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How to Change the World Through Fellowships

Craig Zelizer

June 8, 2020

"How to Change the World through Fellowships" is admittedly a bit of an overdone title. But if the reader only remembers one thing I want you to understand that fellowships can be an amazing avenue to build and advance not only your career but contribute to significant change in the world. I write this post as part of our month long focus on Fellowships in Social Change.  I'm very fortunate to have had numerous fellowships in my life and also having mentored hundreds of people in advancing their career through funding opportunities. In this short post, I share a bit on my experience both as a fellowship recipient, a  advisor and reviewer of applications (I've reviewed applications for over 20 programs, served on review panels for many programs and continue to do so).

My Story:

It all started one day (not really) with growing up and worrying about nuclear armageddon (that is true) and seeking to help build more understanding and peace in the world. When I got to college  (University of Massachusetts as a Social Thought and Political Economy Major) I was fortunate to have amazing mentors and decided to study abroad for my junior year in Hungary about six months after the end of the Cold War. You might ask why Hungary? The naive answer is I really knew very little about the country, or the language, but knew I didn't want to go where everyone else went.  I originally wanted to go to Yugoslavia (the country still existed at that time) but my university didn't have an exchange program with the country.

This choice of studying abroad was one of the best decisions of my life. I will not go into all the details of the learning, challenges, friendships developed and so much more (that is for a separate post). Suffice to say I learned that I could learn a language (previously, I was convinced I wasn't able to learn a foreign language and suffered through almost every minute of learning French in High School and University). I also originally went for one semester to Hungary, but thankfully extended my stay to a full year (that is what made a huge difference in terms of learning, cultural immersion, and building ties).

Upon the end of year I came home and enrolled in my last year of university. I had several great mentors, one of whom was the director of the Study Abroad office. She was persistent and started bugging me to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship as a Junior Scholar. I originally thought she was a bit crazy as fellowships were only for important people and faculty. But thankfully I listened and was able to craft a compelling application and got funded post-graduation to go back to Hungary for a year and then was fortunate to renew for a second year. During my time as a Fulbright Junior Scholar, I advanced my language, did research and wound up starting a nonprofit with a friend working on conflict resolution with youth from 13 identity groups in the country.  The fellowship was amazing for three reasons:

1) Provided core funding - The funding was generous and this freed me up to focus on amazing work (as long as it fit the fellowship goals/guidelines). It's incredibly liberating to have this freedom and one of the key advantages of fellowships. The experience I got starting an NGO, fundraising, hiring staff for programs, designing curricula, doing training and much more was invaluable. Not having to worry about my own salary or paying myself was a key factor in allowing me the space to do this.

2) Support - There was a very active Fulbright community and I started the NGO with a Fulbright friend.

3) Opened Doors - A Fulbright fellowship does help in credibility. Thus we were able to secure funding for our new NGO from diverse sectors and do many things that likely would have been harder as a random individual.

As my as fellowship drew to a close I began to explore what comes next. I applied for a number of programs including a doctoral program in the UK and to the Central European University (at that time a new graduate institution promoting rigorous training in a wide variety of disciplines focused on open societies). I was fortunate to get into both a doctoral program in the UK and to CEU at both their Prague and Budapest campuses. I did have a full fellowship for the UK which I turned down (a lesson here is sometimes saying no might be the best option) and undertook my MA studies at the CEU Prague Campus (the university has since consolidated to an amazing Budapest campus). Having a tuition fellowship to complete my one year MA was another wonderful experience. I did have to work some (on campus) to gain some extra money but having fellowship allowed me to come out debt free.

Before one gets the wrong impression about my fellowship abilities. I also have been rejected many, many times (this is part of the process). As I was in my MA program I decided to go for the crazy next step of exploring doctoral studies (and also applied to two more MA programs). I was fortunate to get into several Ph.D programs at top universities with full funding (also got rejected from some as well). However I eventually turned these down as I wanted to focus on a program that had an applied focus (see my post to PhD or not Ph.D). I wound up going to the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University (now a school). My ego was hurt as I was actually on the waiting list for a while and they didn't give money. But in this case not having a fellowship was a blessing in some ways and challenges in others.

The pros of not having a fellowship for my PhD studies:

1) Experience - I got tons and tons of work experience because I had to support myself. This experience was essential in helping me build my skills in the social change area.

2) Entrepreneurial - I had to be creative about what I did since I didn't have the luxury of funding

3) Made me apply for more fellowships - I knew when it came to my field work I needed to secure funding so I became a fellowship application machine.

The challenges

1. Stress over finances - I did come out of my PhD program with some debt, although not a huge amount as I GMU is a public university.

2. Time - For me at least doing the PhD without funding means it took a long time.

For my field work I applied to lots of fellowship programs including the Fulbright Hayes, the Social Science Research Council, the Boren Fellowship , IREX Individual Advanced Research Opportunities and USIP's Peace Research Fellowship. I was rejected from quite a few and did get awarded two. In the end, I went with the Boren Fellowship to conduct my doctoral research in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I was able to spend 14 months in the country, have an amazing experience and advance my language skills, and get enough data/connections to complete my dissertation.

Again having the financial support to do independent work was a incredibly valuable experience.

Here are some of my key recommendations for using fellowships to change the world  (at least a little bit) and advance one's career.

  1. Fellowships can be an amazing path to change - Too many people when considering how to best advance one's career think about internships, further schooling or paid work. Fellowships can be a great way to have financial support to advance creative changemaking. There are many fellowship opportunities out there for both a professional or more academic path. Take some time to investigate the many opportunities on PCDNetwork, as well as our meta guides on fellowships. Some other great resources include Profellow.com, the International Institute of Education & the Open Society Foundations.
  2. Learn how to write applications - There is both an art and a science to writing an application.  To be competitive is not just about being smart, but ensuring one frame's a compelling (and true story) about how your experience to date links to the fellowship program and beyond. Read through resources on PCDN.global, and related platforms. Many fellowship programs do offer tips on developing a strong application through webinars, publications and related formats. Take advantage of these.
  3. Be prepared for rejection - Many people who write a fellowship application get discouraged at the first rejection. Be prepared for not having your application move forward. Learn how to do better, and celebrate your submission. Feel free to be temporarily dejected, cry, go seem a movie, but then get back on the fellowship application wagon.
  4. Work with Peers and Mentors - Applying on your own without support or guidance may not be a worthwhile undertaking.  Talk to your professors, peers and others to get their input on developing a great application (and if possible ask others to review your drafts). If your university has a fellowship office, become best friends with the fellowship officer who can often provide invaluable guidance.
  5. Start Early and be Diligent - Often applying for fellowships needs to start 9-12 months in advance. Thus, devote time to researching opportunities in advance (many people think about fellowships too late as the deadline has already passed). Also research as many programs as possible to find the ones that best suit your goals (and skills). Don't rush your applications! Also be prepared to go through many drafts and get critiques/feedback before it is ready.
  6. Understand why programs provide fellowships - Too often people think narrowly from the perspective of potentially getting a fellowship. Make sure to consider (and reflect this in your application) why the donor or funder is providing resources. What are their goals? Do they match with yours? Make sure to make the case for this in your application and how the fellowship will also help your career connect to relevant outcomes.
  7. Make things easy for your recommenders  - Almost all fellowship programs require recommendation letters. Think carefully about who you will ask to write a letter (often they will ask you to draft a letter in their name) and give them sufficient notice (a month or more). Also ensure you provide all materials (a strong draft statement of purpose, resume, and transcript if needed) with sufficient time. Many professors or advisors have a lot of recommendations to draft and making it easier for them is critical.


What are your lessons (for favorite resources) for using fellowships to advance a career of change?




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