Last week I was on a panel of Caltech grad students who had been Fulbright research fellows. We were talking to juniors who were thinking about applying to the Fulbright 2018-2019 program.
One of the questions asked was "Do you recommend applying to grad school at the same time as applying for a Fulbright?" (This question can also be applied to most fellowship and study abroad programs, including DAAD, Rhodes, Marshall, and Gates-Cambridge.)
First off, whether you apply to grad school and a "gap year" program at the same time is totally up to you, and your decision should be based on your own wants and needs, not what your friends/parents/professors expect of you.
Here are my thoughts mixed in with the perspectives of the other panelists about what you should consider.
Applying to grad school and a gap year program at the same time.
Of the seven panelists, I was the only one who put off applying to grad school. The other six had applied ahead of time, so they had accepted and deferred a graduate school offer before shipping overseas. I got the impression that they were all in favor of that route because...
- ... "the bones of the grad school application are already written." While you'll need to tweak the final product, a personal statement for a grad school application is similar to the Fulbright personal statement and statement of grant purpose combined.
- ... "you don't have to worry about applying while on your grant." If you already know where you are going to grad school, you don't have to spend the first three months of your grant applying to grad school while settling into a new research group in a new country, perhaps with a new language. You can just enjoy your grant.
- ... it is good to have a back-up plan. The Fulbright and other similar programs are competitive, and "chances are, you're not going to get it." Be prepared to not be awareded a grant and have a solid plan if all else fails.
- ... it might be too difficult/impossible to go on grad school visits while abroad.
- ... you might as well get it over with. If you're (fairly) certain you want to go to grad school anyway, why wait?
Holding off to apply to grad school rather than defer.
There are many reasons why you might not want to apply to grad school if you are hoping to get a Fulbright or other fellowship. Holding off was definitely the right choice for me, and I felt like my Fulbright enriched my grad school application rather than my grad school application detract from my fellowship time. As a result of my Fulbright, I think my application was much stronger and the same might be true for you if...
- ... you need a break. Applying to the Fulbright (or any program whether for a gap year or grad school) is a lengthy process. I had planned to apply to grad school the same time as I did to the Fulbright, but I was exhausted between that and working on my senior thesis that I decided I was too tired to apply to grad school and couldn't put forth my best application.
- ... you don't know exactly what you want to pursue in grad school. For instance, I knew I wanted to study astrochemistry, but I came from an undergrad institution where no one else had even heard of the field. I didn't know much about it myself. Did I want to do lab work or more astronomy? Holding off on applying gave me more time to make an informed decision.
- ... you're not sure if you want to go to grad school, or you're not sure you know where you want to go. Your feelings about going to grad school could change during a gap year, so if you're heart isn't set on a particular type of program (or grad school at all), you might hold off to remove the pressure of committing to something you aren't quite sure about. You might also want more research experience first to see if research is a good fit for you at all.
There are reasons to apply all at once as well as reasons to spread things out. In either case, it is important that you think about your needs as a student now and in the future, and only you can make that decision.