Ask TON: Crafting a Winning Fellowship Proposal

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

What are the essentials of a strong proposal for a journalism fellowship?

Fellowships can boost your career in many ways. They provide a supportive environment that can yield more impactful stories. They supplement commissions from journalism outlets (and often provide financial assistance for travel). And the prestige of a big fellowship doesn’t hurt a person’s résumé, either. Fellowships are also a great way to build relationships with your peers—camaraderie shaped during a fellowship can endure long after the fellowship period ends.

As Geoffrey Giller explains in “Paying for It: Getting Grants and Fellowships,” snagging a fellowship requires a heavy-duty application package that makes a strong case for your project’s urgency, showcases your track record and your ability to carry out what you propose, and includes enthusiastic letters of recommendation. Here, we’ve gathered advice about how to assemble a top-tier proposal.

Sujata Gupta, freelance journalist; 2017–2018 fellow in the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT:

A book editor at a big publishing house recently came to speak to this year’s Knight Science Journalism fellows. The key to writing a winning book proposal, she told us, was to answer the questions: Why now? And why me? The same logic, I suspect, holds true for landing a fellowship.

The first fellowship I got was to attend Metcalf Institute’s Annual Science Immersion Workshop (which I highly recommend, by the way). I got lucky. That year, Metcalf had decided to offer the fellowship to journalists interested in writing about the environmental implications of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill long after the crisis had passed. I had been covering the oil spill for months at that point, and had recently traveled to Louisiana to do some field reporting, so applying for the fellowship felt like a natural extension of the work I was already doing.

Even if the tie-in is less obvious, though, it’s good to show urgency. Consider: What about your work lends itself to the given moment? Why would a fellowship benefit both you and the people running the program? And why are you uniquely positioned to address a given issue?

Also, learn the priorities of the fellowship you’re applying for. If you can swing a trip to the host institution and meet with those running the program, go for it. Or reach out to current or past fellows and get their suggestions. A previous Knight fellow suggested addressing how having access to Cambridge’s top-tier institutions could benefit my project. Thanks to her advice, I was much more specific in my application about the sorts of courses I would take and the professors I would want to meet with as a fellow.

Finally—and this may seem obvious—take the time to put together a solid application. I was late in deciding to apply to the Knight program, so I wound up turning down several assignments to allow myself the time and head space to focus solely on the application. (Don’t ask about my finances for that month!) I also got up my courage to share my personal statement and project proposal with a couple of trusted mentors (who also incidentally wrote my letters of recommendation). Their advice really helped me hone the application so that I was able to both show off some writing chops and stick to a core message.

Susan Phillips, energy reporter, StateImpact Pennsylvania for WHYY; 2013–2014 fellow in the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT:

First, give them what they ask for, and recognize that each fellowship is different. I’ve never judged fellowship candidates so I don’t know the perspective of those choosing, but unless they tell you specifically what would set you apart from other candidates, I assume they want the most bang for their buck. They want to get someone who can both learn from the experience and produce stories.

They also may want a good mix of people with different experience levels to forge camaraderie and help create a network for new or aspiring journalists. So, I think it’s important to give them a sense of where you are in terms of your career aspirations, and who you are outside of your work life.

Also, do your homework—talk to someone who had already been on that particular fellowship, or talk to the people administering the fellowship and ask them what they’re looking for if you’re not clear. I try to do a fair amount of reporting ahead of time, so I can tell them what I am aiming to get out of the fellowship. Of course, reporting plans often change once you are on the ground, but at least they know you are thinking ahead and taking the application seriously.

Katti Gray, freelance journalist; 2014–2015 recipient of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism:

Winning proposals for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism do cite problems in the mental health care system. But, much more than that, they spotlight innovations that drive that system forward. Also, the fellows’ work helps the broad public better understand that those with mental illness are, among others, our friends, neighbors, colleagues, kin, and strangers whose mental disorders exact a price from those individuals—even as many of them, following a solid health regimen, do flourish—but also, in myriad ways, take a toll on our society, medical infrastructure, the economy, etc.

Likewise, reducing stereotypes and stigmas associated with mental illness is a main focus of The Carter Center and, by extension, fellows are expected to grasp that ideal—even as they adhere to journalistic standards regarding objectivity and a necessary detachment from their reporting. Fellowship executives understand that journalists are not advocates, per se, though past fellows have worked for news outlets with a clear point of view.

As with all fellowships, proposals must:

1) Be deeply researched and referenced, and show that the applicant has a clear understanding of the subject matter. (In my case, prior to applying to the fellowship, I had published a couple of articles related to what became my winning proposal on jail- and prison-based programs, and re-entry programs, for incarcerated veterans with mental illness.)

2) Be well-crafted, and lucidly outline the stories applicants expect to tackle should they be selected as fellows.

3) Separate themselves from prior fellows’ work in the same subject area. When tackling an old topic, fellows must clearly show what’s new and different in that area.

Virginia Gewin, freelance journalist; recipient of a 2016–2017 Alicia Patterson Fellowship:

Fellowship proposals are, essentially, the mother of all pitches. They have to not only pique a panel’s interest in stories that sizzle with possibilities, they must show the applicant can bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan…. It’s not just the pitch, it’s the execution.

I humbly suggest there are three essential elements of a successful fellowship application: a compelling story or stories, unmistakable due diligence, and a credible reporting plan.

In 2016, I was ecstatic to receive an Alicia Patterson fellowship. It was a proposal at least 1½ years in the making. In my spare time, I had conducted dozens of interviews while pursuing a trail of global stories that, together, highlighted society’s interdependence on often-neglected collections of seeds and crops from around the world. I obsessively tracked threads of potential stories that, when pieced together, blended food security, agricultural heritage, and science. An early version, submitted to a different fellowship program, didn’t make the cut.

A year later, with clear eyes, I spent weeks fine-tuning a successful three-page proposal—”The Seed Banking Crisis: Too Interdependent to Fail.” I proposed a series of stories to showcase: global efforts to secure, share, and utilize diverse crops in Malaysia; how branding fine chocolate made from wild cacao could help save Amazon rainforests; and how governments squabble over access to and equity in seeds. It may have taken 18 months to marinate, but I was able to convincingly detail the smorgasbord of stories I was confident I could to tell.

Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and publisher of Undark:

Here are my three elements for a strong fellowship proposal:

1) Show evidence of a history of smart, thoughtful journalism and in-depth work. In other words, don’t apply too soon, and it’s okay to apply more than once.

2) Know and get the fellowship program. A generic, one-size-fits-all proposal is not a strong sell, and if you address it to the wrong program (which has happened), you are not going to improve your odds.

3) Show a sense of commitment and community. This is less tangible, but fellowships operate something like a temporary family and we want it to be as supportive and happy a family as possible. So, for instance, if you write a proposal explaining that you are far superior to all of your peers, or if that comes across in your interview, we’re probably going to see that as a warning flag rather than an admirable trait.


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