Tips on Applying for a SAAM Fellowship

  • For more than fifty years, the Smithsonian American Art Museum's (SAAM) fellowship program has provided graduate students and postdoctoral scholars of U.S. art and visual culture with financial aid, unparalleled research resources, and a world-class network of colleagues. In this informative how-to video, SAAM Chair of Academic Programs, Amelia Goerlitz, introduces prospective fellows to the program and demystifies its application process. Learn about SAAM's holdings, related Smithsonian collections, and various fellowship opportunities available to scholars. Goerlitz reviews the eligibility requirements and levels of support and closes with detailed advice on how to craft a strong SAAM proposal.

    Applications are due November 1st for the following academic year.

    My name's Amelia Goerlitz and I'm chair of academic programs at the Smithsonian American Art Museum where I oversee our residential fellowship program and some of you may be quite familiar with the program for others this might be very new information but I hope either way you're going to walk away from this presentation with a better sense of what our program offers, how to apply, and how to direct your colleagues and students to apply. Although I'm going to be speaking about SAAM's Fellowship specifically some of my advice should also carry over for those of you interested in Fellowship opportunities elsewhere at the Smithsonian or even outside the Smithsonian.

    First, for those of you not familiar with our museum, I wanted to introduce it. SAAM, as we call ourselves, is located in downtown Washington DC and it's home to one of the largest and most inclusive collections of American art in the world. The collection spans the colonial period to the present and particular areas of strength include the Gilded Age and American Impressionist works, American sculpture, and images of the American West. We have the largest collection of New Deal art in the world, and we were early collectors in a few key areas including American photography. On the left is a new acquisition we're really excited about. We also were early collectors of modern folk and self-taught art. Here's one of our key pieces by James Hampton, a local artist, Works by American artists of African descent, I would venture to guess we have one of the largest collections. We also have a strong collection of work by Latinx artists. In recent years we have dramatically expanded our collection of contemporary art, time-based media art, and we have current collecting initiatives focused on work by Asian American and Native American artists. On the right is a new acquisition that we're very excited about by Kay WalkingStick. Modern and contemporary craft is housed in the Renwick Gallery, which is a curatorial department of the museum that is located right across from the White House and the building you see here.

    SAAM and its Renwick Gallery are among 20 museums and nine research centers that make up the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian is a federal organization that happens to be the largest museum and research complex in the world. The majority of Smithsonian museums are located in Washington DC, but we have two in New York City, two sites in Virginia, and we also operate a research center out of Panama. Our museums campus includes collections devoted to science, history, culture, and art. The eight museums devoted to art focus on art of Asia, African art, modern and contemporary art design, and American art, craft, and portraiture. A core component of our mission at SAAM is to encourage advanced research on art of the United States. We do this not only through our curatorial projects and exhibitions but through our Research and Scholar Center, which has been described as the "brain trust" of the field (we love that).

    A key part of the center is the fellowship program, which is the oldest largest and leading residential program for the study of American art. We support advanced research in all aspects of art of the art and visual culture of the United States. Here you can see our web page featuring interviews with four prominent alumni as well as other information about our program, so I encourage you to check that out. Our definition for the fellowship program of American art is as inclusive as possible: we welcome research on First Nations artists, immigrant artists, as well as artists who just spent a couple of years in the United States but had an impact on its art scene. Our fellowship supports international scholars as well as those who are working outside the discipline of art history in fields like American studies, cultural studies, gender sexuality studies. We especially encourage applications from those who are seeking to expand narratives of American art, or who are using inclusive models of research such as community engaged, or interdisciplinary collaborative or digital methods, We are seeking applications from those who have an understanding of the experiences of groups that have historically been underrepresented in our field. There are a lot of fellowship programs out there for scholars of American art compared to the past and each is a bit different, so I want to highlight what a SAAM Fellowship offers its participants.

    For many of the preeminent scholars working in the field of American art history, our program has been a rite of passage. Our alumni are authors of some of the leading publications in the field—a few of them you see here on the screen. They teach at universities and serve as curators and directors of museums around the globe. Having a fellowship at SAAM on your CV is recognized in our discipline as a mark of excellence and an endorsement of your work. This is also a residential program which is very unique. We typically have at least 16 scholars in residence at any time and, although each fellow is pursuing their own independent research project, they occupy a communal space. They are sharing feedback on each other's work and forming these small supportive scholarly communities. SAAM fellows also are folded into the Smithsonian's network of curators and historians and become part of an alumni group of over 600 former fellows.

    One of the primary reasons people come for a SAAM fellowship is to access the Smithsonian's wealth of research resources. At SAAM these include not just our collection but also our research databases and special collections. These include the photo archives the Nam June Paik archive. You see a screenshot here of a few items from that we have the Joseph Cornell Study Center. Our fellows also take a frequent advantage of the Archives of American Art, which is just one floor below us, and is the major repository of primary sources in the field so oral histories, gallery papers, and artist papers. Because we are part of the Smithsonian campus, our fellows are encouraged to conduct interdisciplinary research across the various science, history, and culture museums. Another hidden gem are the Smithsonian Institution libraries and archives. We have 21 specialized Branch libraries with rare books and manuscripts and vertical files that fellows can use within walking distance. Since we are downtown one can get to the Library of Congress, the U.S Capitol, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the National Gallery of Art. The center can be a convenient hub for anyone working on American art and visual culture.

    Unlike a number of fellowship programs, we also have built in professional development into our program. We convene these weekly lunchtime lectures on American art by local and visiting scholars. We also organize symposia and artists lectures. For the fellows, we invite subject experts in the field to lead workshops that are held on such topics as scholarly publishing and museum interpretation. We have fellows-led reading and writing groups and our fellows (now that we are reopened) have the option to lead a gallery talk on a work in the collection. Here you see a past fellow, Renee Ater, giving a talk on a work by Joe Minter in our collection.

    Mentorship is another aspect of the program. Fellows are asked when they are applying to identify a primary advisor or host at the museum and that person, along with any co-advisors and consultants here, can serve as mentors on the project. Depending on the fellow and curator that can be a really rich experience or it can be a little more hands-off. Also, because we have an and cohort made up of grad students; doctoral candidates; post-docs; and senior scholars, there is the opportunity for a fair amount of intergenerational scholarly exchange.

    I would say the last benefit of being at SAAM is that we take this active role in promoting our fellows and their work. We post abstracts for all our fellows' projects on our website, and we host an annual fellows lecture series for the public each May that's recorded and shared online for a year. Those are just a number of benefits to the program. It isn't the right fit for everyone; those who just need time and space to research and write may not be happy being part of such a tight-knit active community. If you have extensive research travel needs, or you just cannot temporarily relocate to Washington DC, there are non-residential programs that might be a better fit. Also, if the idea of placing your research project in dialogue with the field of American art—however expansive and contentious it may be—makes you uncomfortable, there may be other places you want to look. I'm sharing on the screen just a handful of places you might consider or recommend to colleagues. The first one I list is Aria, a Consortium of 27 research institutes that all grant residential fellowships in the visual arts and architecture. That's a great clearinghouse to go to to find specific programs. Some other options specific to American art are listed below.

    So now that you have a sense of our program and its alternatives, I want to get into the specifics of applying and the types of fellowships that we award. SAAM's program is administered as part of this broader umbrella program the Smithsonian institution Fellowship Program (SIFP). This is a centralized program, and it places fellows at the various Smithsonian units and all disciplines. SIFP, as we call it, has an annual application deadline of November 1st. It provides fellowships in materials research, social cultural history, the history of technology, and various sciences. Apart from SIFP, there are other Smithsonian fellowships that have their own application procedures and deadlines. You can find all of these programs on the Smithsonian academic appointments web page. The link is on your screen. Here are just a few of the specialized fellowships that the Smithsonian offers that are open to Scholars who are working on art history and visual culture topics. I really encourage folks to take a look at the various possibilities.

    Now back to SAAM and the SIFP, we offer fellowships to scholars at various levels for MA students and PhD students who have not yet advanced to candidacy but who have specific research projects that require access to Smithsonian collections. The SIFP offers these 10-week graduate student fellowships. Here at SAAM, we prefer these take place during the summer, so that that's a great option for earlier students. For those who are already ABD, the predoctoral fellowship supports dissertation research and writing. It is rare to be awarded a predoctoral fellowship in your first year of dissertating; however, it does occasionally happen, especially have research resources at the Smithsonian that you really need. I should note that predoctoral fellowships, as a rule, should not extend beyond the date of the dissertation defense. It's good to time this accordingly.

    We also offer postdoctoral fellowships for those within seven years of the PhD who are working on their first or second book or digital humanities project. Senior fellowships are open to those who are more than seven years beyond the PhD or to independent scholars who have an equivalent record of publishing and scholarship. Apart from our 10-week grad fellows, most SAAM fellows come for 12 months. But we do support residencies as short as three months and, for postdoctoral and senior fellows especially, a shorter term might be more of interest and can be easier for us to support with our limited funding. That said, I always encourage people to apply for what they need. If you have some flexibility on the dates that you can accept, you can put that in your proposal. Oftentimes the awards committee will trim award packages and it helps us to know you applied for 12 months but nine months is workable. If we need to cut it, that would be an acceptable length for you. At SAAM specifically, fellowship terms have to wrap up by the end of August 31st of the following year. If you visit SAAM's fellowship page you're going to see a number of named fellowships listed. These are used to fund projects that are submitted to the SIFP that match particular research priorities or funding criteria. It can be helpful to look on our web page and think about whether your project aligns with one of these fellowships. However, there are no special additional steps necessary, no special application. To apply for one of these, you just apply to the SIFP with a SAAM primary advisor listed and then you're automatically considered for these Awards if you're eligible.

    Stipend levels are set by our central Smithsonian Office of Academic Appointments and these are adjusted every few years. Graduate students get $8,000 for a set 10-week term; for predocs, it's $42,000 for a 12-month appointment; for postdocs and senior scholars it's $55,000. Shorter terms, for those we prorate your stipend by month. Predocs, postdocs, and senior fellows are also eligible for several allowances. You can apply for this research travel allowance of up to $5,000, which supports short research trips during your fellowship. For that you will need to submit an itemized budget request as part of the application. A few caveats: we don't fund research assistants, equipment is rarely funded but it depends on the project, and conference attendance is generally considered less of a priority than research travel to archives or collections. We also encourage SAAM fellows to limit their time away to about three weeks or less at a time if possible.

    Fellows are also eligible for a health insurance allowance if they enroll in a Smithsonian health insurance plan. We automatically assign a travel allowance to fellows based on where they're coming from. Here is an example of the fields you're asked to fill out and you can see they've been asked where they are traveling from and where are they traveling to. You're traveling to DC, based in New York City as your travel from location, that will determine your travel allowance. Smithsonian fellows are expected to secure their own housing. We are always looking for generous donors to donate housing to our program but, so far, it's not happened. So, for now, it's the fellow's responsibility. The stipend is intended to cover that cost as well as the cost of public transit fees; however, it does take some advanced planning to find affordable metro-accessible housing and our staff are here to help.

    Now, how to apply. There are two preliminary steps that are really going to help you strengthen your proposal. First is that you want to identify a Smithsonian advisor, or host, and consultants. Applicants, as I think I mentioned, to the SIFP are paired with a particular Smithsonian unit based on the primary advisor or host they've identified. If you're working on a topic in US art and visual culture and you want to be based at SAAM, you would try and identify a curator or historian from our staff to serve as your primary advisor. You can also propose a co-advisor from this unit or another unit, as well as several consultants from across the institution. Three is a good number. These individuals are going to be submitting reviews of your application, so I advise you reach out to them well in advance, provide them with the synopsis of your project, and let them know that you'd like to list them on your proposal. Sometimes someone is unavailable, and I can help you try and find a substitute.

    The second thing you're going to want to do is identify collections and resources that are specific to the Smithsonian. Even if you're closer to the writing stage than the research stage, the review committee is going to want to see that there is a reason for you to be in residence here, so you need to make the case. Research and then highlight in your proposal the primary resources archives collections and staff experts who are going to be helpful to you as you're researching your topic. For some scholars who are coming especially from abroad, the breadth of secondary resources at the Smithsonian or at the Library of Congress are really going to be key. You can also be specific about the various resources that you're planning to use here. That can be in your proposal as well as your research timeline.

    How do you identify advisors and resources when you are not already entrenched in the Smithsonian system? The best place to start is the Smithsonian Opportunities for Research and Study Guide. This is a guide that's published annually by the Office of Academic Appointments and it lists for each unit areas of collecting interest, research staff expertise, and various resources. All the research staff listed can be suggested as potential fellowship advisors or consultants. Here you see SAAM's listing from SORs, as we call it, and it includes their emails and special areas of focus. You can also find bios for all SAAM curators on our website. Most, but not all, Smithsonian research staff also have listings in what's called Smithsonian Profiles. The link to that is at the top right of your screen.

    So now to identify particular collections of relevance to your project. You might want to start with the Smithsonian Collections Search Center. This is a centralized online search engine that lists over 17.6 million objects, files, books, blog posts, and other records at the Smithsonian. I will tell you this went up from 0.5 to 0.6 overnight so it's constantly expanding. However, it is not a comprehensive database. There are many Smithsonian collections that are only partially cataloged online and very few of them digitized, so it's good to just be aware of that fact. However, it's a great resource for navigating this massive institution. The other thing to be aware of is that a record in the Collection Search Center is not the same thing as an object, so you'll need to pay attention to the type of record you pull. Here a search for Augustus Saint-Gaudens turned up in addition to actual artworks we own. These photographs of artworks from our SAAM inventories of American painting and sculpture, so we don't own the artworks. They may be in private collections or even lost. We just have the photographs.

    Another good place to turn are the websites of Smithsonian museums. Not all museums’ collections are online, but many have highlights at least on their website. Our collection is entirely searchable. The Smithsonian Libraries also has records for its book and manuscript collections as well as its vertical files, which are a great resource for Americanists. Here, the research tools page is a really useful place to start. The Archives of American Art website has collection descriptions, finding aids, and a lot of digitized items, and I will note that those applicants who require access to undigitized collections are probably going to be given some priority for funding when it comes to fellowship time. If you have exhausted these resources and you need additional assistance, email me for research consultation. I can offer feedback on proposed advisors; I can suggest collections you might not have considered. Now you've taken the preliminary steps and you're ready to apply let's talk about how to submit the strongest application.

    Here I'm showing you the landing page and the link for the Smithsonian Institution Fellowship Program. This page is going to give you explicit guidelines on each part of the application in SOLAA, the Smithsonian Online Academic Appointment System. There are several parts of the application: there is the abstract; the research proposal, and that's where you really flesh out your plan for the project; your methodology; your scholarly goals; the contribution of your work; and you’re also, in that space, justifying the reason for you to be at the Smithsonian. You're going to want to submit a timeline that lays out how much time you're going to need for each phase of the research project and then a diversity statement. This can be up to one page that talks about how your perspective experience and/or project contribute to a more inclusive diverse and equitable discipline. We ask you for a budget and justification. One thing to note: this is not for your cost of living; this is not for your moving to DC. This is just for research travel, and that again, is up to $5,000. We're going to ask you to include a bibliography, generally this is secondary literature relevant to your project. Transcripts are required for both the undergraduate and graduate programs if you are applying as a graduate student or a predoc. If you're applying as a postdoc, you only need to include your graduate transcript. If you're applying as a senior fellow none of this is required. If you are a non-native English speaker, we do ask you to translate your transcripts and indicate in your CV your level of language proficiency. Then, finally, we ask you for two references. One should be your advisor, if you're a predoc. Ideally if you're working with Indigenous communities, we also recommend you submit a tribal letter of approval or community endorsement.

    I want to provide some insights into what the Smithsonian reviewers are looking for in your application. They are all being judged really on four key criteria: the first is the originality and quality of the proposed research project. You're going to want to submit, first off, the strongest possible abstract. I'm sure you've heard this in job interviews and various things—advice regarding job interviews and job applications—but reviewers are going to be tired, they're going to be rushed and looking at dozens of applications. You really want the first thing they see, this abstract, to be bold and clear and compelling. It should give a full 365-degree scope of your project in a single double-spaced page. You want to lay out your argument or thesis, its contribution to the field, the structure of your project, the methodological approaches you will employ, and then key artists or case studies. I will say, because SAAM fellowships are museum-based, if you have a highly theoretical study, it's helpful if you can be really clear about which artists or artworks or exhibition form the core of the project.

    You also want to be clear in your abstract and proposal about what your project adds to or corrects existing scholarship. You might be in the weeds about your project, but the readers are not. Making a case for how your project is responding to current issues in art history, or American art in particular, is going to be helpful. You can also point to whether you're pushing scholarship [in] an entirely new direction altogether. You should be aware that at the Smithsonian, our review committee includes representatives from the various art museums, so your proposal should lay out the stakes for non-Americanists, as well as those specifically focused on American art.

    You're going to want to use a strong narrative limit your academic jargon. Especially in museums, there is less patience for “academese.” We really encourage you to include a chapter breakdown. It shows us that you've done the preliminary research to be able to make full use of a residential fellowship when you hit the ground. We understand the plan for the dissertation, or the book or digital project may change, but we still want to see you flesh it out as is in the moment when you apply. You can include a few images but just be aware that those count towards the six-page limit on the research proposal. Then, finally, you want to make sure your bibliography is up-to-date and shows a real firm grasp of the state of literature relevant to your project. Those bibliographies—I've seen be anywhere from two to seven pages—it just depends. Probably shorter is better, but I will note, if a major exhibition or a Smithsonian curator or fellow has published something in recent years in your area, please make sure to include that it's really helpful.

    The other main criterion for selection is going to be your project's compatibility with Smithsonian collections programs and staff expertise. Your proposal is going to want to answer the question “Why the Smithsonian?” “Why do you need to be here?” Be specific, yet realistic, about the resources you wish to use. You have the whole Smithsonian at your fingertips, so what are the crucial collections for your project? You obviously want to justify a residency but don't throw everything but the kitchen sink in there. If you don't plan to use a collection, don't list it.

    You can address this not only in your proposal but in your timeline. Here, I'm showing an example of a timeline submitted by one of our fellows. You can include major research trips, you note deadlines that you have for drafting chapters, months that you're planning to see archival resources or focus on writing. Then you want to make sure you're going to have the access that you need when you arrive at the Smithsonian. If you've listed in your application that you're planning to see 50 works by so and so in our storage or access a newly acquired artist papers, you need to have reached out in advance to the responsible curator or archivist and made sure that's possible. Just be aware that newly accessioned archives can be unavailable during their processing time, other collections might be under embargo, and that should be indicated on the finding aids. If you have a good relationship with a living artist or permission to use the archive of your subject, note that in your proposal. For those who are conducting research with Indigenous communities, you should provide information on the current state of your consultation with them, appropriate contacts, and what your plans are for sharing research findings with these communities after the fact.

    We also are looking at the qualifications of the candidate, obviously. This is where your CV, letters of reference, and transcripts come in. General rules of thumb: have you published anything from your project or dissertation thus far? That can be helpful, especially if it was in a peer-reviewed journal or volume. Have you presented your work at one or more professional conferences? Obviously, College Art Association is the foremost but there are many options, and you should be listing them. Have you chaired conference panels? Have you delivered invited lectures or written for museum publications? You're going to want to solicit letters of recommendation that are both strong and appropriate. For predocs one of these should be your primary advisor. For postdocs I recommend that you use your network to find someone who is well-respected in the field and familiar with your work. It's both name factor, as well as how well they can speak to your strengths. Now, you all know this, but make sure your referees have everything they need to prepare a glowing letter for the right program on time. Make sure they have the info they need to personalize your letter, ample lead time, [and] they know the deadline of November 1st. To make sure, I always would check in that they've received the automatic request from SOLAA, our online academic appointment system, because sometimes those requests go into their spam folders, and they never see it. It's good to touch base.

    Finally, the last thing that we're looking for is we're looking at your record and your diversity statement to see how you can help the Smithsonian improve equity in academia and museums which is part of our focus. The diversity statement is open on purpose; as I said, it asks you how your perspectives, experiences, and/or projects contribute to a more inclusive diverse and equitable discipline. You can talk about a variety of things here. It's open so that you can speak to the area in which you're comfortable. I should definitely emphasize that Smithsonian does not discriminate on grounds of race, color, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, national origin, age, or disability.

    Almost there. You may be asking yourself “Well what is the acceptance rate?” There are typically over one hundred applications each year to the Smithsonian Institution Fellowship Program History of Art Committee and the majority of those are focused on American art. The acceptance rate for predoctoral applicants is about 20%; for postdoctoral and senior applicants it's less at about 16%. This is because it's one pot of money; we have to make it go as far as possible. Because this is such a competitive program, repeat awards are rare. However, repeat applications are common. If your first application is unsuccessful there is absolutely no harm in reworking and resubmitting another proposal next year or the year after as you progress in your project. As you think about strengthening your application, hopefully you can go back to some of these guideposts that I've laid out, but you are also welcome to reach out to me and ask for feedback on your application if it's been less than a year. I can help summarize reviewer comments for you. I've been talking at you a lot, but I want to thank everyone for your time and attention. I'm putting on the screen my email if you have any follow-up questions and here is our website so thank you!