most short-term fellowships require a CV, detailed research proposal, and a list of objects/texts/archival materials that you will need to consult during the fellowship. It’s vital, particularly in an age of the digital facsimile, to be able to tell the committee exactly why you need to see these objects in person, and furthermore, why they are essential sources for the completion of this project.

Thirdly, remember that if a short-term fellowship of a month or longer seems like a quite a time commitment, several institutions (such as Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library) also provide travel grants to go and use their collections for a shorter period, usually around two weeks.

Career Benefits

Short-term research fellowships are highly competitive, and are offered by prestigious institutions. As research proposals are reviewed by a committee and then awarded funds to complete them, successful applications demonstrate that you are undertaking internationally-recognised, fundable, dynamic research. You may have also heard that fellowships beget fellowships: this was certainly true for me – once I’d received a couple of short-term fellowships, I was awarded two more short-term fellowships, followed by two longer-term postdoctoral fellowships. For postgraduate and early career researchers building their CVs, this sort of progression is hugely important for making you competitive on the job/postdoc market. Perhaps most importantly, the short-term fellowships I received were also vital sources of encouragement and success when it felt like a time of overwhelming rejection, and really made me feel like a valid researcher when I had just finished my PhD.

Costs

Although such fellowships are always remunerated, the extent to which this is the case varies vastly. Some institutions provide extremely generous lump sums, some provide smaller bursaries, and some provide a less generous bursaries but will book travel and accommodation for you, or offer the latter free. Depending on which of these is the case for your chosen institution, the amount may not cover the costs of transportation, accommodation, visa fees, and living away for a month or more. Furthermore, payment often comes after the fact, once you’ve been at and maybe even left the institution, so be aware that you may have to pay upfront for things and wait to be reimbursed at a later date. Additionally, not every institution will reimburse for the hidden cost of getting a visa (although some will), and many fellowships are taxed quite viciously (some up to as much as 30%, although getting a Social Security Number will help to reduce this number significantly – many institutions will say you don’t need this, but for heavily-taxed fellowships, like the Huntington, this is well worth it).

On the topic of the visa, again, this can be quite a lengthy process, requiring multiple forms and an in-consulate interview, something that can be expensive if, like me, you don’t live near a visa-issuing consulate. I’d always recommend scheduling the interview in Belfast over London, as it has quicker wait times and accommodation in the city is cheaper. Interview slots are often booked-up a long time in advance, and visa processing can take around a fortnight, so leave plenty of time for this at the other end so you don’t have to worry about not having your visa and passport by the time of your flight!

My final tip for things to do before you go, is to book accommodation as early as possible. If the institution offers accommodation, then it’s good to book this early as they’ll be scheduling multiple scholars into a single residence, and summer will always be oversubscribed due to term-time and teaching commitments. If you’re booking external accommodation, most institutions offer a list of recommended places, but once again the best/nearest places often fill up quickly. As a guide, I booked my accommodation for this trip in May 2017, over a year in advance, and the place I am staying was already nearly full for this Summer back then!

 

Whilst you’re there…

First few days: plan the trip 

Although fellowships seem long – two months away seems like ages – they go unbelievably quickly. As such, I’d recommend preparing for your research trip before you leave. However, this isn’t always practical, and I inevitably end up doing this the first few days after I arrive. For me this means re-reading my application, redoing my collections searches (this is particularly important as the kinds of objects I am interested in has expanded since I first wrote the application), and working out what extra-fellowship things I want to do and see (and eat!). Bear in mind that the first few days are often also taken up with orientations, having to visit the University’s international office, and other kinds of introductory events, so it can often take a full week to feel fully settled in. Finally, I’d recommend getting in touch with any scholars who live in the area who you’d like to meet – this is a great way for ECRs to make contacts internationally.

Writing retreat 

Short-term fellowships are also a great opportunity to get some serious writing done. I personally find I am the most intellectually generative during research trips, so I often feel inspired to write during fellowships. Although wonderful in other ways, fellowships can be lonely (particularly if the institution doesn’t offer shared accommodation) and the evenings and weekends can feel long and boring. At the same time, they’re also free from everyday work and home-life commitments, making them ripe to be treated as a kind of writing retreat. Depending on the length of the trip, I normally go away planning to make headway on one specific thing (usually a book-chapter or article length project for around two months of fellowship). Don’t be too ambitious with this though, as time always goes much more quickly than you anticipate.

Exploring 

Although it’s tempting to spend all of your time away working (see above), do spend some time exploring the area. I’m currently in California, having never visited before, so I’m currently enjoying weekends exploring Pasadena and LA. If you have twitter, make sure to ask your colleagues and followers for recommendations. Ultimately you won’t be able to do everything that is suggested, but it’s nice to have a plan for your downtime as much as it is your work time.

If you have any further questions, or would like to ask me more about any of the fellowships that I’ve been on, please do feel free to contact me via email or twitter! I’ll keep this post updated with any additional comments and suggestions as I get them.

*Addenda 

Dependents

Lots of people on twitter have asked about the practicalities and realities of taking short-term fellowships with dependents and care responsibilities. In short, short-term fellowships definitely privilege those who can drop anything and uproot for weeks and months at a time, meaning those with dependents and care responsibilities at home are inevitably less able to apply for them. Additionally, the costs of bringing over a whole family are higher, and if you’re on a visa, then you’ll also need to apply for dependents visas for your children. Some institutions, like the Folger Library, the Bard Graduate Center, and Yale Center for British Art, are actively aware of this, and offer family-sized apartments, and other kinds of support necessary, like organising education for visiting children at local schools. The best advice I can offer on this is to talk to each institution on an individual basis to discuss this, and see what they can offer. As a whole however, fellowship-offering institutions need to think about and address this head on, citing how they can provide for families visibly on their fellowship webpages. As noted above, fellowships can be great for career progression, and an individual’s home-life shouldn’t be something that prevents them from undertaking them.

Visa Issues 

As others have pointed out to me on twitter, the ease of being awarded a J1 visa can differ greatly depending on your race, ethnicity, and even your marital status, so this is definitely something to bear in mind. Be sure to talk to your fellowship-awarding institution about this, and see what advice their international office can give you regarding the process. Remember that often travel grants (eg. those of around two weeks or so) don’t require full visas, but ESTAs instead (if you’re from a country where the visa waver programme is an option), so this might be a way of getting around this.

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