NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

The fellowship encourages a new generation of scholars from various disciplines and professional fields to undertake research relevant to improving education.

Funding status
Open for applications

Career stage

Earliest start date
Jun 1, 2025

Application opens
Jul 1, 2024

Application deadline
Oct 3, 2024 – 5:00 pm ET

Duration of award
Varies (generally one year)

Contact details

The NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship encourages a new generation of scholars from a wide range of disciplines and professional fields to undertake research relevant to the improvement of education. This fellowship supports candidates whose dissertation projects bring innovative and insightful approaches to the history, theory, analysis, or application of formal and informal education.

As a highly competitive initiative, this fellowship annually identifies and supports 35 of the most exceptional researchers conducting dissertation studies relevant to education.

The award

The fellowship supports fellows with the writing phase of their dissertation and alleviates the need for significant employment. The fellowship comprises three key components:

  1. Fellows receive $27,500 for one academic year, distributed in two installments.
  2. Fellows participate in two professional development retreats facilitated by NAEd members and other distinguished scholars. These retreats offer general and specialized discussions to enhance the fellows’ research capabilities and academic growth.
  3. Fellows choose an NAEd member or another esteemed scholar as a mentor, providing guidance and support throughout the academic year.


To receive the fellowship, applicants must:

  1. Be candidates for the doctoral degree at a graduate school within the United States. US citizenship is not required.
  2. Complete all pre-dissertation requirements by June 1 of the award year.
  3. Provide a clear and specific plan for completing the dissertation within one or two-years.
  4. Propose an education research project.
  5. Submit an individual application as we will not accept group applications.

Funding priority

The dissertation topic must focus primarily on education, but the fellowship welcomes graduate students from any academic discipline or professional field. Fellowship recipients have included candidates from anthropology, architecture, art history, communications, economics, education, history, linguistics, literature, philosophy, political science, psychology, public health, religion, and sociology. The fellowship does not limit eligibility to these fields. Candidates should demonstrate their interest in conducting educational research after earning their doctorate.

Application review process

Review occurs in four stages:

  1. Staff screen applications for completness and fit (i.e., research focuses on education).
  2. Two senior scholars in the applicants’ discipline evaluates the application. About half of the applications do not move forward.
  3. The selection committee reviews the remaining applications in February. Each application is reviewed by two committee members. The committee then chooses approximately 60 semifinalists. All applicants are notified of their status after this review. Semifinalists submit an update on their research, timeline, budget, and other pertinent details.
  4. The selection committee reviews the remaining applications in April. Each application is reviewed by five committee members. The committee then chooses 35 finalists. All remaining applicants are notified of their status after this review.

Evaluation criteria

The fundamental selection criteria follow:

  1. Importance of the research question to education
  2. Quality of the research approach and feasibility of the work plan
  3. Applicant’s future potential as a researcher and interest in education research

However, the selection committee will consider these specific questions during deliberation:

  • To what extent does the narrative discussion of the dissertation show knowledge of relevant research in the field? To what extent is it grounded in pertinent theory?
  • To what extent is the study’s argued relevance to education convincing? To what extent is the study likely to yield new knowledge about an important educational issue?
  • To what extent does the proposal explicate the following (as relevant to the project): design and logic of the study; sources of evidence; measurement and classification; and nature of analysis and interpretation? To what extent are the methodology and analysis plans described in sufficient detail to evaluate their appropriateness for this specific study?
  • To what extent does the proposal (whether by rationale for data analysis or by a discussion of preliminary results) make a case that the dissertation is likely compelling and important to the broader field of education research?
  • To what extent does the narrative discussion display strong authorship skills, with clear organization and structure?
  • Is the applicant likely to complete his/her doctoral studies within the time-frame the fellowship allows (one year full-time or two years half-time), or soon thereafter?
  • What is the likelihood that the applicant will continue to conduct research and scholarly activities in the field of education?

Application components

You will submit the following components as part of your application through the online portal:


  • Demographic data
  • Education history
  • Employment history
  • A list of scholarships, fellowships, and assistantships you have received or have applied
  • A list of honors and awards received
  • A list of publications and presentations
  • Information about the completion of pre-dissertation requirements
  • Language(s) proficiency

Personal statement

Applicants will describe:

  • How their educational work and experiences have prepared them for doing research on this dissertation topic
  • What career path they hope to pursue after completing the dissertation, including any plans to remain focused on education research in the future.

Work plan

The NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship supports one year of full-time writing of your dissertation, not data collection or course work. We expect fellows to complete thier dissertation by the end of their fellowship, as noted in your work plan. Applicants who cannot work full-time on their dissertation may specify a work plan of up to two years that allows for part-time work for the duration of the fellowship or for alternating periods of dissertation work and income-producing work. You may begin the fellowship as early as June 1.

Applicants will provide a tentative start and end date to their fellowship, and provide dates when they expect to complete each phase of their dissertation (e.g. completion of data analysis, completion of individual chapters, and dissertation to committee) within the online application. Applicants can include goals and activities that will precede the fellowship start date on the timeline.


In a single-spaced paragraph, summarize the substantive focus and research design of the dissertation and its contribution to education. Include the purpose, methods, and scope of the dissertation.

Narrative discussion
In no more than 10 double-spaced pages with one-inch margins, and at least 11-point Times New Roman font, describe the dissertation. The document is to have page numbers, the applicant’s full name, and email address as a running header.

In the narrative, include the goals of the project, its contribution to the field, and the significance of the work, especially as it relates to education. Place the project in context, and outline the theoretical grounding and the relevant literature. Describe the research questions and research design, the methods of gathering and analyzing data, and interpretation techniques. If preliminary findings or pilot data are available, these should be described briefly – especially if they illustrate how the applicant will be conducting thematic analyses or applying coding systems to the data. Lack of clarity in treatment of data with respect to the research question(s) is often a problem area in applications.

Each proposal is reviewed by senior scholars familiar with the field and by others less familiar; thus, situate language specific to a field within an argument persuasive to a generalist audience.

Append a single-spaced, max two page, bibliography of the sources most important to the project (include works cited in the narrative).

Upload your narrative and bibliography as one document (maximum of 12 pages). You may include technical and supplemental appendices (charts, graphs, tables, questionnaires, etc.) that do not count towards the limit. However, be judicious, as we do not require judges to review material in the appendices. You are to include information essential to understanding the project in the narrative (including any coding systems).

Graduate transcripts

Applicants must upload a graduate transcript. An unofficial copy is sufficient.

Letters of recommendation

We require two letters of recommendation: one from the applicant’s dissertation director/chair and one from another faculty member. Recommenders must submit their letters online. We will only accept two letters per applicant. We recommend you request letters early as letter writers have the same deadline as applicants. We will not allow extensions.

Once you submit the name and email of your recommenders, the online application will send an automated request to submit. As a precaution, we recommend applicants notify reviewers that the email is forthcoming and to check their spam folder if they do not see the invitation in their inbox.

Each recommender will address the following:

  • Your relationship to the student;
  • Your evaluation of the student relative to other students you have worked with;
  • The strength of the proposed dissertation research and its relevance to educational improvement;
  • The project’s connection to existing research on the topic, and the potential contribution of that dissertation to that literature;
  • The student’s future potential as a scholar and likelihood that their research will continue to address education;
  • The student’s apparent long-term contributions to research in education.


The Spencer Foundation published three how-to guides applicants may find beneficial while working on their proposals.

Overall, a strong proposal presents a well-grounded and convincing argument for the proposed research. Fellowships are won on the strength of their innovative and important ideas and the extent to which the proposed methods further these ideas. These guides should not be thought of as definitive checklists for crafting a successful proposal, but rather, they offer helpful guidance for writing field-initiated research grant proposals and designing strong quantitative and qualitative methods.

In addition to the guides, applicants may find the Social Science Research Council’s “On the Art of Writing Proposals” beneficial.


When is the notification of awards?
We will notify semi-finalists in May.

Is there an example of a successful application from previous years?
The NAEd does not make previous applications publicly available.

Can I receive feedback on my application?
No. Due to the quantity of applications we receive, we do not provide feedback on dissertation applications.

I was looking at the list of previous fellows, and I do not see my institution represented, am I eligible to apply?
Yes. The fellowship is open to all graduate institutions within the U.S. We encourage applicants from institutions not listed to apply!

Can applicants apply even if they are not in a department or school of education?
Yes. Doctoral candidates from any field are welcome to apply if their dissertation topic centrally relates to education and shows promise of contributing to the understanding of the history, theory, or practice of education.

How broadly does the NAEd/Spencer Foundation define education?
The NAEd and Spencer’s definition of education is quite broad and encompasses education in its many forms: formal and non-formal, U.S. and non-U.S., early childhood through adult, school settings and non-school settings, and so forth.

What if an applicant is unsure if/how their dissertation topic relates to education?
We have a long history of supporting projects related to education. Applicants should look at the listing of grants awarded during past years to assess the range of topics supported. Past grants are not an indication of the only substantive topics of interest. It is the applicant’s responsibility to state clearly and explicitly the connection between the proposed research and the improvement of education. If an applicant can make a case that their research is relevant to education, consider applying. If you have a hard time making the case that your research is relevant to education, then you will probably have difficulty writing a competitive application. In addition, candidates should demonstrate their interest in conducting educational research after earning their doctorate.

Are non-U.S. citizens eligible to apply?
Non-U.S. citizens are eligible to apply if they are a candidate for a doctoral degree at a graduate school in the United States. International universities with charters in the United States do not meet eligibility qualifications.

Are applicants allowed to apply if a previous application was turned down?
Yes. Applicants may reapply for the fellowship if eligible. Re-applicants must submit a new application.

What are the specifications for finishing candidacy requirements in accordance with the NAEd timeline?
Applicants must complete all pre-dissertation requirements by June 1. Pre-dissertation requirements include:

  • Course requirements
  • Qualifying paper and/or comprehensive exams
  • Official approval of the dissertation proposal
  • Any other program-specific obligations

The fellowship funds the writing of your dissertation. Fellows will complete their doctorate by the end of the fellowship or soon after.

How long is the tenure of the fellowship?
The tenure is not less than one academic year (nine months) and not more than two calendar years (24 months). In applying for the fellowship, applicants will submit a work plan with milestones. The earliest start date is June 1. The selection committee must receive evidence showing that a candidate can finish their dissertation within the time specified.

Can fellows work during the fellowship year?
The fellowship provides fellows with support for the writing phase of the dissertation and to alleviate the need for significant employment. However, the NAEd recognizes that individuals have unique needs and circumstances, and fellows may have employment during the fellowship. The NAEd recommends no more than 10 hours/week. Applicants must seek approval from NAEd staff if they intend to work.

Can fellows accept other awards?
Applying for other funding will not hinder a candidate’s eligibility for the fellowship. However, applicants must notify the NAEd if they are offered another fellowship and discuss the nature and terms of the award.

In general:

  • Applicants offered an external fellowship (e.g., Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship or AERA Minority Dissertation Fellowship) may not accept the external award and the NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship concurrently.
  • Applicants offered an internal fellowship (i.e., from your department or university in which only students from the department or institution may apply and receive the award) may accept the internal award and the NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship concurrently.

Regardless of the award, you must contact NAEd staff for approval on a case-by-case basis.

Are there rules for how funding is spent?
Funds are to support a student while writing their dissertation. How the money is spent is up to each fellow’s own discretion. Funding that the fellowship may cover includes living expenses, medical/dental insurance, research equipment and/or expenses, books, workshops or conferences, and university tuition or fees.

In what style or format should we submit documents?
The NAEd accepts all major formatting and writing styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.).

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