How to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship

I have been awarded an Australian Fulbright Postgraduate scholarship, which means I will travel to America for 8-10 months to fulfil part of my PhD candidature. Receiving a Fulbright scholarship is an incredible opportunity at any stage of your career, not only because travel / accomodation / stipend is covered, but because of the networking and prestigious reputation that the Fulbright name holds. Also, you get to wear a pin, which is pretty great.

There's no universally assured recipe of how to win a Fulbright, this post is intended only to share my own application process, which may have useful tips for you. These are, of course, my own opinions and do not represent the official Fulbright commission, for legit information on how to apply you can go to the Fulbright website. 

1. Go to an information session

Sounds obvious, but really, just go. This is the best way to figure out whether this scholarship is applicable to you and whether you want to apply. I walked into one last year thinking "hmm not really sure why I'm here, I don't even wanna do this" and I walked out thinking "I NEED THIS! How do I get one of these?". The sessions  usually involve an overview of eligibility and visa requirements, scholarship benefits and previous scholars talking about their experiences in the USA. Each Australian capital city holds one of these info sessions so find the one closest to you and go. If nothing else, it forces you to sit down for an hour and actually contemplate applying. A journey of a thousand miles, etc. etc.

 An empty platitude! Get use to it, my friend, because you will need a hefty chunk of unwavering optimism while applying for scholarships. 

An empty platitude! Get use to it, my friend, because you will need a hefty chunk of unwavering optimism while applying for scholarships. 

2. Application form

The application form is lodged through an 'online portal' system. As easy as this system seems, you'll spend a lot of time sifting through irrelevant forms and redundant questions (hey, I've used the word 'redundant' redundantly!), because the form is designed for every eligible country. For example, some sections require test scores for English proficiency, but it's not clear if that applies to countries where English is the primary language (i.e. Australia). News flash! It doesn't. But that information isn't immediately obvious on the website, so you'll have to do some mad detective sleuthing to ensure you really have filled out all the appropriate sections. Take the time to do this because you can only submit the form once and any missing information will mean your application is void

The application requires three 1-page statements: personal statement, research proposal, and state scholarship (how your project specifically benefits your state). Do not underestimate how long these will take you! They need to capture the reader's attention and convince them that a) your project is worth doing, and b) they should invest in you. I found the personal statement particularly frustrating, I had a tendency to downplay my achievements in an attempt to temper an arrogant tone. As a result, my drafts had the tone of a dusty academic tome, at best, and an obituary, at worst. Hardly a showcase of my achievements and triumphs over adversity. For example, here's an excerpt from my initial draft of my research proposal:

"The photoreceptive tail of Aipysurus laevis was described in the early 1990s using behavioural studies to verify observations by night divers: sheltering snakes retract their tails in response to torch light. Skin photoreception is found in lampreys, hagfish and some amphibians, but Aipysurus provides a very rare example of skin photoreception within the amniotes and the molecular and physiological mechanisms behind tail photoreception are entirely unknown.”

Years of having my scientific writing style criticised for being 'too flowery' had exercised any enthusiasm out of this paragraph. However, after passing my statement onto a friend (in a humanities field), it was pretty clear that this wasn't appropriate for a clear explanation of the system I'm interested in, nor for garnering interest from my reader. As hard as it might be for your ego, show your writing to others, read it out loud and be ruthless while editing. Here's what the final draft of the same paragraph looked like:

"Night divers first observed the remarkable adaptation of the olive sea snakes (Aipysurus laevis) when they noticed that sheltering snakes retracted their vulnerable tail paddles in response to torchlight. This was the first recording of a reptile responding to light on the skin and is a rare example of ‘eyeless’ vision, which may help sea snakes escape predators."

 For me these 1-page statements really were the hardest part of the application process, they required an honest reflection on who I am, what I've done and where I want to be. The latter is really important because you need to emphasise your long-time goals and convince the reader that you have the drive to get there. Take the time to write and rewrite these statements, not only because the scholarship committee will scrutinise them heavily, but because it will put you in the right frame of mind for the interview.

3. The interview

Unlike most other scholarship or grant writing applications, Fulbright requires a face-to-face interview with a panel of about six people, comprising Fulbright commission members, representatives from state universities and the USA consulate. I got the impression that, unless you're a blindfolded monkey with a typewriter (no offence to our primate friends), most people who apply for Fulbright are likely to get an interview. I was fairly anxious about the interview and dealt with the this by preparing excessively. I wrote out answers to potential questions and got my friends to conduct fake interviews with me (yep, because I'm a fun friend to have!). Potential questions that I used to prepare had been recommended by the pro-vice chancellor at my university, stuff like "Why do you deserve to get the Fulbright?" or "Where do you want to be in the next 10 years?", to the esoteric "If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the world?". These are classic 'there's no right or wrong answer' type questions and they're terribly excruciating to answer, but in the end they prepared me to deal with anything the panel threw at me. The interview itself was actually fine, and the questions not too esoteric, but it had helped that I'd sat down and practiced a) talking about achievements and goals, and b) answering questions by breaking them down by lettering them in an a, b, c, fashion. There will be a chance at the end to ask your own questions, so have some on hand before you go in. I wore professional clothes which felt entirely appropriate as the whole thing was very much like a job interview. It was clear that all of the panel had read my statements from the application and in some cases the questions were tailored to me and my project. Ultimate tip: remember that they are looking for leaders in the field. How do you plan to be a leader?

4. The waiting

Now try to forget about the whole thing! Successful applicants are called in person and it takes a few months for the results because the application and interview notes go through several levels of decision making (state, Australia wide, USA). Even if you aren't successful, I found the process to be a very useful exercise. It forced me to think about my career goals and write a cohesive summary of my personal and academic achievements, which are things that can be recycled when applying for other grants. Most importantly, it allowed me to practice optimistic thinking at each part of the application process. Because if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then neutering that part of brain that says 'You don't belong here!', 'You're not good enough!' and 'You're just a monkey with a typewriter!' is surely that first step.