I spent last week in Los Angeles working with the Lisa Ben papers at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives.
I was one of nine (out of 60!) applicants awarded a 2018 LGBTQ Research Fellowship, courtesy of the ONE Archives Foundation, Inc. Spending five days working with Ben’s materials was a phenomenal experience, and I learned some really important details about her life as a science fiction writer, musician, and author of the first lesbian magazine in the U.S., Vice Versa.
Today’s post includes practical tips for both applying for a fellowship and working in an archive. It will mainly appeal to researchers and graduate students, but I hope that other creatives and scholars will find my takeaways applicable to their own practices.
Applying for a Fellowship
Tip 1: Don’t Rely Only on the Application Form
My first suggestion for people applying for fellowships is to learn as much as possible about the position before you generate your application materials. I’ll use the fellowship call for applications page for and the Fellowship Application form as an example for why this matters.
The Fellowship Application form called for a Curriculum Vita (also called a CV), a Letter of Reference, and a Project Proposal, which should include the following: “abstract; outline of the project’s goals, methods, and expected results with reference to relevant ONE Archives holdings; and budget for the amount requested.”
The fellowship call for applications page included a more detailed description about what the project proposal should include: “Applicants should also list specific material(s) to be consulted during the desired dates of the fellowship. Successful applications will also explain how collections of the ONE Archives are essential to the successful completion of the research project.” The call page also noted that the awards would be determined “based on a range of factors including the specific research topic, its relevance to the ONE Archives collections, the amount of time required to consult the materials, and need.” Finally, the call page noted that fellows would be required to “write a blog post or report of approximately 500 words about the project and work completed at the ONE Archives.”
That’s a lot more information than the application asks for!
As you can see, sometimes the page that describes the call for fellowship applications will include additional details that might not be included or might be condensed in the application page itself. If I had only based my application on the information on the Fellowship Application form, I wouldn’t have known to include things like how essential working at this specific archive was to completing my research project, nor would I have presented my research goals as translatable to a blog post.
Tip 2: Get Feedback on Your Application
Many of my friends who are on the job market work together to share materials, practice job talks and mock interviews, and give feedback on writing. When you’re generating your fellowship application materials, you should also solicit feedback from your friends and colleagues, asking if people will share their own materials with you or read your drafts and provide suggestions. Ideal readers might include people who also research in your field, who have been awarded the same or other fellowships before, who know your writing and research well, or who can help you with structure or copyediting.
A reminder: if you’re anything like me, you might get anxious when it comes to receiving constructive criticism about an application for something you really want. To help fight that urge, remember to ask specifically for the kind of feedback you need (grammar, structure, am I even answering the prompt, is this boring, etc.) and to set up a timeline with your reader that will give them time to read and comment and give you time to revise before the due date. Be sure to thank them for their labor, and offer to return the favor should they need it!
Working in the Archives
Whenever I’m in the archive, I want to be able to focus my entire attention on the materials. In order to make that process as streamlined as possible, I practice two things.
Tip 1: Plan Ahead
Most archives allow you to bring in a pencil and paper, but you will save yourself any unpleasant surprises by figuring out the following things ahead of time:
- Will the materials you want to work with be available when you want to visit?
- Do you need to sign up for an online research account?
- How should you request specific materials/boxes/folders ahead of time?
- Can you take photos of the materials? Digital or phone camera?
- Can you bring a laptop into the archive? What about a notebook?
- Will there be wifi?
- What will the temperature be inside the archive? Is there air conditioning?
- What are the archive’s rules about permissions for publishing?
All archives do things a little differently, so if you can’t find an answer online, I encourage you to contact an archivist directly (it’s probably a good idea to introduce yourself, anyways!). For example, the ONE allowed me to photograph any item, the Sophia Smith Archive required me to include in my photos a backdrop page with their name on it, and the Kinsey archive restricted photographing to only materials that were “published.”
Finally, if possible, you should solicit suggestions from friends or colleagues about their personal experiences working in the same archive, just in case there’s any hints they might be able to share.
Tip 2: Organize Now to Save Headaches Later
If you do everything I listed in Tip 1, you’ll be well prepared to hit the ground running when you arrive at the archive. It’s important that you manage your time wisely while you’re there, so I encourage you to do the following:
- Bring a printed copy of the finding aid that you can write notes on while you work.
- If you’re taking photos of the materials, note which photos on your camera roll start and end a box or folder. Take a filler photo of the table or the floor in between photosets so you know when items begin and end (this is particularly helpful if you’re working with papers that all look similar when viewed on a photo roll).
- Don’t waste time in the archive writing detailed notes about each item. You can do this later at home or in your office. My advice is to note your questions or reflections as you go, or to have code symbols to write by short notes (i.e., * means “this relates to my hypothesis”).
- At the same time, don’t just photograph EVERYTHING unless you truly have time and a need to. If your time in the archive is limited or you’re trying to get through a lot of materials, you’ll need to learn how to skim for key terms and resist the urge to read every item in full. For example, I read probably 8 of the 12 boxes of materials in the Ben collection, as I don’t need to read those other 4 boxes at this stage in my research and I know I’ll return to the archive again in the future.
- If your fellowship includes copy costs, you may be able to ask the archivist or their intern to assist you with making copies.
- Be sure to use programs and systems that work for you. I use the app Scanner Pro to convert photos to PDFs and upload them to my Google Drive, and I use Google Docs to keep track of my notes by Series, Box, and Folder, respectively.
Make Your Letter of Recommendation (LOR) Work for You
Once, one of my recommenders was particularly swamped when I asked them to draft an LOR for me, so they asked me to write up a first draft of the letter on my own and then send it to them to edit and revise.
THIS WAS A GAME CHANGER.
Writing about my research in the third person required me to clearly describe my project, and assuming the ethos of my recommender (whose research differed from mine in methods and topic) provided me with an extra sense of confidence to claim how important my research was to my field.
The key takeaway here is that drafting an LOR about my research project better prepared me to describe my project with clarity and confidence in my own application materials. The next time you have to write an application or project proposal, first try to write about yourself and your research through the voice of a recommender and then transfer that direct confidence to your own materials!
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
If you’ve never asked a mentor or advisor for a letter of recommendation or reference, the general rules are threefold:
- Give them as much time as possible to write your letter. I try for 1-3 months, if possible.
- Don’t assume they will say yes—they might simply be too busy or not feel that they are the right fit for this particular project.
- Make the task as easy as possible for them by providing them with as much information as possible.
Here’s a sample of a request I’ve written to professors asking them to write an letter for me:
Would you consider recommending me for TITLE OF THING I’M APPLYING FOR? Here is the official webpage for the call: HYPERLINK.
This particular TITLE OF THING would benefit my RESEARCH/DISSERTATION/ETC. greatly because AUTHENTIC, CONCISE DESCRIPTION OF WHY. I will prepare LIST MATERIALS YOU WILL PREPARE FOR THE APPLICATION, and if you would like I am happy to provide you with my MATERIALS ahead of time in order to help you compose a letter.* The due date for submission is DUE DATE.
Please let me know if you are interested and able to write me a letter. Thank you kindly for considering!
*NOTE: Only offer to share your materials if you really will have them ready ahead of time. If not, you could instead say “I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about my RESEARCH/PROJECT PROPOSAL/ETC.”
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.
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