James Smithson Fellowship

Theme for 2020: Open Access

The Smithsonian Institution is a trusted knowledge organization with 155 million objects reflecting culture, history, art, and science of the world. While the Smithsonian has an active scholarly and research staff, there are many discoveries and insights left to be made. The goal of the 2020 James Smithson Fellowship is to help the Smithsonian in fulfilling its “diffusion” mission with 21st century technology, to engage the world in creating new knowledge. Post-docs interested in pursuing research and improving the public’s access to the Smithsonian are encouraged to apply.

In no particular order, independent research through the 2020 James Smithson Fellowship might relate but not be limited to topics such as:

Empirical Analyses of Program Data
Application of Machine Learning/A.I. in Cultural Organizations
Data Improvement At-Scale
Cultural Responsibilities in an Open Knowledge Landscape
Accessibility Responsibilities in an Open Knowledge Landscape
Marketing and Advertising for Public Audiences

  • Artists/Designers
  • K12 Teachers and Students
  • University Students
  • Digital Humanities Scholars
  • Science Researchers
  • Computer Scientists
Solving issues in Digitization and Data Quality
Policy Aspects of Making Collections Accessible
Citizen Science

Crowdsourcing Research
The Economics of Open Knowledge
Increasing Gender Representation in Collections
Making Discipline Focused Research More Accessible
Solving Environmental Challenges with Historic Scientific Data


The Smithsonian Institution has a unique role in American life. It is a steward of our nation’s treasures, a generator of new knowledge through research, and a convener through public exhibitions, programs and educational resources.

Smithsonian leaders, scientists, curators and staff are experts in their fields. They are public spokespersons, quoted in the media, whose knowledge can shape the world we live in. They are scholar-practitioners familiar with the halls of government in Washington, DC, who testify before lawmakers, work with executive branch agencies, or help inform programs and policies of national and global impact.

The James Smithson Fellowship was started through the vision and generosity of Paul Neely, past chair of the Smithsonian National Board.


The James Smithson Fellowship Program was created to offer early career opportunities for post-doctoral researchers interested in gaining a better understanding about the interplay between scholarship and public policy through a Smithsonian lens.  While this fellowship provides an immersion experience working with Smithsonian researchers and relevant collections, it also affords fellows a hands-on opportunity to explore relationships between research and public policy through direct interaction with Smithsonian leaders, and with policy leaders throughout the Washington, DC network.

The program is designed for a new generation of leaders, who seek an experience that leverages both scholarly and practical expertise in an environment of innovation like no other. The goals of the James Smithson Fellowship Program provide fellows with the opportunity to:

  • Conduct scholarly research at the Smithsonian
  • Strengthen understanding of the interplay between research and public policy
  • Gain skills at leveraging research to inform conversations about public policy

How It Works:

The James Smithson Fellowship Program is open to post-doctoral students in the fields of science, the humanities and the arts. Applicants submit proposals to pursue independent research that makes use of Smithsonian experts, facilities, and/or collections – that align with one of the subject areas defined by the Smithsonian strategic plan’s five grand challenges: Magnifying the Transformative Power of Arts and Design, Understanding the American Experience, Valuing World Cultures, Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, and Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe.

As part of their proposal, applicants must identify a Smithsonian expert listed in the Smithsonian Opportunities for Research and Study guide to serve as their research advisor during the fellowship. Before submitting their applications, applicants should make contact with a prospective research advisor to verify that the Smithsonian expert they have identified is a good fit for their proposed research project, and also available to serve as a research advisor during the proposed fellowship tenure.

In addition to the opportunity to conduct independent research, those who accept awards under the James Smithson Fellowship Program form the James Smithson Fellow Cohort during their time at the Smithsonian. As members of this cohort, James Smithson Fellows are obliged to participate in a series of activities (i.e. conferences, meetings, presentations, etc.) designed to enrich their fellowship experience by highlighting aspects of public policy that inform scholarly research, and visa-versa.

Though absences from cohort activities can be excused by the Office of Fellowships and Internships under extenuating circumstances, full participation in cohort activities is generally required as a condition of being a part of the James Smithson Fellowship Program.

During the James Smithson Fellowship experience, empirical research and study into the interplay between research and public policy is meant to be simultaneous and synergistic. See descriptions of previous James Smithson Fellowship projects below.

How to Apply:

The James Smithson Fellowship Program is offered in every even numbered year.  All applications must be submitted through the Smithsonian Online Academic Appointment System (SOLAA) 

Each application must include:

  • Candidate Statement: A summary of background and expertise; practical interests related to an area of study; career objectives and how the fellowship may support those goal (no more than two pages).
  • Abstract : Abstract of the proposed research (no more than one page).
  • Research Proposal: Excluding other parts of the application such as the abstract and bibliography this is the  full statement of your research (no more than 1,500 words, maximum of six pages with 12-point typescript, double-spaced). In preparing your proposal, be sure to provide and address the following:
    • A description of the research you plan to undertake at the Smithsonian Institution, including the methodology to be utilized.
    • Description of how you see your proposal serving the public policy engagement component of this fellowship.
    • The importance of the work, both in relation to the broader discipline and to your scholarly goals.
    • Justification for conducting your research at the Smithsonian and utilization of our research facilities and resources.
    • Identify the Smithsonian research staff who will serve as your principal advisor. Identification of a Smithsonian advisor is a requirement. You are strongly encouraged to correspond with your advisor in preparing your proposal.
  • Timetable: Estimate of the time period it will take to achieve your research objectives.
  • Budget and Justification: Budget and justification for equipment, supplies, research-related travel costs, and other support required to conduct the research itself. This excludes stipend and relocation costs. You are encouraged to discuss potential research costs with your advisor before submitting your application.  If the funds you require exceed the maximum research allowance of $4,000, please explain the source of the additional funds.
  • Bibliography: Bibliography of literature relevant to the applicant’s proposed research (no more than two pages).
  • Curriculum vitae: Current curriculum vitae that highlights education, expertise, achievements and honors, and publications. Should include a description of your research interests (not to exceed five pages). Also, if English is not your native language, describe the level of your proficiency in reading, conversing and writing in English.
  • Transcripts: Transcripts from terminal degree institution(s) are required. Unofficial transcripts are acceptable.
  • References: You will need the name and email address of three persons familiar with your research. These references will be asked to submit a confidential letter of recommendation online.
    • Encourage your references to submit their letters by the application deadline.
    • Please provide a copy of your proposal and a copy of the Letter to Reference (downloadable PDF) to each of your references. Each applicant is responsible for ensuring that all letters of from references are submitted by the deadline. Applications with fewer than three letters of recommendation may not be considered.

Selection Criteria:

Please note above the current theme for the James Smithson Fellowship program.

Applications will be evaluated by both Smithsonian leadership and by scholars in appropriate fields. Candidates are evaluated on the the following criteria:

  • The degree to which the proposed research is innovative and relates to the theme;
  • The level to which the proposed research project relates to public policy issues surrounding the theme;
  • How the proposal addresses policy and public engagement; 
  • The applicant’s ability to carry out the proposed research and study;
  • The likelihood that the research can be completed in the requested time;
  • The extent to which the Smithsonian, through its research staff members and resources, can contribute to the proposed research and the applicant’s interests;
  • How closely the applicant’s career aspirations relate to the opportunity;
  • Candidate’s potential for leadership as evidenced by past performance;
  • The quality of the candidate’s academic record

Only applicants who have identified a research advisor will be reviewed for this Fellowship. Applicants also may be required to participate in a phone interview.

The Smithsonian Fellowship Program does not discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, gender stereotyping, pregnancy, and sexual orientation), national origin, age, disability, genetic information, parental status, or marital status of any applicant.

The Smithsonian Fellowship Program does not discriminate on grounds of race, creed, sex, age, marital status, condition of handicap, or national origin of any applicant.

No employee or contractor of the Smithsonian Institution may hold a Smithsonian fellowship during the time of his/her employment or contract, nor may an award be offered to any person who has been employed by or under contract to the Institution in the previous year, without the prior approval of the Office of Fellowships.

Back to Top