Fulbright-Hays Season

Instead of writing about history, today I’d like to share a few thoughts about those terrible, wonderful things that enable the writing of history: fellowships and grants. Or one of them, at least: the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program, for which applications are due March 14 (or earlier on some campuses — do check!). The DDRA, which funds six to twelve months of area-studies research abroad, is one of the stranger grants out there. It relies on year-to-year approval from Congress, wreaking havoc on the standard application timeline (and making it particularly vulnerable to Trump and the Congressional GOP). The process is demanding and byzantine, with a seemingly interminable list of requirements and an online interface that is cumbersome at best. But at the same time, the evaluation procedure is unusually transparent, and it works differently from many other grants, in ways that may prove particularly advantageous to some. So in this spirit of transparency, I’d like to share a few thoughts derived from my own DDRA experience, in the hope that they can be of use to other applicants.

The Fulbright-Hays DDRA, I should say off the bat, is the grant that is currently supporting me here in Brazil (where I arrived two weeks ago), and which will be taking me to Argentina in August. This fortunate turn of events very nearly wasn’t to be, however; I almost didn’t apply at all. Indeed, last year’s early May deadline found me at the lowest point of my doctoral experience. The infinite time-sump of grant season had, to that point, yielded only stress and disappointment. The DDRA seemed an even less likely prospect than the various funders who had already rejected my proposals. The application guidelines, after all, state that “awards are not made to applicants planning to conduct research on topics that are determined to be politically sensitive… by the U.S. Embassy or Fulbright Commission in the host country.” A history of systematic state torture in which neither the U.S. nor the host countries end up looking very good, struck me as the essence of political sensitivity — a suspicion that only seemed to be confirmed through communication with the program’s director. With life-eating Orals just weeks away, late April seemed a particularly improvident time to be chasing waterfalls.

Fortunately, though, my advisors urged me to apply anyway. Armed with advice from past DDRA fellows Rachel Grace Newman and Jennifer Adair, I decided to take the plunge — and wow am I glad that I did. Not only was my project not disqualified, but in the end it benefitted tremendously from the DDRA’s uncommon evaluation system.

How so, you ask? Most other funders make awards by committee; in other words, a group of scholars meets to decide collectively who among the finalists will receive a grant. But the Fulbright-Hays works differently. According to the DDRA system, independent evaluators award a total of up to 100 points across ten predetermined categories, six of which concern the project proposal itself, and four, the qualifications of the applicant. Projects that utilize one of 78 “priority languages” (Portuguese is one) are given three bonus points; those in certain preferred academic fields (history, unsurprisingly, not among them) get two more. The scores are summed, and awards are made.

Why might this system benefit some projects more than others? Allow me to extrapolate from my own experience. Last year I noticed a pattern in the reviewer feedback I received from unsuccessful grant applications: it tended to be quite polarized. Generally, one reviewer in particular would express serious reservations about my project (perhaps a grant-world variation of the dreaded Reviewer 2?) This was true for my DDRA evaluations as well; one reader awarded me all possible points, while another gave me a score that I suspect was at the far lower end of those earned by grant recipients. I am only speculating here, but it’s my hunch that committees are less likely to award grants to proposals with fervent detractors, even if they also have strong support. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine, then, that the DDRA’s distinctive evaluation structure worked to my advantage — and could similarly favor others pursuing research on divisive topics. If you’re with me in this boat, then, I’d super-duper encourage you to apply.

The DDRA’s unusual point system also carries another advantage: it allows you to structure your application explicitly around the rubric that evaluators will use. (This document, called the “Technical Review Form,” is available to applicants through the G5 portal; I’ve embedded last year’s at the bottom of this post.) It’s always a good idea to tailor grant applications to funders’ interests, of course; but having such a clear readers’ view enables an unusually snug fit. At past fellows’ urging, I built my narrative statement in direct response to the enumerated criteria, going in sequential order to ensure that reviewers would never have to search for the information relevant to each point. This may seem obvious, but it’s something I would not have done quite so explicitly had past fellows not insisted. So to all potential DDRA applicants out there, let me add my voice to the chorus: may your narrative, and the technical review form, be as one.

Applying for grants is one of the least pleasant aspects of graduate school. Indeed, for me at least, the quest for research funds has been by far the single greatest source of stress in my nascent academic career. And this is to say nothing of the socioeconomic exclusions that the system only serves to reinforce. Let’s do what we can to ameliorate this situation by speaking openly about our challenges and by sharing as broadly as possible the insights that our fortuities afford.


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