Applying for the Fulbright Part 1

Finding your application focus

Neerja Thakkar graduated from Dartmouth in 2019 with a BA in Computer Science and Mathematics. For the past year, she was doing computational photography research in Spain on a Fulbright research scholarship, and in Fall 2020 she will be starting her PhD in EECS at UC Berkeley.

When you look at the Fulbright website, you may notice that the amount of different programs you can apply to is huge. There are several axes of freedom where you have to make a decision: the country you apply in, the program you apply for (research/TA/masters), and if you do research, the host institution you work with and the research project you propose. It can feel overwhelming to decide which program to apply for and how to go about the process, so in this post I’m going to go over some things I considered and explain how I ended up making a decision. Most of this post will only be applicable for a research Fulbright as part of the US Student program, since that is what I applied for.

There are a lot of things to consider as you narrow down what you want to do. Here are some things that I kept in mind:

  • The acceptance rate varies a lot by country and program. I was able to get some numbers from my school’s fellowship office (many universities will help you through this process - definitely use those resources if they are available to you!), and I realized that some countries had an extremely low acceptance rate for research/masters Fulbright’s (~2%), whereas others had a much higher acceptance rate (closer to a third of applicants were accepted)
  • Read the page specific to a country you are considering very carefully. There are many variations by country and by programs within a country, such as:
    • Some countries have specific requirements (for example, you may need a masters to do research at a particular institution within a country)
    • Some countries have a preference to fund certain kinds of academic fields, so you could be at an advantage or disadvantage
    • Some countries have a language requirement or recommendation. Even if it’s a recommendation, it would be wise to only apply to that country if you have that competency
  • Host institution selection
    • What city is it in? Do you want to live in that city?
    • Who within the host institution would you be working with?
    • Can your host institution meet with you as often as you will need and give you the resources and support that you need?
    • Would you be happy in this environment for 9 months?
  • Research project proposal
    • Even if your project is purely STEM, it needs to have some connection to where you are, since Fulbright is funding you for a project in a specific place
    • Needs to be supported by host institution
    • Does it meet your personal goals for skills you want to gain

With those considerations in mind, there are different approaches you could take. If you have a research project in mind that you want to undertake, you could think of a country/host institution where it would make sense to propose your research project to. Or, you could take the approach I did:

I knew I wanted to do a research Fulbright in the field of computer science (more narrowly, within computer vision/graphics and computational photography). I also wanted to spend a year somewhere in Europe. Narrowing down countries by their acceptance rates, so that I wasn’t applying anywhere that generally took less than 10% of applicants, and also by looking for those where language wouldn’t be a significant barrier, I decided to look for potential research labs in Spain and Switzerland.

I found professors in those countries by reading previous work that interested me, and asked my research advisor at Dartmouth if he could send an email introducing me to these professors - he knew many of the ones I wanted to work with, and even for the ones he didn’t know, a cold email from another respected professor in the field often has a much higher chance of being read than one from a random student. We contacted one professor at a time, and I soon hit it off with the lab in Spain that I ended up working at. Together, we brainstormed a project that I could talk about in my Fulbright application, and soon I was drafting my proposal - more on that in my next post.

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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