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How to Pursue a Fellowship | A Conversation with Vicki Johnson

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As we approach the fall, some of us may be feeling that “back-to-school” itch. You might even be considering applying to grad school. And while researching school and program options is already an undertaking, there’s another aspect to the search that may not even be on your radar: fellowships!

Why would you want to pursue a fellowship? Many of these opportunities help students fund their graduate programs, give the opportunity to conduct research, and can even help you transition to a different career.

A few years ago, Idealist chatted with four-time fellowship recipient and ProFellow Cofounder, Vicki Johnson. Her wealth of information still holds true for anyone considering grad school or other career development opportunities.

How did you learn that fellowships existed? What got you interested in applying?

I first learned about fellowships when I was a senior at Cornell University. I was considering what I would do after graduating with a BA in Government and I was particularly interested in public policy. However, because I worked as a waitress during my summer breaks, I had no internship experience or professional contacts in that field. I was applying somewhat aimlessly for entry-level jobs when I discovered a brochure in the Career Services office for a short-term competitive program in local government known as New York City Urban Fellows. This was a foot-in-the-door opportunity to a full-time government job. 

As a fellow I would be part of a cohort of other recent graduates from around the country who were also just starting their careers in the city. The competitiveness of the fellowship was intimidating, so I put a lot of thought and effort into my application, which turned out to be very worthwhile. I didn’t get a single job offer, but I did get into the Urban Fellows program, which was the launchpad for my career in policy.

Did you apply for other fellowships?

As a senior in college I applied for Teach For America. I made it all the way through and received an offer to work in New York City but I came to realize it wasn’t the best fit for me. I really wanted to work in education policy and this was a teaching track, so I selected the Urban Fellows program instead.

You have to ask yourself hard questions, like “will I really be able to pull this off, or am I doing it because I think it will look good on my resume?” It’s good to talk to other fellows who have completed the program and ask them: what are the challenges, what did they like, etc.

What did you hope to gain from the fellowships?

I hoped to gain professional skills, a professional network, and ultimately a permanent position in government, and the Urban Fellows program allowed me to gain all three.

While in the program, I began researching other types of fellowship programs online and was really intrigued by the international fellowship opportunities I came across, particularly the German Chancellor Fellowship. After almost 3 years working in New York, I applied for this fellowship, which allowed me to pursue a self-designed project in Germany for one year. I had an incredible study abroad experience in college and really wanted to live abroad again. The fellowship, which provided a stipend and travel funding, made this possible. The fellowship also included German language training, which made the opportunity particularly attractive. 

What did your first fellowship searches look like?

It’s hard to remember! I primarily did extensive research online, although back then (in the early 2000’s), information on fellowships was very tough to come by. When I found opportunities that sounded interesting, I saved them in a Word document. My computer actually crashed while I was in Germany on my fellowship so I lost the incredible list that I had compiled and had to start over! All of these experiences informed the creation of ProFellow, where you can now bookmark fellowships to your personal profile.

Throughout your career thus far, you’ve actually been awarded four fellowships—wow! Tell us a little about each.

New York City Urban Fellows was first. I applied as a senior at Cornell in 2001. It’s a program for recent grads and I was interested because after a two-week orientation, they place fellows in full-time positions in New York City government agencies. Getting an entry-level city government job can be really mysterious, so this was an excellent opportunity for me. I was in a cohort of 24 other fellows. It was the year 9/11 happened. We had started our orientation just a week before.

I put the NYC Office of Emergency Management as my first choice placement, without even really knowing what emergency management entailed. I received the placement and it was life-changing. I wound up working in emergency management for the next ten years in New York, D.C., and internationally.

For my application to the German Chancellor Fellowship, I proposed a project comparing bioterrorism preparedness efforts in Germany and the U.S. Because terrorism preparedness was a hot topic at the time, it made my application stand out.

Idealist interviewed another alumna of the German Chancellor Fellowship program. She raved about the opportunity—tell us a little more! 

It was one of my best experiences. I learned German, so I’m now conversationally fluent, and I learned to be self-motivated. I didn’t have a boss, so it was really up to me to complete my project. I also learned to live in a different culture and I created a new professional network.

I also learned that it takes longer to make friends with Germans. Germans sometimes perceive Americans as a little too friendly. A language barrier is one thing, but it is harder to make friends in a new culture. The German language training provided by the program made it easier to communicate with new people.

In any case, it was easy to make friends with other expats through sports clubs, social events, and language classes. If you are going abroad to a new country, having some previous language training is ideal.

The Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship came next. What was that like?

I was a bit strategic about this one. I had a six-month break before I started grad school, so I looked for opportunities for that time frame. In this fellowship, there was a peace and security focus, which was great for me. I worked in a think tank in D.C., as I was curious what that would be like as a career path.

I proposed that I wanted to work in biosecurity and I think that helped my application. Biosecurity was a burgeoning field. The fact I spent a year and a half in Europe also helped my application. I did this fellowship before starting my graduate program in London.

And finally, you were awarded the Ian Axford Fellowship in Public Policy.

I did this one several years later. It’s a fellowship for mid-career American policy professionals administered by Fulbright New Zealand. It offers an opportunity to work on an independent policy research project in New Zealand for seven months. It’s a very attractive place to go and live short term, especially since it’s English-speaking. Also, it was something I could do to advance my current policy work. When I applied I was Policy Director of the National Commission on Children and Disasters and the project I proposed focused on disaster education for children. I was accepted to the fellowship and my partner Ryan was able to come with me. We had an incredible year in New Zealand.

During the fellowship, I was accepted into a PhD program at Massey University in Wellington, so we stayed for another year and half. I finished my PhD remotely in the US. You have no idea what incredible opportunities can come out of at fellowship. I recommend applying for fellowships at different levels of your career. It’s a great way to do something experimental, gain new skills, and possibly live abroad. Usually, fellowships provide the support to help you make the transition.

If you haven’t done a fellowship in your early career, there are still many mid-career fellowship opportunities. There are fellowships that help people make the transition from corporate careers to the social-impact sector, like ProInspire. They are specifically looking for people who worked in the private sector to apply business and analytical skills. There are also a lot of teaching fellowships, including several that recruit professionals with a background in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), such as the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowships, and many fellowships that provide funding for graduate studies. You can browse more than 700 fellowships in our database at ProFellow and bookmark the ones you’re interested in.

What are the major differences in the application processes?

All my applications were pretty similar, and required a personal essay, resume, and references. I also had to propose an independent project for two of them and describe my goals and research methods.

All of the fellowships had individual and group interviews as part of the application process. You’ll need to have a short pitch of what you were planning to do. It takes some practice. The application process has a lot of elements that are similar to what you’d encounter in grad school applications, but a few other things that are unique to the fellowship process.

What should people keep in mind when researching fellowships?

Almost all fellowships have a time-consuming application process, so look for ones that are a good fit for you. If it’s not a good fit, the application process will reveal this. So when applying ask yourself, “will this fellowship help me achieve something I wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve?” It’s not enough to be passionate about the topic, it should achieve specific personal goals. 

If you are doing it for the “wrong” reasons, it will be harder to answer that question. For example, you shouldn’t pursue an international fellowship just because you like travel. What about the fellowship should help you gain skills or expertise you couldn’t otherwise get through other experiences. For example, the fellowship experience might put you on a publication track, help you enter grad school, or give you the chance to meet people in your field over the long term.

That’s what the fellowship organizations want to see in your application. They care more about what you plan to do after than what you did up until the point of your application. Many applicants will assume they have all the credentials to get the fellowship and that makes them a shoe-in. Remember to put some focus in your application on what you plan to do after your fellowship experience.

What are some key things people should evaluate in a fellowship program?

A lot of fellowships have low pay, and in some cases you may need your own personal savings to meet your expenses for the year, especially if you are going to be living in a big city. You have to think about the stipend or grant that you’ll get and how you can make it work. Know what other resources you have available to you, and ask yourself if you’ll want (or be able) to live frugally. You definitely don’t want to be in debt as a result of the fellowship.

There are many people you can talk to in order to make it work, but be realistic about it. Mid-career fellowships tend to have better compensation because they recruit experienced professionals who may have dependents. Consider the limitations of the compensation carefully before applying.

How did your experiences researching and applying for fellowships prompt you to develop ProFellow?

I always researched fellowships online, but a lot of the opportunities are difficult to find or are known by word-of-mouth only. I had developed a working document of fellowships I was considering, and would share them with other people. I also gave talks at alumni events and women’s leadership events about the fellowships I’d done. There was a common question, "How do you find these opportunities?" 

My husband Ryan has a tech background, and we started ProFellow in 2011 while living in New Zealand. It started as a blog and we created a user-friendly database. We did university tours in the U.S. to get the word out about it, and we also launched a successful Indiegogo campaign that raised more than $10,000 for the site.

ProFellow is a platform that helps people discover fellowship opportunities. For example, the Fulbright program is a well-known fellowship program for work and study experiences abroad, but there are hundreds of similar international opportunities that are unheard of - and now you can discover them through ProFellow.

The one thread that goes through all fellowships is social impact—the experiences support people who want to change the world whether through research, policy, advocacy, social entrepreneurship, diplomacy or leadership. Whenever I’ve met fellows or people applying for fellowships, they tend to be highly motivated and socially conscious.

Thinking back on all your fellowships, what did your experiences teach you about the world? And yourself?

Living and working abroad really is eye-opening to how the world perceives the U.S. and our values as Americans. It helped me become self-aware and politically active, as well as understand the importance of being a public servant.

Also, these experiences taught me that I’m a risk taker, and they drew me into a new career path in entrepreneurship. My fellowship experiences made me realize that my priority is doing something I’m passionate about rather than chasing a particular job title or salary. In our thirties, many of us start thinking about how to get to the next level in our careers, but I’ve realized the most important for me is to do things that are interesting and impactful. This realization will guide me throughout my career and I hope when I look back on my life, I will be satisfied with what I have chosen to do. Fellowships helped to define what’s important to me personally and professionally.

By Victoria Crispo

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