Research Fellowships: Planning, Expectations, and Surprises

Hey ASECS-ers. Your friendly webmaster here launching the Grad Caucus blog’s inaugural post. This month I’m laying down some advice and resources about applying to research fellowships, and what you’ll find when you get there.

I spent a month this summer as a visiting research fellow at Chawton House Library. Chawton’s collection specializes in materials by and about women writers 1600-1830. I got some great work done there for my dissertation, and really enjoyed my stay. The staff there was so generous with their time, and were incredible professional resources. I’m already wondering how soon I can get back….

I received a lot of great advice that helped me in the process of applying for the fellowship, and what to do once I go there.  The experience still wasn’t what I expected, so I’ve got some reflection on that too.

Chawton Stables: Home of visiting fellows Photo by Megan Peiser

1 Finding the right collection to work with/at

First and foremost is choosing a collection that will really help your work, and that gets you the most “bang for your buck”. Different collections focus on different periods, people, or types of materials. If you are working on material culture or images Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library is a great place for you. Since my research is on women writers at the end of the 18th/early 19th C, Chawton was a right fit for me. I didn’t come on this decision all on my own, however.

  • Look at the CVs of others who do work similar to yours or that you admire to see where they’ve done their scholarship. If they’re further along in their career than you are, then they’ll likely know more about these libraries or collections. Take advantage of that.
  • Ask around at ASECS. Talk to people after papers, and listen carefully to HOW and WHERE they collected their research. Ask scholars you respect, and ask other grads.
  • Ask for sample documents. In general I think scholars want to help each other. It helps all of us to encourage the work of our colleagues. I asked to see the documents by others who had successfully received funding I was applying to. 100% of the people I talked to were supportive and encouraging. It’s hard to make something you’ve never seen before. Don’t. Don’t make it harder for yourself.
  • Find the *perfect* place. I needed to look at lots of late 18th-, early 19th- century novels. Sure, I could bounce between the British Library, the Bodleian, the Huntington, Walpole, and the Clark. These are all really great collections, and I look forward to doing work at them one day. But I needed my hard-earned grad-student-dollars to do a lot of work for me. I could look at 90% of the material I needed from these libraries at Chawton, plus see Chawton’s unique items, plus Chawton had its own fellowship that would allow me a whole month to work with their collection. I was a good fit for them, but they were also a good fit for me.

2. Contact the librarian.

Librarians know their stuff. They know what is sitting on the shelves. They know what isn’t listed in online catalogs. They know what nobody else has looked at. They have the power to photograph things for you before you get there, or point you to another library/librarian to get you further with your work. The librarian at Chawton House, Darren Bevin, is fantastic. He is a wealth of knowledge, is a funny guy, and genuinely loves helping people use the collection he manages. Really. He helped me sort through things once I got there, but also answered questions I sent him via email about best ways to use the library’s online search catalog to find what I was looking for.

3. Planning, and then unplanning

Plan ahead. After you contacted the librarian, make that “I absolutely must look at these things” list.  Your top-priorities(note: I included parts of this list in my application to show how serious I was about what I needed to look at. It obviously worked).

Know the photography policy before making this list, because the ability to photograph for later reference may change what you want to see and/or how long you want to spend with it.

And then plan some unplanned time. Time to look at things you didn’t know you’d find (there will be lots of this). Time to look at things you just plain want to call up (Jane Austen’s ms of Charles Grandison, anyone?). Time to go over and over an item that is confusing or important. Time to write up notes. This is another reason the length of the Chawton fellowship was especially great.

Lindsey Eckert and Megan Peiser with more materials pulled from storage than they could ever possibly look at.

Megan Peiser and Lindsey Eckert with more materials pulled from storage than they could ever possibly look at. Photo by Megan Peiser

4. $$ Dollars $$
It is almost impossible to fund a research trip in one swoop. Another amazing perk of the Chawton fellowship is that it removes a huge chunk of financial strain—housing. And its a BEAUTIFUL place to live and work for a month:

Chawton House Library and St Nicholas Church. Taken from the gardens. Photo by Megan Peiser

Chawton House Library and St Nicholas Church. Taken from the gardens.
Photo by Megan Peiser

There are a lot of resources for applying for funding.

  • Your department. Small amounts add up. My department has a travel award especially for travel to England. Ask other grads in your department.
  • Student organizations on your campus. Many, especially those for graduate students, have funding set aside to dole out for conference and research travel. A lot of times they are under-applied-for. Graduate Professional Council (GPC), Graduate Student Association (GSA), Student Government Association (SGA), and English Graduate Student Association (EGSA) are just a few.
  • Your institution. Check out the Graduate School, Alumni Associations, The Provost’s office.
  • Professional memberships. ASECS travel grants. Regional conferences or affiliated societies also offer travel or research related grants.
  • The library itself. Many libraries now have travel and research grants designated by the library for work on their collections. The Newberry has some great ones. So does the Harry Ransom Center, and the American Antiquarian Society.
  • Dissertation fellowships. Sometimes this money is flexible enough to fund your travel and research. Here are some biggies: Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, Melon/ACLS Dissertation Fellowships.

5. Actual FELLOW-ship.
The other people that will be there doing work at the same time as you. This surprised me the most. I didn’t think about it or plan it at all, and it was such a wonderful “gift” from Chawton. I was housed with three other brilliant scholars. I learned from them. I had three people in the reading room to ask questions of. To say “hey, what does this word in this ms say?” or “How do you think this was printed?” I had a built-in writing group to bounce ideas off of. To review work with. To inspire me. To say “hey I called this up, but really it fits your work better”. Part of this was the luck of being at Chawton with such fantastic women. But part of it was being open to the “networking” involved, or rather the fellowship, the unity of all working toward the same general goal of learning more and furthering scholarship. It sounds fluffy, but perhaps that’s also just the magic of Chawton.

May 2015 Fellows in front of Chawton Stables: Aran Ruth, Helen Williams, Lindsey Eckert, Megan Peiser Photo by Megan Peiser

May 2015 Fellows in front of Chawton Stables:
Aran Ruth, Helen Williams, Lindsey Eckert, Megan Peiser
Photo by Megan Peiser

6. Finding more projects than you could ever do in one lifetime

Archives are amazing. They’re so full of stuff. This is a hard balance–finding and examining what you need for your current work, the reason you’re there, taking notes on and squirreling away stuff for your “next” project, or your “next-next” project, and just letting things go. Someone will find them. You can always come back to them.

You can read more about the Chawton House Library visiting research fellowships here. Check back with the ASECS Grad Caucus blog later this fall for a follow-up post on being a Chawton House Library visiting research fellow.

Every month we’ll have a new post rolling up here. What else would you like to see on this blog? Post a comment and let me know!


2 thoughts on “Research Fellowships: Planning, Expectations, and Surprises

  1. BTW, this post actually game at a great time for me. Thanks for putting it up — it’s such a valuable and yet confusing thing to sort out. 🙂


  2. Pingback: What Your Ph.D. Can Do For You | asecs grad caucus

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