The Mellon Foundation’s Sawyer Seminars were established in 1994 to provide support for comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments. 

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View a complete list of past funded seminars.

Named in honor of the Mellon’s long-serving third president, John E. Sawyer, the seminars have brought together faculty, foreign visitors, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from a variety of fields mainly, but not exclusively, in the arts, humanities, and interpretive social sciences, for intensive study of subjects chosen by the participants.

Mellon support aims to engage productive scholars in comparative inquiry that would (in ordinary university circumstances) be difficult to pursue, while at the same time avoiding the institutionalization of such work in new centers, departments, or programs. Sawyer Seminars are, in effect, temporary research centers.

Each seminar normally meets for one year. Faculty participants have largely come from the humanities and social sciences, although faculty members in the arts and from professional schools have also been key participants in a number of seminars.  Seminar leaders are encouraged also to invite participants from nearby institutions, such as community colleges, liberal arts colleges, museums, research institutes, etc. As Mellon reviews proposals, preference is given to those that include concrete plans for engaging participants with diverse affiliations.

Sawyer Seminar awards provide support for one postdoctoral fellow to be recruited through a national (or international) competition, and for the dissertation research of two graduate students.  It is expected that the graduate students will be active participants in the intellectual life of the seminars. The seminars' contributions to graduate education in the humanities and social sciences will be carefully considered even though they are not intended to be organized as official credit-bearing courses.

There is no requirement that they produce a written product.

Selection and Award Process

Institutions are invited to submit proposals for a Sawyer Seminar. It is expected that university administrators and others will communicate Mellon's invitation and the particulars of the program broadly to the faculty. Institutions are to decide through an internal process which proposals they will submit for our consideration.

Proposals should describe: (1) the originality and significance of the central questions to be addressed; (2) the cases to be compared (e.g., nations, regions, social aggregates, time periods) and the rationale for the comparisons that are selected; (3) the thematic "threads" that will run through the seminar; (4) the institution's resources and suitability for the proposed seminar; and (5) the procedures to be used in selecting graduate and postdoctoral fellows. Additionally, proposals should include a budget and a well-developed preliminary plan for the seminar that outlines the specific topics to be addressed in each session and provides the names and qualifications of the scholars who would ideally participate.

After they are submitted to the Mellon Foundation, proposals are reviewed by an advisory committee of distinguished scholars. In a typical year, approximately two-thirds of proposals are recommended for funding. The seminars recommended by the committee are put before the Board Chair and Foundation Officers for approval.

Following approval, funds are disbursed to the host institution. Past experience suggests that it can take a year or more to organize the seminars.


Maximum awards are determined with each competition and are included in the letter of invitation. It is expected that each seminar’s budget will provide for a postdoctoral fellowship to be awarded for the year the seminar meets, and two dissertation fellowships for graduate students to be awarded for the seminar year or the year that follows. The amount for postdoctoral fellowship awards and dissertation fellowship stipends should follow institutional practices.

To acknowledge the sustained intellectual involvement of those graduate students in the seminar, institutions may include tuition support or, for those funded by existing fellowships, supplementary support such as research and travel funds. Travel and living expenses for short stays by visiting scholars and the costs of coordinating the seminar, including those incurred for speakers and their travel, may also be included. The grants may not, however, be used for the costs of release time for regular faculty participants, or for indirect costs.