Monday, September 14, 2009

Applying for a Fulbright


As the term here in Akureyri begins get into full swing, I want to take the occasion of this final post to talk a bit about the Fulbright Program and about how to investigate the various opportunities the program offers.  I’ll also speak generally about my own experience as a fellow here in Iceland (a picture of our new home is at left).

The Fulbright Program provides a wide variety of grants to American and foreign scholars and to U.S. institutions to promote the international exchange of ideas. It is considered the “flagship international exchange program” of the United States.  The program was created by Congress in 1946 through legislation introduced by Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and was designed to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.”  The program is administered on behalf of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES), a nonprofit organization founded in 1947 by the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Academy of Sciences, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Council on Education.  Since 1996, the CIES has been a division of the Institute of International Education (IIE), a nonprofit created in the aftermath of World War I by Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler, former Secretary of State Elihu Root, and Stephen Duggan, Sr., Professor of Political Science at CCNY.  The Fulbright Program is funded by an annual appropriation from Congress—the appropriation for FY 2008 was over $215 million—and by contributions from foreign governments, which recently totaled about $60 million.

The Fulbright Program is vast, and it offers many different types of awards. A helpful list and description of its grant categories can be found here (scroll down) and here.  A list of its programs designed solely for scholars from the United States can be found here.  Of the 7,500 total grants the program awards annually, about 800-1,100 send individual Americans like me abroad to conduct teaching and research as part of the traditional Fulbright Scholar Program.  This is the program one generally has in mind when one hears about academics “getting a Fulbright,” and it is the one that will be of most immediate interest to readers of this blog.  Just what opportunities will be available for teaching and research through the scholar program is determined within the 125 host countries in which the program operates, generally through binational commissions and foundations, such as the Iceland-United States Educational Commission. The next cycle of awards, for 2011-12, will be announced beginning this coming February, and you will be able to find a list here (click “catalogue of awards,” but make sure keep checking back as new awards are announced on an ongoing basis). That’s also the link you should use as your portal to investigating the program generally and entering its on-line application site. 

As awards are announced, you’ll see that they come in many shapes and sizes.  Some last for a semester, others for a year.  Some are purely for teaching, whereas others are for research—and others, like the one I received, combine the two.  Most important to bear in mind is that advertised awards are usually content specific.  Some foreign universities do send out a “calling all cars” announcement, but typically they are looking for Americans to teach in specific subject areas.  The host institutions of course can’t be too particular about this, and so award announcements typically call for applications from academics in the fields of, say, “American history or literature,” or “foreign relations or comparative public policy,” but they are limited all the same—and probably only a handful will be appropriate for any given applicant.  So pay close attention to the list, and check back from year to year.  Of the awards for which you’re potentially suited, you’ll be able to list three, in order of preference, for which you’d like to be considered in your application.  When I applied, for example, I listed the award I currently hold as my first choice (the University of Akureyri had advertised a teaching/research award in the field of constitutional law), and then as my second and third choices I listed awards given to scholars of history and cultural studies in Germany and Austria.  Most of the advertised awards do not require any proficiency in the foreign language of the host country, though some do.

Once you’ve found a set of awards that interest you, take some time to examine how the program describes how to construct a good application, here.  For awards involving research, you will need to write a five-page project statement and include three letters of recommendation; for teaching awards, you will need course syllabi, two letters of recommendation, and an evaluative teaching report.  Some awards require a specific letter of invitation from a host institution.  I spent a couple of days putting together my project statement, and it took a couple more days to fill in the application and gather all the necessary application materials.  A Fulbright award, by the way, will not make you rich, especially if you are bringing along a spouse or a family.  My own award provides $3,300/month for the two of us, in a country where we recently paid seven dollars for a single tube of dental floss (don’t feel too bad: yesterday we bought three large pieces of haddock for about $4.50).  Fortunately, Fulbright awards are prestigious, and it’s very much in the interest of universities to have faculty who hold them, so many schools, certainly research institutions, have salary programs that supplement the award and enable you to live above a student level.  Here is an example of such a program from my own institution, Rutgers—to be shown to any Dean or Provost who thinks about cutting you off entirely while you’re abroad.

Two caveats regarding time.  First, once you’ve applied for a fellowship, be prepared for a very, very long wait.  Applications go through an extended review process in host countries and in the United States, and it can take many months to hear any direct word from the program.  I applied in the summer and didn’t know for sure that I received the award until the middle of the spring (in the late fall I received an ambiguous letter that could have been read as indicating that it was possible I’d receive an award, but it wasn’t anything on which I was going to plan my future).  Naturally, the long wait can create real problems for Associate Deans looking to schedule courses for the following year, so keep them apprised.  Second, if you do receive an award, you may need to establish residency in your host country, and that can be very time consuming—make sure to get on top of the application right away and work with a sense of urgency at every stage.  Establishing Icelandic residency, for instance, required me to get fingerprinted at my local police station, send the fingerprints to the FBI for a background check, send the background check statement to the Secretary of State of West Virginia for an authentication seal, order an original copy of my marriage license from the town hall in New Haven and send it to the Connecticut Secretary of State for further authentication, purchase Icelandic health insurance for my wife, make a special visit and numerous phone calls to the Danish consulate in New York—not to mention fill out numerous unfamiliar bureaucratic forms and send them snail mail to Iceland.  In the end, our visas arrived with just two weeks to spare. 

Is it worth it?  Without question.  Speaking personally, the Fulbright Program has given me the opportunity to expand my intellectual horizons in a fundamental way, and I expect it will result in a profound, long-term reorientation and internationalization of my research interests.  Since arriving in Iceland, my status as a Fulbrighter has enabled me to meet a wide variety of scholars who haven’t hesitated for a moment to make me feel welcome when I indicate why I’m visiting their country, and it’s already opened numerous doors.  It’s also been just an incredible amount of fun.  After spending a couple of days at a fascinating conference on law and policy in the Arctic (whose attendees included, among others, the President of Iceland and the ambassadors of Russia and France), I spent the other morning hiking in some nearby hills and picking wild blueberries with my wife—after which we spent some time soaking in a crystal-clean geothermal hot tub in one of Akureyri’s marvelous public pools—after which we stood in the sun for half an hour by the fjord and watched two bottlenose whales playing about three hundred feet away—after which we bought some amazing fresh cod from a blond-haired descendant of Vikings in a deli located two minutes from our apartment—after which we cooked a New England chowder and hosted dinner for a local corporate lawyer and part-time law professor, who after promising soon to show me the nearby courthouse stayed until a boozy midnight talking animatedly about the ways in which the sagas illustrate the niceties of medieval legal procedure.  For a legal historian, what’s not to like? 

I want to thank everyone again for your emails in response to my earlier posts.  I really appreciate your responses, and I send you all warm wishes from the far north.  I also want especially to thank Mary for the invitation to be a guest blogger.  I haven’t always appreciated the intellectual utility of blogging, but now I’m a complete convert.  For that, I tip my hat to her.  


Best wishes from Iceland ...

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