A Philosophy on Fellowships

Okay. Curiosity got the best of you, and you wondered what “philosophy” and “fellowships” have in common. Let me answer that question by asking you five questions that you should consider as you think about applying for any sort of competitive fellowship that involves an experiential component (that is, the award is for something more than just money):

  1. Am I interested in the opportunity itself? Sometimes, believe it or not, students seem to be going after the name of the award – and the prestige, and the concomitant privileges – instead of what the award affords them. Not interested in spending a couple of years at Oxford University? Then don’t vie for the Rhodes Scholarship. Terrified about the prospects of being on your own for 365 days in countries you’ve never set foot in? Then perhaps the Watson Fellowship isn’t for you. So, don’t bend to the awards. Figure out what you want first and foremost, and go from there.
  2. Does the opportunity make sense for me now, given my long-term goals? If you aspire to be an internationally known researcher in the life sciences, then, indeed, you’ll most likely need an advanced degree. If you really want to pursue that degree in the United Kingdom, you might think, “Yes! I’ll apply for the Rhodes Scholarship!” But, guess what? Oxford University isn’t the best at everything. In this particular case, other institutions in the UK might set you on a surer path toward research prominence in the life sciences. I would advise against letting award schemes dictate your interests and plans.
  3. Am I a reasonably well-qualified applicant? Here, learning as much as you can about the opportunity and the application process is helpful; reading profiles of recent successful applicants is often priceless. When you read these biographies, do you see reflections of yourself- and the scale and scope of your accomplishments and their impact on the world? For some awards, GPAs matter a lot. For others, leadership, service, or dedication to a particular cause matters as much or more than grades. Here, of course, knowing your interests and strengths early is a big help, as you can make intentional decisions throughout your college years, giving you time to excel at what you love.
  4. Am I willing to invest the time and energy into crafting a strong and compelling application – one that will make both myself and Grinnell College proud? Most fellowship application processes require a lot of self-reflection, writing, and revising. These things all take time: Will you be able to balance the demands? And for some awards, Grinnell is limited in the number of students or alumni who may be nominated. By endorsing your application, Grinnell is saying that you’re the best we have to offer. You’re representing your peers, the college, your home state, your country (for international awards), and more in the process.
  5. Am I committed to the process? Fellowships, particularly the most prestigious ones, are notoriously competitive. Are you willing to do everything that’s required with the understanding that actually receiving the award is a long shot? One thing you can never control is the competition. But you will undoubtedly learn about yourself in the process – your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, your dreams and aspirations and hopes for your future. (Anything that forces you to be reflective should have such an effect, if you are suitably engaged in the process.) Is gleaning that self-knowledge enough “reward” for putting yourself up for consideration?

Applying for a fellowship is not for everyone. But if your goal is to come to know yourself – in essence, the goal of a liberal arts education, even if you know you remain a work in progress – then you should be in an ideal position to benefit from the process of applying for fellowships and awards that are good fits with the vision you currently have for your future.

Visit me in the CLS to discuss your ideas and visions and dreams – and any fellowships or awards that might align with them! Schedule an appointment in Handshake, or contact me via email at landstrom@grinnell.edu.

Ann M. Landstrom

Assistant Dean and Director of Global Fellowships and Awards