How to Pitch Your Obscure Fellowship Project

Jan 09, 2018

How to Pitch Your Obscure Fellowship Project

By Brittany Mihalec-Adkins

Pitching any idea can be daunting – how do you make reviewers see what you see in your idea? How can you make them as excited about your quirky, innovative idea as you are? Writing proposals for outside-the-box ideas is challenging, but these ideas can make for winning proposals with a little planning. Here are five pieces of advice to get you started!

1. Do your research

As for anything you write (and especially when you’re asking for money!), you want to be sure you’ve done a great deal of research. Do you know whether your research question or project idea has been addressed before? If so, when, by whom, and what did they find? Do you know the history behind the topic, the underlying theories and where they came from? Do you know of any theories or research findings that contradict your project idea or hypothesis? These are all things you want to know when you are pitching any research project, and certainly when you are pitching something that may be a little beyond the norm.

2. Use a “hook”

Your first few sentences will determine whether and how closely your readers will keep reading, and the dilemma set up in your first paragraphs will determine whether they make it to the end. It is often easiest for me to write this part last. Try to come up with an intriguing or even unsettling opening phrase or sentence. If your project concerns food insecurity, open with a statistic or anecdote about rates of chronic hunger. For example, “As you read this, X number of children are wondering when they will eat next.” If your project concerns climate change, open with a “what if” statement about the devastating effects of unattended pollution. For example, “What will happen when our Earth is no longer inhabitable?” Then make sure that your first paragraph, as a whole, makes your reader feel invested in the rest of what you have to say. Include a “hook,” a proper problem statement, and what you’re proposing as a step toward solving this dilemma.

3. Tell a story

After that crucial first paragraph, make sure that the body of your proposal reads in a narrative fashion, like a story. Show your readers that you’ve thought long and hard about this problem, the possible solutions, and why your course of action is one they should get behind. This is where doing your research will pay off. The more well-read you are on your topic of interest, the easier it will be to write about it in a way that flows well, with a logical beginning and end.

4. Have a punchline

Toward the end of your proposal, you want to remind readers (in no uncertain terms) why your project should be chosen/funded. One way to do this is to have a punchline that explains what happens if your work is not supported. For example, “Without efforts to ____, this species will go extinct.” Statements like these are helpful for tying proposals together and making sure reviewers don’t get so caught up in scoring your application that they forget what is actually at stake. If possible, try to tie your punchline back to your “hook” and opening paragraph. This will also demonstrate that you put serious thought into how to convey your project and that you have a strong understanding of high-quality, persuasive writing.

5. Sell the feasibility

Throughout the entire application, you will want to make sure you are convincing your reviewers that your proposed work is feasible. This is the case for any research proposal, of course, but it is even more important when pitching an obscure project. Lofty, innovative proposals often go unfunded, not because they lack good ideas, but because they seem unrealistic and infeasible. Put a lot of thought into exactly how you would carry out each part of your project and convey as much of this information in your application as possible. Brainstorm worst-case scenarios and solutions. Build connections with faculty or organizations that could help with your endeavor. Convey that you have done your research and are prepared to take on such a project.

There is certainly no secret formula for crafting the perfect fellowship application, but following the above tips is a pretty good start. Be sure to check out other advice for making final edits and making the most of your letters of recommendation! Best of luck!

Brittany Mihalec-Adkins is a first-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and second-year Ph.D. student in Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University. 

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