It has been a little over a year since I found out that I was offered a Fulbright grant to do research in Germany. I was so excited to see the email with (P) for Principal offer in the subject line, that I immediately forgot how to read.
It was just after noon when I received the news at work, and all I could do was gape and point at my computer screen, mouth and eyes wide open in shock. It was a most happy moment, but behind reading that message were months of writing emails, revising application documents, and feeling stressed. Crafting die Anwendung was an exhausting and intense process, and I'd like to share what I gained from that experience.
Whether you receive a fellowship or scholarship, the application process is most-rewarding. It is an opportunity for you as an academic to explore what motivates you. It is a process that helps refine your goals. It is a test in time management. Applying for fellowships is a journey marked by growth.
Applying for a Fulbright research grant (as well as an English Teaching Assistantship, or ETA, grant) is a lengthy and involved process. Because I completed (and struggled through) the research grant application process, that is what I am going to discuss here. As an applicant from Dickinson, my process involved an applicant screening, countless emails to prospective affiliations, a seemingly-endless application form, what felt like hundreds of revisions to my personal statement and statement of grant purpose, soliciting references, and a (fairly tough) interview with several Dickinson professors, all over the span of May to October 2014.
The first step in applying for a Fulbright is deciding that you want to do it. Because a Fulbright application requires an endorsement from your home institution (either undergraduate or graduate), many schools require you express interest in applying well in advance. At Dickinson, for instance, prospective applicants are required to submit a screening form in April which (at least in spring 2013) asks applicants to provide information about the following:
- proposed country
- proposed project/topic
- reason for research abroad (i.e. why not just stay in the U.S.?)
- overview of academic standing e.g. major(s), GPA
- language skills (if applicable)
This screening, whether in the form of a document, interview, or casual email, serves two purposes:
- It allows the fellowship advisor(s) to guage student interest in applying for the Fulbright in a given year.
- It pushes students to begin thinking of their application months in advance, giving them ample time to revise and refine. It also allows them to determine early in the process whether a Fulbright is actually a good fit for them.
Finding an affiliation
No matter how great of a project proposal you have, you will not receive a Fulbright if you don't have an affiliation—an institution (usually a university) who agrees to take you on as an advisee for the year. Their role is to make sure that you stay motivated and progress in your project. (They also serve as a type of guarantee that you won't use Fulbright money to take a yearlong vacation.)
Some applicants can find an application right away, either through a current professor or advisor or just great fortune. I was not so fortunate. I began sending out emails in mid-April but did not secure an affiliation until around the beginning of August. With the start of the semester at the end of August and Dickinson's campus application deadline being the third week in September, I was not left with a lot of time to prepare my application (this is why you start several months in advance).
I sent out emails to about ten groups, many of which did research slightly related to my own astrochemistry interests. The problem with small fields like astrochemistry is that you aren't left with a lot of options. I received replies from three groups; the rest of my emails were either lost in inboxes or immediately deleted. Of the three groups I heard back from, two weren't aligned with my research interests. The last sounded promising, but after several emails back and forth (with waiting periods of 10 days or so), I wasn't getting a good vibe. I was interested in the group, but they sure weren't interested in me.
Around mid-July, I was completely unenthusiastic about my proposed affiliation, and I knew that my application would fail. So, I started over. At that time, I was working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Karin Öberg's astrochemistry group. There, I was identifying complex organic molecules (COMs) using the Cologne Database for Molecular Spectroscopy (CDMS). For weeks, the answer had been in front of me and I hadn't realized it. I was curious about how the other side—the database side—of my research worked, yet for a long time I hadn't considered experience it for myself. (You can read more about this under Warum Deutschland und was ist CDMS?.)
I emailed Stephan Schlemmer, head of the Cologne Laboratory Astrophysics Group, I received a much more positive response than anticipated. I introduced myself as a chemistry and mathematics student intersted in astrochemistry who was, at the time, working in the Öberg astrochemistry lab. The great things about small fields is that everybody knows everybody else, and I think my (albeit temporary) affiliation with the group made my very limited experience in the field a less risky investment should I get the Fulbright. Not only did Stephan respond within two days, but he seemed genuinely excited about hosting an international student.
We emailed back and forth a couple of times, talking about potential projects (he even shared a draft of a grant proposal with me, which exhibits a lot of trust on his part), and I regained confidence in my application enough to ask Stephan for a letter stating he'd agree to host me at the Universität zu Köln. I was finally set in terms of affiliation by the end of August, one month before the application's campus deadline.
Completing the application form
Including transcripts and essays, the Fulbright application form ends up being about 12 pages when saved as a PDF document. Besides providing generic information about yourself and your education, be prepared to provide the following (some notes are included below):
- Grant purpose information
- Project title
- Abstract/summary of proposal
- Host country engagement
- Proposed host country affiliation
- Plans upon return to U.S.
- Language information
- Host country and other foreign experience
- Occupational experience (up to eight items)
- Extracurricular activities and achievements
- Academic honors, fellowships, scholarships, awards (up to six)
- Extracurricular activities (up to eight)
- Publications, exhibitions, performances, presentations (up to six)
- Language self-evaluation
- Academic transcript(s)
Abstract/summary of proposal. The abstract of your statement of grant purpose is limited to a short paragraph of about three sentences. I recommend devoting these to (1) what you will be researching, (2) why this research is significant, and (3) the proposed outcome of your research (with wider impacts, if possible). For example, here is the abstract I submitted on my application:
At the University of Cologne, I will research complex organic molecules using spectroscopy at terahertz frequencies. Terahertz frequencies are among the least explored along the electromagnetic spectrum, but spectra of the interstellar medium at these frequencies have the potential to be rich in molecular lines. The results from this project will be added to the Cologne Database for Molecular Spectroscopy, which is used by astrochemists globally.
Host country engagement: Describe briefly how you will engage with the host community. Give specific ideas for community engagement. If you propose going to a country where the primary language is not English, perhaps consider taking a language course there. You could also tutor pupils in English or help with paper revisions/editing. Research public outreach or mentoring opportunities that are in place (e.g. I said that I wanted to engage in a "High School Students at the University" project as a volunteer mentor; I ended up spending some time talking with a student during her weeklong visitation to the I. Physikalisches Institut).
Plans upon return to U.S. You probably don't know exactly what you are going to do when you get back to the U.S., but the Fulbright Commission wants to see that you are thinking of the grant as a part of your long-term pursuits.
I intend to enroll in graduate school in pursuit of a PhD in Chemistry while conducting astrochemistry research. I will incorporate what I learned during my time in Germany to my research in the U.S. and will serve as a liaison for potential international collaborations. Furthermore, I will use this exciting opportunity for public outreach, teaching students (in particular, high school students) about science and astrochemistry specifically in Germany.
Experience abroad comments. If you have a direct connection with something related to your research, tell your story (in a couple of sentences), especially if you can show a connection to your affiliation!
During my stay in Bad Münstereifel, Germany, I visited the nearby Radioteleskop Effelsberg. The telescope is managed by the Max Plank Institute for Radio Astronomy, with which I may have the opportunity to collaborate during my time in Cologne.
For both the personal statement and statement of grant purpose, it is to tell your story and convince reviewers that what you propose to do is both interesting and meaningful. It is highly likely that the people reading your statements will not be in your field (and they may not have even heard of it). That being said, don't include too many technical details (but show that you have some credentials and handle on what you propose to do) and have people outside your field, discipline, school of thought (i.e. humanities, arts, sciences) read your essay. For instance, I asked my supervisor at the writing center to read my essays, and while she told me she didn't understand much of the science behind my grant proposal, she understood the overarching ideas and could see why it was important. She even said that she was excited about the research, without having heard of the field before. That's what you should aim for: getting people—who may not have known what you want to do even existed—excited.
In the personal statement, include a hook about how you became interested in your field. Then, tell about your experiences in that field and how they led you to the Fulbright application. Finally, express your intentions for the Fulbright and why a grant is important to your role in the world as a global leader.
These were my aims when writing my own personal statement.
Statement of grant purpose
When I first wrote my statement of grant purpose, I made the mistake of writing as if I were requesting scientific funding. No matter your field, you are not requesting money in your field when applying for a Fulbright. Rather, you are requesting funding to be a global ambassador.
To show that you can be that global ambassador, I recommend writing (or in my case, re-writing) your grant purpose with a more global mindset: start off with the wider impacts and significance of your research to inspire your reader rather than cut them out by bombarding them with details that may have little meaning to them. Describing the wider significance of your field as a whole will allow you to funnel into the more specific details of your project: the problem and your attempt at a solution. Pull from your past experiences to exhibit that you are equipped to take on this project. Be sure to propose a timeline (if appropriate, you might want to consider presenting your timeline as a table to save space and help your reader visualize your plan). Discuss why your project would benefit from being completed at your host institution in the host country (i.e. demonstrate that staying in the U.S. just wouldn't cut it). Finally, describe anticipated outcomes and plans post-Fulbright, again focusing on being a global ambassador and crossing borders.
In my statement of grant purpose, I wrote to inspire my reader to be interested in astrochemistry and radio astronomy, to demonstrate dedication to relationships (whether they be interdisciplinary or international), and to express my commitment to the Fulbright mission as a life-long one.
Letters of references
For any application, letters of reference call on professionals and/or colleagues to vouch for you and agree that you really are as deserving of a fellowship, award, etc. as your application suggests. Usually, you must waive your right to see these letters, but you do have the ability to express to your references about what you would like them to discuss. It is also good to diversify your references so that your reviewers can see various aspects of your character and achievement.
I had to provide four references for my Fulbright application and chose the following:
- Undergraduate chemistry advisor: My mentor. She taught me in a class and oversaw my undergraduate research at Dickinson (including my thesis work). I was also her writing assistant for a first-year seminar.
- Chemistry professor/mentor: She taught me in one class. I was her writing assistant, learning community coordinator, and teaching assistant for an upper level class during the application of semester. She was also a mentor.
- Professor in quantum chemistry: She could assess my potential for learning and researching rotational spectroscopy, the key component of my proposed project.
- Summer research advisor from Harvard: Not only is she an expert in my specific field of interest, but she had supported my application to work with the Cologne group and knew about the research community.
- Letter must be writtin on institutional letterhead
- Letter must be complete with signature
- Deadline (for online submission): September 30, 2014
- Appropriateness of host country and research environment for project
- Feasibility of project in host countries (i.e. available resources, research environment, timeframe of about 10 months
- Suitability of project methods given subject of research and applicant's background
- Intellectual and professional preparation of applicant
- Ability of applicant to represent U.S. abroad
Reference letter components
The interview aspect of the application was easily the most uncertain. I had a clear idea of why I wanted to do research in Germany, but I was less clear about the cultural and political climate of Germany and Europe in general.
Besides my friend repeatedly quizzing me on how to pronounce "Angela Merkel" and the nature of the prime minister's political standings, I admit that I did not prepare well for my interview. I expected the interview to be more about my potential to be an ambassador to Germany in the sciences and specifically in laboratory astrophysics, but I found out I was expected to know a lot more.
Fulbright interviews are on-campus interviews, allowing the fellowship advisors to chat with me before writing their own recommendation about my candidacy for a Fulbright grant. (My interviewers were a professor in my major, specifically my chemistry advisor; a professor familiar with my proposed field of study, specifically a physics and astronomy professor; and one of the Fulbright fellowship advisors, a German professor.) As such, I anticipated questions of whether I was capable to carry out my research. While this was a small part of the interview, I was also asked questions about:
- plans for learning German (which is highly recommended) and motivation to do so besides working in a science environment, which tend to open to functioning in English
- my knowledge of renewable energy in Germany, something Germany has worked towards successfully (and something I knew nothing about)
- different attitudes toward my field in the U.S. and Germany (I could comment on protecting telescopes from radio interference via federal law versus relying solely on visitors' respect
- personal motivations (i.e. non-research-related) for wanting to go to Germany (uhhh... ?)
Throughout my intereview, I felt uncomfortable answering most of the questions because, often, I did not have an answer to provide. So, I did the only thing I could do: I took control and turned the interview into a discussion. I asked my own questions about German culture. I admitted when I did not know how to answer a question (especially in the case of renewable energy), expressed my interest to learn, and upon hearing what the interviewers had to say, I engaged in dialogue around the topic. Luckily, my advisor came to my rescue several times, asking me to elaborate on ideas in my proposal or questioning what I would do in the event that I got to Germany only to find out that my affiliation would not support my work (something that happened to a Fulbrighter in biochemistry two years before me).
When preparing for your interview, I recommend at least skimming the Wikipedia page of your proposed host country and know your research proposal inside and out. When in the interview, breathe; when you don't know how to answer a question, express your interest in learning more. If you cannot demonstrate knowledge of where you are going, demonstrate ability to learn via cultural exchange. After all, that is what being an ambassador is all about.