Saturday, July 26, 2014

How to Write a Successful Fulbright Proposal

So you want to be a Fulbrighter? If you have the aptitude, skill set and academic background that’s one thing.  But the art of the application is an entirely different beast.  Over the past year, and especially within the last month, I’ve had tons of people contact me asking me for advice regarding how to write a successful Fulbright Grant Proposal.  Since I’ve received two Fulbrights and as a Fulbright Alumna I’m now a proposal evaluator I figured I might as well share my knowledge with the world, and put that information online in hopes of helping aspiring applicants.  Let’s get started.

You may have heard of Fulbright before, or have been totally unfamiliar with it until you ran across my blog.  In a nutshell, the Fulbright Commission is part of the U.S. State Department which provides funding to students and faculty members to conduct research and teach (for professors).  If you would like to learn more about Fulbright please visit this website:

If you would like to consider applying to Fulbright here are a few easy steps to help you along with the process:
  1. Identify the country and a specific university to be your host institution.  If the country/university doesn’t have a need for someone in your field then find another option.  For instance, since I am a Tourism professor I searched for universities interested in having a Tourism person.  There were three options: Thailand, Ethiopia and Botswana.  I decided I wanted to go to Botswana, but I did list other alternatives in case Botswana didn’t work out.  Many other Fulbrighters I have known did NOT get their first choice location, so it was a good thing they listed other alternatives. (P.S.- Every time I pass through Ethiopia I am SO THANKFUL I chose Botswana!) 
  2. Write your project proposal and tailor it to the needs of the country/university.  This is where you have to revert back to thinking like a high schooler who wants to get into their first choice college.  You have to set yourself apart from the competition and demonstrate why you are the best person to be a Fulbrighter for that institution/location.  For me this was easy.  Botswana has the most wildlife in all of Africa.  The country is trying to take advantage of this resource by promoting tourism, but thus far tourism numbers in Botswana pale in comparison to most other more established African tourism destinations (Kenya, South Africa, etc).  I created a project centered around how to increase tourism revenue while protecting the natural resources of the area. 
  3. Once you have formulated your proposal get your hopeful host institution to support it.  I will explain the Fulbright evaluation process and timeline a little later, but for now it is important to note that it is a MAJOR advantage to have the institution behind you.  Fulbright generally requests a letter of support/letter of invitation from someone at the university which says something along the lines of, “We’ve read Dr. Phelan’s proposal and believe her expertise is in line with what our department is trying to accomplish.  We believe she will make a significant contribution if granted a Fulbright and SHE IS AWESOME! WE WANT HER!”  (This is my interpretation, not what was actually written; but you get the drift.)  For students it is IMPERATIVE to have a letter from a faculty member at the host institution write a letter committing to mentor you in your studies.  Fulbright does not like lost children wandering around without someone to mother them (academically). 
  4. Start your application early.  Keep in mind the majority of Fulbright host institutions are in Third World countries.  It may take weeks to get a response from someone at the host institution to respond to your email and say they want to host you.  Then you have to get a letter of support.  This is not the U.S. and hey, if you want somewhere as efficient as the U.S. then don’t bother going abroad.  Many of these countries have electricity problems, or the campus has ZERO technology, so a professor may only check his email once a month (true story).  You need to give yourself 2-3 months to communicate with the host institution to get their commitment and the necessary documentation. 
  5. Get recommendation letters.  I wouldn’t say that recommendation letters make or break you, but they do count.  Fulbright wants to know you can hack it, so this is where your referees can really help.  You need three letters and I suggest asking each person to focus on something a little different.  My department chair talked about me working with lots of international students and the research I had conducted in Africa previously.  My dissertation chair (who is also a mentor and friend) talked about me from a more personal standpoint and the fact that I am flexible, can adjust to uncertain and uncomfortable situations well, and am good at understanding people regardless of their background.  I don’t know what my Associate Dean said, but I knew she would say something positive because she’s always been a huge supporter of me.  She is also one of my most dedicated blog readers- Hi Dr. H! Can’t wait to see you again in a few weeks! :) 
  6. Submit your application on time- or better yet- early.  In fact, make sure you start the online application itself at least a week or two early because there is so much information you need to provide and you may have to hunt for it.  If you have dependents you have to provide all their info as well (birthdates, passport numbers, SS#s) and you may not have that memorized.  In order to make sure you aren’t waking up your spouse in the middle of the night because the application is DUE IN TWO HOURS!!!, start early. 
  7. Once you hit submit try to forget about it.  If you succeed in doing this tell me how.  My thoughts were consumed with “I wonder if I got the Fulbright?” every day for 9 months.
I realize this blog post is already incredibly long, but I also remember how desperate I was to find any candid information when I was preparing my Fulbright app, so I am going to go on a little longer and explain how the evaluation of a Fulbright proposal occurs.  You will submit your Fulbright application in July.  (This date may be different for students.) The Fulbright staffers ensure your application has everything necessary before they send it to the first round of reviews.
  1. September: First your application is reviewed by former Fulbrighters.  These Fulbrighters aren’t necessarily 100% in your field.  For instance, I’ve reviewed applications for History, Political Science and a couple other areas.  This review is basically to make sure your application is realistic and feasible.  For instance, I received a student proposal and the student listed several different schools (which were all over the board- the equivalent of Yale and Prince George’s Community College) he wanted to consider going to, he never mentioned who he would work with, and there was no letter of invitation from any host institution.  This told me he hadn’t put in enough effort and was very unfocused.  I did not recommend advancing him to the next round. 
  2. November: Your application is reviewed by people in your field.  Now, if your field is new to Fulbright these people may not even necessarily be from Fulbright.  For instance, my field of Tourism has only been hosted by Fulbright a short while, so some of my second round reviewers may not have completed a Fulbright before.  Your subject area experts are evaluating your project to determine whether your data collection methods make sense, if you can complete what you want to accomplish in the timeframe proposed and whether you actually contribute anything meaningful to academic literature.  My graduate students constantly hear me ask them, “So what?” when they want to conduct a new research project.  If you haven’t explained in your application why anyone would care about what you are studying it is unlikely you will get selected. 
  3. January: Your host institution evaluates the applications and ranks their selections.  UB had 8 subject areas (Tourism, Medicine, Education, Natural Resources, etc) for Fulbrighters.  This means if you are Theater Arts and the host institution doesn’t list Theater Arts as a desired subject area you might as well look elsewhere.  Even though UB had 8 subject areas listed, they knew they would only get 2, maybe 3 Fulbrighters at most.  The host institution reads the applications sent to them, decides which they do not want, and then ranks the individuals they do want.  UB ranked 10 people this year.  They only got 2.  When I turned down my second Fulbright that meant person number 3 was given an award. 
  4. March-May: Fulbright sends out notifications.  I found out on March 18th of last year that I got the Fulbright.  This year I did not receive notification until May.  (For the record, I was ranked number 1 this year, so it wasn’t like they didn’t want me. There was some turnover in the Africa Regional Office and they were simply operating on a slower timeline this year.)
For anyone applying for the Fulbright I understand how difficult it is to be patient- been there, done that! But once you get awarded a Fulbright time starts to move at the speed of light.  I had roughly 100 days last year to pack up my office, my house, put things in storage, arrange for people to cover my classes, decide what to do with my graduate students, pack for Africa, get all my vaccinations, shots and other medications, make the rounds visiting family and friends, update my will, and mostly importantly promise my mother I would take her to Walt Disney World when I returned.  Thank goodness I didn’t stay a second year, I can’t even imagine what I would have promised her for another year away from home.

If you have stayed with me this long today, thank you!  If you are an aspiring Fulbrighter, good luck!  And if you make the cut and get to spend some time overseas, congratulations!  I hope you take full advantage of your good fortune and have the time of your life.  I certainly did.

1 comment:

  1. It is great having you home Kelly!!!
    Can't wait for WDW:)