Self-Empowering Choices in a Graduate Program

One way to view prestigious fellowships is that they invite students to make self-empowering choices about how they engage with the academy and in community service.  If you are enrolled or planning to enroll in a master’s program, it may be that you aspire to the terminal degree in your field: a Ph.D. for future faculty/researchers, an MFA in the fine arts.  Or it may be that you are pursuing a graduate degree that leads to a profession in public service. The advice here is directed to students with these aspirations. 

The following discussion, geared primarily towards graduate students, anatomizes the elements of an application that a foundation or program selection committee is likely to consider in vetting a fellowship candidate.

Your Academic Record and Potential

  • Fellowship committees want assurance that applicants will be able to perform at a high level of academic excellence. They look to transcripts and recommendations to predict whether applicants will be able to sustain “A” level work in all their doctoral level courses. To the extent possible, then, ensure that your master’s level transcript reflects that you are well able to take on the rigor of academic work at a top research institution in your field.
  • Committees also want assurance that you have the self-discipline necessary to excel in advanced graduate studies.  Assiduously avoid withdrawing from courses or having incompletes on your record.  Do everything in your power to ensure that fellowship selection committees have no cause to wonder if you will repeat a troublesome pattern during the degree for which you seek fellowship support.
  • If you have a ‘checkered past’ at the undergraduate level, ensure that your graduate transcript evinces a new era in your personal focus and academic performance.
  • “I only do well when I’m interested in the material.”  If you are inclined to this attitude, get rid of it: it will sabotage your efforts to qualify for a nationally competitive fellowship.  Fellowship committees are looking for students who will contribute to the public or intellectual life of the nation or world.  Those who are intensely curious and not hostage to their whims make the best case for this potential.
  • Go above and beyond what your professors explicitly require in your written work, class preparation and participation.  Transcend any remaining habit of rushing to class with the readings half-ready and poorly processed.  The time has passed for gambling that your professor won’t call on you.  Also passed is the time for ‘generalist’ responses to readings to conceal that you haven’t actually read or completed assigned readings.  Give yourself time to take notes, and to let your thoughts and responses coalesce; come to every class having selected a few passages about which you have observations or questions.  Remember that such commitment will be reflected in how your professors think of you when they write or speak on your behalf.
  • You tried, but there are flaws in your graduate transcript. Take heart. First, it is possible to explain these well and to the satisfaction of a fellowship committee.  Consult with the fellowship advisor for how to address your particular record. Second, grades are not the end of the story.  A less than perfect performance in a course, or on a given essay or exam, can be rescued by a willingness to revise the work, or better understand the material, even when such improvements will not be reflected in your course grade.  Faculty admire students whose ambitions extend beyond grades.  Show that you are such a scholar.
  • When asking for a recommendation, give your recommender at least three weeks’ notice, and provide him or her with all the materials necessary to write a strong recommendation on your behalf.  These materials include: samples of your coursework, graded papers with comments (if you have retained them), a resume, a draft of your personal statement and other application essays, your transcripts, and a description of the fellowship program to which you are applying.  Meet with your recommender to discuss your motivation and ‘match’ for the fellowship program.
  • Ask each recommender how he or she would like to be reminded of the impending deadline (by email or phone, for example, and in what intervals), and then do follow-up.  While you don’t want to be a bother, once a recommender has agreed to write a letter on your behalf, you can assume that she or he wants to do so, and appropriate self-interest mandates that you not be passive at this juncture.  In reminding your recommender at the agreed-upon intervals, remain steady and gracious.
  • It is essential that you follow-up with your recommenders to let them know the outcome of your candidacy.  Send a thank you email or card for the recommendation itself.  Then let them know whether you have advanced as a finalist, were selected for the program, or were not selected.  Whatever the outcome, remember that when you update them, you should once again thank them for their effort on your behalf.

The ‘Intangible Qualities’ of Originality, Creativity, Perseverance

  • Only faculty with some personal exposure to you will be prepared to advocate for your candidacy as a scholar, artist, or public servant—and as a person. 
  • Build a relationship with each of the faculty members from whom you expect to ask for a recommendation.  Go to office hours.  Ask about your professors’ research, and their experience in becoming faculty members.  Some will come from backgrounds not unlike your own.  Knowing a bit about your faculty mentors will give you courage and demystify the path towards the terminal degree in your field.
  • Tell them a little bit about your life history, and the evolution of your academic, artistic, or public service ambitions.
  • Share your academic passions with your professors, and ask for recommendations to readings that will help you become smarter and better informed about your areas of interest.  Read the texts they recommend.
  • Engage with the ‘great debates’ in your field.  Read scholarly and professional journals, and new scholarship in your areas of specialization or interest. When you find a classic theorist you admire, find out how contemporary theorists are using, resisting, or revising his or her work or theories.  In gaining a sense of the counter-arguments to the theories nearest and dearest to your heart, you will gain intellectual flexibility, and evince yourself to be a critical thinker rather than merely an enthusiast in relation to scholarship in your field.
  • Resources:  To find the top journals in your field, consult with your faculty for recommendations, and then consult a librarian for how to gain access to these journals.  Journals in your field may be accessible on our library’s website (SF State Library Articles Search). Ensure that journals you are consulting are ‘peer reviewed’ or ‘refereed’ academic journals. Your faculty will be able to verify this, as would a reference librarian in your field (SF State Librarians by Discipline).
  • Discuss with various faculty the questions or problems that are of special interest to you in your field.  Seek exposure to and conversation with a diversity of disciplinary viewpoints and ideological perspectives.  The more you seriously consider and attempt to account for contradictory ideas, the greater your intellectual maturity.  This growth will inevitably show up in your writing and speaking.
  • Attend lectures by faculty and other experts on our campus as well as nearby campuses (Calendars of Lectures at SF State, UC Berkeley, and Stanford). Seek out interdisciplinary approaches to your research questions or areas of academic interest.
  • Take intellectual risks.  For students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences: strive to make ambitious arguments that will stimulate your growth as a writer and thinker.  For students in the sciences, invite yourself to think innovatively about how the questions you are pursuing might be investigated. Your faculty will ‘perk up’ at the vitality of your intellectual engagement. 

Advocacy and Analysis in Writing and in Person

  • Strong fellowship candidates are able to explain not only their own area of interest, they are able to engage the larger world, and the relationship of their area of study to that world.  So: read broadly, both within and outside your field. (Recommended Texts). You don’t have to master everything you read.  The more you read, the more you will understand what you read. Over time, you will make connections among readings, and your ‘map of the world’ will expand.
  • When reading, resolve to never again ‘skip over’ a word you don’t know, especially terms of art in your field . (Discipline-Specific Dictionaries, Handbooks, Primers, and Introductions).
  • If you have a habit, either in speaking or in writing, of using words with which you have only a passing familiarity, break that habit today.  If you frequently or even occasionally use language incorrectly, rest assured that others who know better will take note.  So: look it up!—and as many times as it takes! for the new vocabulary to ‘become yours.’  These resources will help you learn how to use new terms correctly in context.  (Recommended Dictionaries and Related Resources).

Professional Development Activities: Research, Conferences, Teaching

  • Seek out opportunities to join ongoing research and to conduct your own independent research.  Speak to your faculty about your interest in research opportunities on campus and at local universities, and seek out research summer opportunities outside the Bay Area or abroad.  While funded master’s level research opportunities are not as plentiful as for undergraduates, they do exist.  The fellowship advisor is available to assist you in developing your application for many of the nationally competitive internship opportunities in the U.S. or abroad listed on this website (Prestigious National Internships, Prestigious International Internships).
  • Designing your own research project will help you clarify your goals and areas of research interest for the next phases of your education.  Such experiences incline fellowship committees to view you as informed about and motivated to acquire the skills necessary for doctoral studies.  In addition, they will prepare you to address with some specificity, in writing or in person, your future research interests. 
  • Ask your faculty about disciplinary conferences you might attend, as well as which conferences in which graduate students are allowed or invited to present their research. 
  • In applying to conferences—either to deliver a talk or to give a poster presentation—you will learn how to write an abstract.  In representing your research to others, you will gain skills in synthesizing what you know.  In fielding questions, you will learn how to explain your research clearly and succinctly, and you will gain experience ‘thinking on your feet’ about its design, significance, and relationship to other or future research. 
  • If fielding audience questions at conferences makes you incredibly nervous at first, know that you may ultimately grow to enjoy the give-and-take with conference attendees curious about your project.  Learn to enjoy your development as a scholar, artist, or professional able to explain your research or project and its significance. 
  • Should you become a finalist for a nationally competitive fellowship in a competition that requires a selection committee interview, the public speaking experiences outlined here will be invaluable to you in feeling that you can represent yourself and your ideas well to strangers.
  • Look for teaching opportunities in any form, paid or unpaid.  Experience in grading, holding office hours, leading sections, tutoring, as a teaching assistant or as an invited speaker all enhance your understanding of teaching as a profession, and help you understand how to effectively and flexibly communicate knowledge and ideas to others.  All teaching experiences will enhance your professional preparation, as well as your readiness to speak to a fellowship selection committee, should the opportunity present itself.

Citizen-Scholars and the ‘Intangible Quality’ of Leadership

  • While the following is not true for every fellowship (some focus almost exclusively on academics), fellowship boards often want to know what you care about in the social world, and also that you are inclined to give back to the communities to which you belong. Intern, work, or volunteer to gain experience in your field and to participate in some degree in improving the world.  These activities do not have to involve great amounts of time on a weekly or monthly basis, but in the ideal case your commitment to these activities should be sustained.
  • If your department or school offers opportunities for graduate students to participate in committee work, vetting new hires, bringing speakers to campus, or putting on disciplinary conferences, pitch in.  You will gain an understanding of the kind of work that will be required of you as a future faculty member, and you will be demonstrating that you understand the academy requires the collaboration of all its stakeholders. 
  • Resources:  For ideas about where to volunteer, see these links to Volunteer Opportunities.  For community service learning and local, CSU, and SF State internships, see the University’s Institute for Civic and Community Engagement (ICCE).
  • In your volunteer experiences and elsewhere, look for opportunities to meet an unmet need.  If you notice an area of need that you could help address, take the initiative in doing so.  These activities will be of interest to selection committees; they will also give you energy, resiliency, and depth.
  • Leadership can also be expressed in how you work with others.  Ensure that your interactions with your peers and faculty expresses an openness to the ideas of others, and the highest standards of personal ethics. 

Self-Understanding, Humility, and Humor

  • The fellowship application process will ask you to reflect, in a greater or lesser degree, on your life path: how you got to this point, what you need to do next, what matters to you, where you are headed.  Use the process of writing for fellowships and preparing for interviews to better understand your values and life choices.  Reflecting on your life in order to write well about it well will enhance your understanding of your journey.
  • If at all possible, have a sense of humor and humility about yourself.  Selection committees are not merely investing in the potential influence of their fellows.  In selecting up-and-coming scholars, artists, or public servants, committees are also investing in people—and those who are overly impressed with themselves are simply much less attractive than those whose excellence is matched by a sense of perspective about their own importance in the larger scheme of things.  In application essays and if called for an interview, do not try to impress upon a committee that you are ‘the smartest person in the room.’  Aim instead to be a self-trusting, self-aware person who takes his or her commitments—but not him or herself—seriously, and who is able to truly engage in a conversation.
  • Use the process of fellowship application to focus and celebrate yourself, but also know that achieving your own greatness does not depend on being selected for a fellowship.


Email Conventions and Etiquette 

Just as you should in person, show respect in your emails to your faculty. Several websites offer helpful advice for how to think about emails to professors. Read them and think about the approach you want to take that strikes a balance between the personality and approach of your professor, their level of formality or informality, your evolving professional relationship, and the need to lead with a courteous and respectful attitude.  See:

Remember, your communication reflects your own excellence, and creates the foundation for their positive assessment of you. If you intend to go on to a professional career, you need them to begin respecting you now, because of your good judgement and attentiveness to your communication with them.

SF State's Director of the Fellowships Office is available to help you plan how to improve your candidacy for nationally competitive fellowships, as well as to give you feedback on your application materials.

Resources for Applicants

Why Should You Apply for a Fulbright?

Quick Links

Fellowships Office

Dr. Joy Viveros

Phone: 415.405.2128
Fax: 415.405.0340
Reception: The Hub, ADM 250 
1600 Holloway Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94132

For an appointment, please email Dr. Viveros