When I was an undergraduate I studied abroad at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Although it was only a few months out of a three-year programme, it was by far the most rewarding part of my degree. It was here that I was first able to study American literature and I developed a keen fascination with ethnic identities in the United States and the diasporas that created these. Upon my return to the U.K., I was determined to pursue further study in American literature. I entertained the thought of returning to the U.S. to study, but was deterred by the prohibitive costs and found a brilliant MSc programme (unfortunately no longer running) in Literature and Transatlanticism at the University of Edinburgh. After finishing, I stayed there to complete my PhD on the transnational poetics of the contemporary novelist Colum McCann.
Like many scholars working on transnational or transatlantic subjects, I work across many fields; predominantly American, Irish, and Postcolonial Studies. Nearly all academics working in American Studies, and plenty in other disciplines too, will be familiar with the Fulbright Commission. While I was vaguely aware of the existence of Fulbright (largely due to a teenage interest in Sylvia Plath), it was not until I considered doing my masters abroad that I acquainted myself fully with their work. I considered applying for various awards at different times, but the fit was never quite right.
However, in February 2015, I stumbled across the ‘American Studies Special Programmes Grant‘. I was due to start a postdoctoral project on the literary afterlives of the Irish nationalist and human rights campaigner Roger Casement in April 2015, and knew that there was a wealth of material available in the New York Public Library. Indeed, I knew that there was enough material to warrant a substantial research trip. Despite the generous funding of the Leverhulme Trust, I knew that I would need more financial support to give myself enough time to look over these properly. This Fulbright award, to fund research trips of between one and three months, was perfect. I applied, had a phone interview, and was lucky enough to be successfully awarded the grant to spend one month in New York, hosted by Glucksman Ireland House, New York University. In what follows below, I’d like to outline my experiences of applying for this grant in the hope that it might help future applicants to this and other awards. However, I’d also like to clarify that this advice stems purely from my own experiences and those whom I know; I do not claim to be an expert and write this simply hoping that it might be of use. Some of the advice is quite specific to Fulbright, but there is plenty that could be applied to funding applications more generally.
A Word of Advice Before I Begin
Although I’ll get on to the application process shortly, I’m going to begin by suggesting that there is a lot that you can do to strengthen your application before you even apply. By that, I mean that you need to think carefully about how you can make the most of your PhD study. In a shameless plug for my own work, I’ve written about this before, but this is especially important for the Fulbright Commission, who are specifically looking to fund candidates that have interests ranging beyond academia. I know that the pressures facing PhD students have risen exponentially over the past few years, while the timeframe within which to achieve all these things is decreasing, but I would really urge PhD students to make sure they do more than simply work on their thesis. As Nadine Muller has wisely cautioned, ‘doing nothing but researching and writing your thesis for three or four years’ will severely impact your chances of getting a job (academic or not) after you complete. I’d go further and suggest that it will dramatically reduce your chances of getting even a small research grant. Of course, for those that are full or partially-self funding, time is even more precious when it could be spent earning the money you need to live.
That being said, I know that most widening participation departments are desperate to work with PhD students in their initiatives to encourage children from schools with low-progression rates to attend university. I did some of this while I was a PhD student (you get paid, it is fantastic fun and really important work) and, in my Fulbright interview, I was able to chat about this and express how keen I would be to continue doing this kind of work for the Fulbright alumni network. Similarly, whilst I was a PhD student, I ran a storytelling project for my peers with local children and elderly people with the Scottish Storytelling Centre. This meant that when I talked about my desire to engage with Irish American culture while a fellow at Glucksman Ireland House, NYU, it was evident that I was not just paying lip service to the things that Fulbright wanted to hear. Finally, applying for funding and grants while a student (more on this later) is vital practice for later on in your academic career.
The Application Process
For the Fulbright grant I applied for, the application process was relatively short, simple and straightforward (although I know the Scholar awards are much more protracted): but you should still allow a generous amount of time to organise everything properly. Firstly, it’s always really important to check that you are eligible. I had two concerns about this: a) whether working on Irish American and transatlantic subjects fell within Fulbright’s definition of American Studies and b) whether being currently based in Ireland, not the UK, might work against me. Rebecca, the member of staff responsible for my award, was incredibly helpful with this and indeed has been ever since (thanks, Rebecca!). Next, I would encourage all applicants to read every single application material available to them, multiple times – and, if you’re applying for a smaller grant, do have a look over the ‘desirable criteria’ sections for bigger grants too. You need to get a good sense of what kinds of qualities the funder is looking for in their award holders.
When putting together your application, remember to think carefully about where you’d like to base yourself. All of my materials are in the New York Public Library, but I opted to base myself at NYU because I saw this as an excellent opportunity for new sources of peer review and the chance to establish collaborative relationships, both of which, I think, strengthened my application and I could talk about well in my interview.
In terms of writing up the application itself, of course, the usual rules apply: be compelling, convincing and realistic. As I was applying to fund research as part of a larger project, I was careful to outline clearly and in detail exactly which part of the project Fulbright would be funding. I also noted the publication possibilities arising from this: one article based on some of the research undertaken in NY and the expectation that the project as a whole will turn into a monograph.
The final stage of the application process was a telephone interview. I was teaching on the day of my interview and could not get home in time to take the call there, so I asked the wonderful assistants at the University of Stirling if I could book a classroom to take the call (thanks, Laura and Katie!). Luckily, there was a spare office available with a landline, which was excellent as it meant I didn’t have to worry about mobile signal as well as the interview. I was interviewed by three people, which was a little disconcerting, but the interview itself was incredibly short (about 11 minutes in total, to be precise). I’d already had an interview as part of the application for my postdoctoral research project, so I had a fair amount of practice talking about my ideas. While my interview for the Leverhulme Trust was very much focused on my research and the project, the Fulbright interviewers asked quite a bit about my career plans, how I’d make the most of my time in New York, and how the postdoctoral project departed from my PhD thesis. After a wait of one week and two days, most of which I spent trying to prepare myself for a let down, I was absolutely delighted – and incredibly shocked – to find out I’d been nominated for one of the awards.
Practice Makes Perfect
I’d like to finish, however, by imploring you not to be disheartened if you do not secure grants you apply for. Practice makes perfect and you should start writing grant proposals as soon as you can. The more things you apply for, the greater your chances of success. To put things into perspective, in 2013 I applied, and failed, to secure funding from: the British Association of Irish Studies for a research trip; an internal scheme at the University of Edinburgh to fund a languages learning programme for PhD researchers; the AHRC Collaborative Skills Development Fund for my storytelling project and another internal scheme at the University of Edinburgh to fund this storytelling project (it was eventually funded from a different internal source). In 2013 I also applied for several smaller pots of money from my university department, including funds to boost a postgraduate conference budget and to run some social events for fellow postgraduates. While some people might dismiss these little sums as insignificant, putting together the applications undoubtedly improved my proposal writing skills.
In 2014, I unsuccessfully applied for two AHRC visiting studentships in addition to my successful Leverhulme project and, a few months ago, I was rejected from the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale. This puts my overall success rate at about 33% (but, oh boy, do not even get me started on publishing rejections and essay competition entries) but broken down, my 2013 success rate was 20%, 2014 was 33% and 2015 is 50% (awaiting another outcome but we’ll keep it at 50% for the moment). Now, I’m neither a betting woman nor a statistician, and all sorts of factors affect the success of grant applications, but I do seem to be making some progress here. So if I had only one piece of advice for you, it would be: apply early, apply often and don’t give up.