It was during my master’s program at the University of Cambridge, that I realized how much I wanted Brazil to be part of my doctoral research. One of the reasons that I returned to UCLA for the PhD, instead of staying at Cambridge, was to engage closely with the campus’ rich resources, faculty, library collections, and opportunities related to the study of Brazil.
My first quarter as a graduate student at UCLA, I immediately enrolled in language and literature courses related to Brazil. By the summer after my first year, I was in Brazil on a Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship, where I was participating in an immersive language program and translating a small piece of Brazilian literature into English.
During my time on the FLAS, I so enjoyed being part of a community of scholars who studied the complexities of Brazil that I decided I wanted a portion of my PhD experience to include more fieldwork in the country. But I knew that it was unlikely that my university could help me fund such research. Like most graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, I was responsible for generating my own financial capacity to carry out this kind of international research.
Fulbright application: take 1
During the following academic year I put together Fulbright Foundation application materials for a project that would allow me to conduct research related to a national translation initiative called the “Internationalization of Books and Brazilian Literature.”
I didn’t get it.
Fulbright application: take 2
Shortly after I completed that initial application, I joined the Center for Primary Research and Training at UCLA’s Special Collections. There I began a yearlong archival project with a hidden collection of poetic Brazilian pamphlet literature called literature de cordel, or “stories on a string.” Once I’d processed a large portion of the collection, I put together my second Fulbright application. This time I proposed to pursue research related to similar items in Brazilian archives.
I didn’t get that one either.
Fulbright application: third time’s the charm
The third time around, I dug deep and applied again. That time I won, and I was given the opportunity to conduct a more clearly articulated project related to cordel in Campina Grande, a city in the Northeastern state of Paraíba, Brazil.
When Fulbright finally told me yes, I had twenty thank you cards to write. The professors, archivists, staff, and colleagues whom I contacted throughout this process became vital parts of my emotional and intellectual support system. They watched my project grow with me through failure and reinvention.
Unfortunately, a year after winning the Fulbright I withdrew from the program due to personal and health concerns, and declined the award. Since then I have shifted my research significantly in order to align with my physical needs.
Lessons learned from grant writing
But over the course of applying to the Fulbright multiple times, I learned a lot about grant writing. I gained a sense of confidence and control over the process that has enabled me to teach grant writing to successful students as a Student Affairs Advisor at the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center.
What I share with my students is this: Even though large grant applications like the Fulbright look like a whole bunch of individual bits and pieces of information, those pieces must be composed to tell a cohesive story. Every section of written text, even the tiniest blurb, contributes to an application that can hook someone into your project at a glance.
In my case, I applied for the Fulbright three years in a row before I figured out what a “cohesive story told in many parts” could feel like. Every year, I faced an identical application process, which included a series of similar essay prompts, interviews, continuous contact with Brazilian institutions, and lots of writing. The essay prompts didn’t change, but my attitude, approach, and strategies certainly did.
Throughout this cluster of four posts, I share written samples from my third and successful round of application materials for the Fulbright. Alongside each of the major written components: the statement of purpose, personal statements, and small written blurbs required by the applications, I provide detailed analysis and personal reflections about the strategies that I developed for tackling some of the most difficult aspects of large grant application processes.
Big picture strategies for working through the application as a whole
Take advantage of the grant deadlines set by your school
Like many large or national grant organizations, including the Stanford Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program, the Marshall, Mitchell and Rhodes Scholarships, and the Churchill Award, the Fulbright Foundation offers the option for candidates to apply through a preliminary process hosted by their alma mater or current university.
In these cases, individual universities put together internal committees that review the student/grad grant applications. These committees also interview the applicants, provide feedback on the initial proposal drafts, and subsequently write an additional letter of recommendation for each student/grad who goes through the process. In order to accommodate the time needed for internal review, campus submission deadlines usually fall significantly earlier than the national deadline for opportunities like Fulbright.
Many students choose not to go through the on-campus process because they find the early deadlines intimidating, but I treated it as an important benchmark on the way to my final draft. Through my experience with multiple applications, I learned to use additional time created by school deadlines as a built-in review period. Just because I was required to submit a version of my materials two months before the national deadline did not mean that my materials had to be final at that time.
My university closed my access to the Fulbright application platform during the two months between the early deadline and my interview. But even without access to the platform, I spent all of that additional time continuing to develop and edit my materials. At the interview for my third application, I brought in new affiliation letters, and was fully prepared to answer questions about any perceived gaps in my original submission.
During our conversation, I demonstrated that I was ready to consider critical feedback with additional work, and I walked away with an additional letter of support that reflected my presence in a strong interview. When the campus committee reopened my application for final edits in the week before the national deadline, I was ready with materials that I had been improving for two months.
Be thoughtful about your project location
I chose to be based in Campina Grande, Paraíba in order to work closely with an expert in the digitization of cordel and to have access to the world’s largest collection of my object of study. But there are several different ways to justify a primary location.
As a rule of thumb: the less common the destination, the more likely it is that you will be considered as a competitive candidate. Large metropolises that serve as international hubs are usually the most sought-after locations, so unless your project is entirely dependent on one of your host country’s megacities, you may want to consider the less-frequented states, regions, and small cities.
Regardless of why you propose to be in a specific place, your application materials should clearly explain a meaningful logic for why your project would best be carried out in the location you identify.
Engage with potential institutional affiliations early in the process of project development
Don’t wait to reach out to potential collaborators until you’ve “figured it all out.” Your statement of purpose will likely be much stronger if you truly build it based on dialogue with contacts in the host country. There are two important steps to building this relationship: (a) establishing meaningful dialogue, and (b) securing a formal Letter of Affiliation.
a. How to establish meaningful dialogue
Be proactive and research potential contacts before you reach out. Pick something about the project of which you are more or less certain, like a destination, community organization, object, or topic of study. Then do some focused research to see if other individuals or institutions care about or preserve resources that are related to your key themes.
Once you’ve identified a few contacts, write each of them a personalized email that includes a brief description of yourself, your expertise, and the goals you think you would like to accomplish in collaboration with these individuals or institutions. Plan on reaching out to 5-10 potential contacts (it’s likely that not everyone will respond). To learn more about how to develop meaningful dialogues with those who do respond to you, check out my post about creating your statement of purpose.
b. How to secure the Letter of Affiliation:
Once I’d established a meaningful dialogue with my potential collaborators, I requested official Letters of Affiliation. For some organizations I really had to translate the importance of formality with every aspect of the process and explain why letterhead was essential. At the suggestion of a few individuals, I wrote sample drafts of affiliation letters in Portuguese and sent them to my contacts. They used these samples to write their own letters on institutional letterhead, and emailed me signed PDFs. As instructed by the Fulbright application, I translated these Letters of Affiliation into English and included copies of the letters in both languages as part of my application materials.
Paint a comprehensive and consistent picture of yourself as an individual who can see beyond the professoriate
Here are the three most important aspects of yourself that you must convey in your application materials, primarily in your personal statement:
a. You are an individual with a clear sense of direction, and you are able to articulate meaningful relationships between your short- and long-term goals.
b. You are an individual who brings expertise, enthusiasm, and skills that will enable you to achieve the specific goals that you set out in the statement of purpose.
c. You are confident. Displaying confidence and self-knowledge in your written materials is not “cocky” or “rude.” Instead, confident writing shows the reader that you are capable of confronting unpredictable challenges and completing a project. Sometimes what you think is most obvious about your strengths and motivations just needs to be put into words.
The personal statement plays an incredibly important role in bringing a sense of you as a human being to the scholarship and research elements of the project. Successful candidates express the desire to have a tangible impact that goes beyond critical scholarship in their field. This is often a difficult message for academics to compose for non-academic or even academic audiences.
In my first two applications, my personal statement was relatively formal, and my long-term goals were primarily focused on becoming a professor who could teach the importance of culture and literature. Though I had engaged in a variety of different kinds of work, research, and extramural activities during my time in graduate school, I stuck with what I thought was a more “traditional” academic profile because that felt more relevant in an educational environment.
But in my third round of applications, I decided to celebrate all of my various accomplishments as part of the big picture of who I am, who I wish to become, and whom I wish to serve. Instead of hiding previous non-academic work experiences, I demonstrated that I have played an active role in the redistribution of valuable information to a variety of public audiences throughout many professional experiences. I share much more detail about these choices in my post about writing the personal statement.
During my third and final campus interview, the committee made explicit reference to the fact that my personal statement implied that I was not dead-set on becoming a professor (who can be at this point anyway?). I elaborated on the way that my previous work in financial research and tech had shaped my outlook on the growing importance of making information accessible to a variety of publics.
To my delight, the interviewers responded with big smiles, “Well, you really are the twenty-first century academic.” I thought it was fascinating that I got through to an academic audience so successfully when I broke with my own hesitations, and simply shared a sense of uncertainty about becoming a professor.
Develop at least one driving theme or concept that is visible in every aspect of your project
After I had written a few drafts of my statements, I sat down with everything in front of me and reflected on the journey that had gotten me to that moment. I asked myself: “What connects the dots here?” and identified the overarching theme of “redistribution” or public access to information. Once I realized that this theme could hold together all of the experiences and goals that I expressed in my materials, I rewrote all of my drafts to strengthen and illuminate this driving concept.
As a result, the way that I told my story, narrated my personal experiences, skillsets, and future goals lined-up directly with the overarching themes that I hoped to address through my research project. The decision to compose my final drafts with “access to information” in mind was not contrived. It was a completely genuine construction that I discovered through the writing process.
Conclusion: Inspiring confidence in the future
When I show my successful Fulbright materials to students who are in the process of preparing their own large grant applications, they often express feelings of intimidation. “Well obviously,” they exclaim, “you knew what you were doing. There is no way I am that ready to explain my project to the committee.”
In response to these remarks, I usually chuckle because I have felt this exact same way about every grant I have ever written: I’m so not ready. That’s the amazing thing about proposal writing, your job as the candidate is to imagine the best possible outcome and explain how you would get there if given the opportunity to fly forwards with your project.
It takes many drafts, but when you get to the final round of edits you can erase all of your feelings of self-doubt, and simply own the project and all of its potential. As you explore your options, engage in dialogue with potential collaborators, and seek out letters of reference, just remember that everything builds towards a final draft piece by piece. Take it from me: only when you’ve put in the work and polished your materials for the last time will you be able to stand back and say to yourself: “Yes, it really looks like I know what I’m doing.”
Need help navigating the grant writing or application writing process? Looking to learn more about your graduate school or post-graduate research options? Learn how your Accepted advisor can help you achieve your educational and professional goals.Want Rebecca to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
• 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your Grad School Statement of Purpose, a free guide
• Awards! Grants! Scholarships! Oh My! a podcast episode
• The Myth of the Fully-Funded PhD: Using Scholarships to Mitigate the Financial Realities of Research Degrees