Blog Post

How to Apply to an NEH Summer Institute

cropped image of blue t-shirt reading #MaterialDigitalBook NEH Summer

Got plans for next summer?

Are you considering applying for an NEH Summer Institute? Do you desire a life-altering experience surrounded by intellectuals that all love the same things you do but approach them from different perspectives, methodologies, fields? Do you want to build a network, a cohort of fast friends that offer support and encouragement, are generous with their time and talents, and share their experiences about research and pedagogy in and out of academia? Do you enjoy challenging yourself with theoretical readings, listening to inspiring presentations from expert guest speakers, exploring rare artifacts from special collections, and experiencing hands-on activities to enhance your understanding of the materials? If this reads like a summer camp brochure, that's because it basically is. There is something magical about a group of strangers meeting at the beginning of the summer without a clue what they are in store for and walking away a tight-knit group with inside jokes, swapped crafts, and lots of hugs and tears.

Here are some tips, some anecdotes, and some encouragement. If I can do it, you can too!

  1. The first step is to read the calls for applications every winter and look for one that seems like a great fit for you. This year, the applications were due March 1st, so consider that as a likely deadline.
  2. If you find one that sounds really interesting to you, read the call carefully to find out what the director of the institute is looking for in the applicants. The NEH mentions that preference goes to those who have not attended before, so consider the odds in your favor! Some may mention specifically that they are looking to include adjuncts, postdocs, advanced graduate students, etc.
  3. The call will specify what documents you should provide. In my case, they asked for an application cover sheet, CV with references, and application essay. Make sure that the information is complete and accurate and that the documents are well formatted to make it easy for the directors to read.
  4. The application essay is the most important as you write to demonstrate why you are a great fit and persuade the directors that you are a valuable asset to a team that they are recruiting. That's why it's especially important to read their call to see what they are looking for.
    "Application essays should explain how the specific program will benefit the participant professionally. They should, therefore, address the following:
    • your quality and commitment as a teacher, scholar, and interpreter of the humanities;
    • your intellectual interests as they relate to the topic of the seminar or institute;
    • your special perspectives, skills, or experiences that would contribute to the program;
    • evidence that participation will enhance your long-term teaching and scholarship; and
    • if appropriate, an independent project and its potential contribution to the seminar or institute."
      In your application essay, highlight what previous experiences you have that relate to the topic. (If this sounds vague, feel free to read my application essay for specifics.)
  5. If you are lucky, they will provide you with information about the schedule of events, including guest speakers, readings, field trips, etc. Do these align with what you have already been researching? That's great! If not, consider doing some research on the people, places, and texts. If you gain nothing else from this application experience, you probably have new items to add to your reading list and new scholars to follow on Twitter!
  6. Ask someone you trust to read over your materials, provide you with suggestions and feedback, and take their advice to heart. Also ask trusted advisors if they are willing to serve as positive references. If the application calls for letters of recommendation, be sure to ask with plenty of advanced notice, and have your materials as well as the call readily available for your advisors to reference.
  7. Submit your materials in a timely manner in the method indicated. If they want it mailed and postmarked, make sure you've built in time to visit your local USPS. If they ask you to email it, make sure you've spelled all the addresses correctly; better yet, copy and paste directly. If they ask you to submit through Submittable, create an account and test to make sure it works well before the deadline.
  8. Once you have submitted your materials, DO NOT THINK ABOUT IT ANYMORE! If you get accepted, you will still have time to plan after you are notified.
  9. If you are rejected, know that it is extremely competitive and should not discourage you from applying again in the future. Take their feedback to heart, inform those who helped you with the application (they want to know), and thank them for their time. If you are accepted, congratulations, your summer adventure awaits you!

I applied for the first time in 2014 and got rejected because they could not admit many graduate students and did not consider my progress sufficiently advanced (pre-ABD). It stung at the time, but in hindsight, they were absolutely right! This time around the institute was a better fit for my research interests and I had more to contribute to the group with four more years of experience (+ ABD status).

I am so grateful that I did not get accepted the first time around or else I could not have participated in this institute, The Book: Material Histories and Digital Futures, organized by Melissa Helquist, Lisa Bickmore, and Charlotte Howe. I seriously had the time of my life! I consider them lifelong mentors and friends as well as my fellow participants. We even have our own t-shirts :) Want to learn more about the fantastic lineup, including Nicole Howard, Johanna Drucker, Jonathan Senchyne, Mara Mills, and Anna Arnar? Check out the program overview. Want some day by day reflections from the amazingly talented Jenae Cohn? Read her insightful blog posts.

From HASTAC scholar to NEH scholar, I have gained so much from joining networks of like-minded yet diverse scholars and recommend that you find your people, wherever they might be


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