Series Note: GradFund recently conducted an extensive analysis of more than 100 past Fulbright applications in order to better understand what characteristics predict success. Using a number of different statistical techniques, we were able to identify three variables that consistently contributed to success: affiliation depth, literature citations, and the strength and coherence of the applicant’s thesis in the statement of purpose. In the coming weeks, we’ll post blog entries that address each of these individually and explain how you can tilt the odds of success in your favor.
The Fulbright IIE Research-Study Grant was created to advance U.S. diplomatic interests abroad through academic exchange. Senator Fulbright himself remarked that the purpose of the program was to promote “international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.”
It is easy to forget this essential element of the Fulbright Research-Study Grant when we are so intently focused on developing our own scholarship in graduate school. However, the data shows that even otherwise interesting applications that make this mistake are likely to fail.
The good news is that by wholeheartedly embracing the Fulbright mission of engagement and exchange in your application, you significantly increase your chances of success.
The message from the data is clear: Having a good idea and demonstrating academic rigor is important, but it is only the starting point. You need to convince members of the committee that the conduct of your research abroad will facilitate the mutual exchange of ideas and knowledge, and will lay the foundations for meaningful collaboration in years to come.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to show through your affiliation letters and application essays that you have already laid the groundwork for scholarly collaboration with your hosts.
The variable “affiliation depth”, created for our study, measured this dimension of past applications on a five-point scale.
Every Fulbright-IIE applicant must have an affiliation to a host institution in the country to which they are applying. But affiliation can mean different things in different cases. In some cases, it is simply a formality that allows the student access to facilities and permission to study in the host country. Ideally, though, it represents a relatively long-standing relationship with the host institution, deep involvement with faculty members, mutual interest in each other’s work, and rich opportunities for the exchange of ideas and knowledge.
A high score on “affiliation depth” represented an application that addresses all of these points effectively. The difference this makes is striking. Even a one-point increase in “affiliation depth” score correlates with a highly significant increase in the odds of success.
The takeaway: simply producing a check-in-the-box affiliation letter to satisfy application requirements does not cut it.
- Use the IIE Fulbright US Student Program website. It provides a lot of helpful information on affiliations.
- Have an interesting, well thought out project that people care about. It makes everything else easier when reaching out to potential hosts.
- Talk with your advisor now about your proposed project, even if it is still a bit rough around the edges. Ask them specifically about institutional affiliations and which people and organizations in your proposed host country you should be speaking with.
- Find Fulbright alums in your department or in allied disciplines that conducted research in the country you want to go to. Beyond potential introductions, ask them how they worked with their host institutions and what lessons they learned. Showing the selection committee that you understand the institutional and cultural context of collaboration is important.
- Contact the Fulbright Commission or representative in your proposed host country. They are well connected and can help put you in touch with the right people, especially if you give them adequate time. Even if you already have an affiliation or two lined up from your college overseas trip or that research visit last year, it is helpful to show the selection committee – and the Fulbright representative — that you have done everything possible to prepare the groundwork for fruitful collaboration in the host country.
- When contacting potential hosts, think about what kind of value proposition your project represents for them and how you will communicate this. How does it fit in with their research interests? Ideally, this is a two-way conversation that helps you develop a project that will be of mutual interest to you and your potential hosts. Keep in mind that you represent an opportunity for potential hosts to connect their institution with a famous worldwide academic exchange program. Obviously, it is probably not appropriate to say this explicitly. The point is that you should feel confident about reaching out in good faith. Finally, it may be a good idea to reassure your hosts that you are not asking them to commit financial resources to your project.
- Once you have potential hosts who have enthusiastically agreed to write affiliation letters, find an appropriate way to communicate that these letters are more than a formality. If possible, the affiliation letter should answer three questions: Why is the project of interest to them, and why do they believe you are the ideal person to execute it? How will your conduct of research serve to establish long-lasting relationships between scholarly communities in both countries? Who can they introduce you to, and what doors can they open? If they seem willing to help but unsure about the Fulbright process and American cultural expectations, you might suggest language they can use.
- Note: in some cases a given Fulbright office abroad assigns an affiliation. Even in these cases, you are better off if you have made contact with that institution and they can enthusiastically recommend you and your project. Also, additional affiliations above and beyond the bare minimum can only help.
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