How to Fulbright

Advice and opinions from a Fulbright scholar and judge

Hey, y’all,

After last month’s email went out, I got a plaintive email from Fulbright Scholar/Fulbright journalism application judge/my future husband: “For the next round, maybe throw a reminder in about the Fulbright? It’s a great time to get started!”

I agreed on the conditions that he’d answer a few questions about applying for and judging Fulbrights (and bring me endless Saturday morning coffee refills, because one of the most valuable elements of my own fellowship experience was a negotiation workshop).

Jeff (Twitter: @jeffshaw) was a 2006-2007 Fulbright Scholar in journalism, reporting environmental and cultural stories in Okinawa, Japan. Fulbright awards generally support travel and living expenses for a professional, recent graduate, or scholar to work for two to 12 months outside the U.S. (The nature of each country’s awards are broken out in the Fulbright grant catalog.)

Jeff’s been a judge of communications Fulbright applications since 2007-2008, and he regularly encourages friends and acquaintances to apply (although, I can report from firsthand experience, they rarely do).  

Q: Tell me about the Fulbright application process.

The application process is comprehensive and fairly detailed. The main component of the application is the project proposal. I always tell people when creating a project proposal to ask themselves three questions:

  • What is a great project?
  • Why am I well suited to do it?
  • Why does the world need it?

Most of the process involves supporting your answers to those questions, including providing examples of content you’ve produced, soliciting letters of recommendation from people you’ve worked with, and demonstrating that you have an ability to complete the project in the host country.

I always advise people to start early. Like anything, if you do it a little at a time and parcel it out, it’s not onerous, but you don’t want to be in a position of pulling everything together at the last minute.

I started six months before the application deadline. I already had a very good idea of what I wanted to do; from there, it was just a matter of refining, fine-tuning and reaching out to people who could help me with recommendations on approach or supporting materials for the project.

My project was environmental and cultural reporting in Okinawa, Japan. It focused on several environmentally and culturally significant sites for the residents of the Ryukyu Islands. For example, I wrote about an endangered coral reef that is the site of a planned U.S. military base, and about a unique, endangered cat on Iriomote, the southernmost island in Japan.

Q: Do you know why your project was selected?

I can make an educated guess from judging the Fulbrights for many years. The Fulbrights start with the work you want to do. If it’s good work and you’re well-suited to do it, you have a decent chance of success.

Q: Can you be more specific? What’s “good”? What’s “well-suited”?

The Fulbright program aims to produce quality work that improves understanding and relations between our nation and others. This is very important with all Fulbright disciplines, but especially  with journalism. What appealed about my project, I think, was that I had considerable experience reporting on both the issues and reporting in the specific location where I wanted to go.

Fulbright is also interested in helping mid-career professionals take that next step, and I think that was also an appealing part about my project, in that I had not yet published feature-length pieces in prominent publications, and I think the judges saw this as a good opportunity to help me do that.

The fact that I had cultural and family connections to Okinawa probably helped, because many host nations look for experience in their nation, although I should also mention that some countries, like New Zealand, want you to have very little if any experience with their country before you do your Fulbright.

For journalists, especially, I think it’s important to have published at least a little on the issues you want to write about, or in the place you want to write about them. For example, if you want to do a story about sustainable agriculture in Chile, you don’t necessarily have to have been to Chile to report about sustainable agriculture, but it would help to have at least one part of that equation in place. So maybe you’ve published for your paper or done a radio story about sustainable agriculture.

You should also begin to think about how you’d carry off your project and what would help or stand in your way. If there were a language barrier, you should think about whether there’s time to get up to speed on the language or whether it’s best to hire a translator.

You should also solicit letters of recommendation early on in the process because people get busy, and if you want a compelling project proposal, you want the best possible letters that you can get.

I should also mention two things that are specific to the grant application process. First, it’s helpful to have a connection in that host country that will write a letter of support. Sometimes you’re required to have a host university, so having an official or professor at that university who will promise you help and support is vital for some grants. My grant did not req a host university but I still thought it would be useful to show that I could take advantage of all the intellect resources possible, so I got one anyway. I also had a letter of support from a local environmental NGO that I had connections with, promising to set me up with expert sources and help me understand what was important to locals on the ground.

Q: How did you hook up with the university?

One of the activists in the environmental group that I’d met when I was over there was a professor at the university. Additionally, when I was buying books on eBay, the guy I was buying the books from turned out to be an adjunct at a different university, as well.

Q: And the NGO?

I called them on a story, a freelance story I’d done earlier. And on one of my earlier trips to Okinawa, they had done a press event where I had met them and done a hike with them.

Q: How did you make that approach?

They had seen some of the stories I’d done and it was clear that I was interested in raising the profile of environmental issues in Okinawa. I made the case to them that if I were able to do this Fulbright, it would continue to bring Okinawa’s importance and struggle to the attention of American readers. It was pretty easy; it just required some emails and phone calls.

Q: What did they have to promise you?

Just that they would help introduce me to people and provide me with sources. Because mine was a professional Fulbright, not a primarily teaching Fulbright, their support was mostly in the form of making it easier to get connected with good sources for my stories. If it had been an academic Fulbright, the host university has other obligations, like making sure you have a class to teach, sometimes an office.

Q: As a judge, what immediately disqualifies someone?

It’s rare that I see an application that is immediately disqualified. I can only think of two examples. First, if you don’t complete the project application in total, as outlined in the grant. This is rare, but it does happen and it always baffles me. If you’re going to invest this much time, energy and effort into a project, checking all the boxes and following instructions is absolutely vital, plus it gives a judge a real sense of whether an applicant is capable of pulling off the project. If you write a great proposal but don’t include a required letter from a university, that’s one of the only things that would absolutely prevent me from looking at an application.

The other is that Fulbright judges are strongly guided to avoid applicants who have had a Fulbright grant in the last 10 years. I take that pretty seriously and I seriously discount applicants who have had recent Fulbrights. A lot of my colleagues, I notice, don’t feel as strongly about this as I do.

Q: Other red flags?

The biggest red flag is when an applicant doesn’t seem to have a compelling reason to do a project rooted in a particular place. I’m looking for someone who is very interested and deeply passionate about local journalism, whether that be in Kenya or Senegal or Singapore. It should be a project that has significance for that location.

I always look askance at applications that look like someone is searching for a resume builder or simply a stint overseas. An example would be a mass media professor or journalist who puts together a generic “I would like to teach mass media or photojournalism someplace” and there’s virtually nothing about why they want to go to Costa Rica or Finland in the application. A good project should demonstrate knowledge of and interest in the host country.

Q: Do people have a better shot if they apply for less popular countries?

People should know first that the grants vary from year to year, and I urge them to check out as early as possible the grant book (  when it comes out. It’s always best to read the grants in the various countries you’re interested in going to.

The most popular country actually surprises me a lot, and it’s England. At least historically, that’s been the most popular country for people to apply for. It surprises me because I predominantly identify Fulbrighters as people who would like to go to countries that lack coverage of important issues and possibly countries that are farther off the beaten path.

Grants may vary from discipline to discipline, so there may be a lot of arts grants in England and not as many science grants. That’s just an example; it may not be accurate. I got one of two journalism grants to Japan, and at the time that was a grant that came up every two years.

As far as whether people have a better shot in applying for less popular countries, I encourage people not to think in those terms. A good project gets funded; a bad project does not. While it’s true that there are certain number of grants and that number is limited, it’s usually clear in the application whether the applicant has a demonstrated record and knowledge about working in a specified region. I’d rather see a really good project proposal for a popular country than a mediocre one where we only get one or two apps.

Q: What else do you want people to know about Fulbrights?

You can do this. I think a lot of people don’t apply for a Fulbright because they have this image in their mind of something that is unattainable. Certainly, I think it’s an amazing and prestigious program, but what I, as a judge, am looking for is a person who wants to do great work and is looking for the support necessary to do that work.

I think a lot of early and mid-career professionals talk themselves out of it before they even give themselves a shot. Even if your project proposal isn’t funded the first time, you’ll learn a lot, it will help you as a journalist going forward, and you’ll be glad you did it.

You can find Fulbright application samples, the grant book and more at the CIES website:

For more funding leads and advice, subscribe to Change Your Life, a free and ad-free monthly newsletter of grants, fellowships and awards, here:



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