Applying for a Fulbright: one reviewer’s POV

I definitely did not have time this September to read and evaluate sixty 25-40 page applications from mid-career and senior scholars and artists to the region of Australia/ New Zealand. I said yes anyway because I was grateful for my 2011 Fulbright to Wellington and felt obligated to pay that generosity forward. I also knew I’d gain insights that might be useful if I ever try for Round Two and certainly could help colleagues and friends trying for similar opportunities.

Insight #1: it’s a miracle I won one of these babies. Fulbright fellowships are amazing, transformative, and few and far between. The agency receives some half-baked applications, but it also sifts through piles of outstanding proposals for highly significant projects from unbelievably gifted and well-credentialed applicants in every field from film-making to chemical engineering, and there are only a few winners for each region. Clearly you have to write a great proposal, but you also have to be lucky, because there are more brilliant projects than can possibly be funded. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, although you should be philosophical about the odds and have a back-up plan.

The Basics on Applying for Grants—You Know This, Right?

You have already applied, successfully, to college and grad school, and probably with mixed success for scholarships and a million other opportunities. You know to seek the advice of acquaintances with related experience and start long before the deadline, because glitches happen (the referee falls ill, tech crashes). You should only apply for grants at the appropriate level (no, exceptions will not be made) and only if you genuinely want to attend that humanities seminar in Siberia—don’t waste time, effort, and referee goodwill if you’re not serious and don’t have an actual shot. Really read the instructions to make sure you know what the grantor is looking for and ask for help if you don’t. For individual fellowships to develop your research or your art, and possibly to fund a sabbatical if you’re an academic, you should also think hard about those referees. Ideally they know you well, admire your work, and hail from different institutions to show the breadth of your connections; they should also be able to testify to the skills you’ll exercise in this particular project (it’s alarming when all the referees for a teaching fellowship say “I’ve never seen her teach but she’s quite charming personally.”) It’s fine if they all know you from different contexts and can testify to different aspects of your career—just make sure the puzzle pieces will fit together into a meaningful whole.

Fulbright Specific Things.

In the region and at the levels I read for, you can apply for research or research/ teaching fellowships, but not just teaching. The deadline is August 1. Proposals are swiftly sent to disciplinary experts who write up short evaluations. If they’re good they help people in other disciplines sift through to the key elements: this journal is top-rate, the research is cutting-edge because x, the sample syllabi are outdated because y, referee no. 3 is a field leader. They’re mostly good. Occasionally, however, some mathematician will offer (probably feeling positively verbose because he’s using words instead of symbols): “A good proposal from a hard-working fellow with respectable qualifications. Should be funded.” Defend against such cryptic obliquity, if you can, by providing your own context for your accomplishments. Sometimes an essay prize or a citation index makes all clear, but remember you will have poet-readers who don’t know biopolymers from colloids, much less how prestigious that visiting lecture series is. Tell us clearly but non-arrogantly what it all means.

The next stage, by the way, involves 4 jurors from different fields who get the applications in mid-September and have to read and comment on them all before a meeting in D.C. in early October. We write up bullet-point comments in three areas: applicant credentials; the quality of the proposal; the significance/ likely outcomes of the proposal. Sixty long and diverse applications, three weeks, hellaciously busy point in the school year: absorb that math. We’re conscientious people, but skimmable applications that are unjargonishly clear about method, deliverables, and significance please us.

Your audience is professional.

Avoid overly general pitches beginning with platitudes such as “science is beautiful” that you might direct at sixth graders or politicians. We’re on board with the premise that research and artistic production are worthwhile for their own sake. Get right to the specifics.

Your audience, however, includes people from radically different disciplines.

What would you say if you were explaining this project to a smart acquaintance from an opposite field, who didn’t know thing one about standard ideas and practices in your subspecialty but who catches on to the basics pretty fast? Make sure that person, reading your proposal, knows why the research matters. The best proposals play out the work’s significance not only within a specialty but to other fields, and sometimes even to government policy, public health, cross-cultural understanding, and other aspects of, you know, life. In the world.

Sound like a Fulbrighter.

You should be eager to contribute generously to your host institution through advising students, giving workshops, and participating in seminar series, and perhaps to the larger community through general interest lectures. You have a lot to give. Know, however, that you will also be helped, possibly even radically changed, by this experience.

I don’t think it’s smart to wax lyrical in your application about the wonders of international immersion. If a past international experience has changed how you think, say so in a specific way that relates your research, and then get back to those project details. It’s worse, though, to sound like a jerk who knows that the poor folks in this remote backwater would be lucky to have you around for a few months.

Plan a project that really requires you to be on site for archival work, equipment use, collaboration, interviews, whatever. Conceive of it from the beginning as a two-way flow of open-minded goodwill and energetic mutual usefulness. Then, even though you’re talking about a hypothetical and faraway time and place, be as specific as you can about what you have to give and hope to learn.

And good luck. Winning altered the course of my professional life—my scholarship, poetry, reading, teaching, even my social connections are richer for the experience. My children now understand that they live not just in the US but in a huge, weird, fascinating world; they dwell in it with greater self-confidence. Trying for this long-shot lucky break was one of the most important and rewarding risks I’ve ever taken.

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