Fantastic STEM PhD Fellowships and Where to Find Them Part 2- A Personal Experience

By Sathvik Ajay Iyengar (PhD Fellow in Materials Science and NanoEngineering [MSNE])

Comic from PhD Comics

Fantastic STEM PhD Fellowships and Where to Find Them  Part 2- A Personal Experience

As an international Ph.D. student (Indian Citizen), I have navigated the challenging landscape of fellowship applications and successfully secured two prestigious fellowships: the Quad Fellowship in 2023 with Utana Umezaki (Ph.D. student in Chemistry) and the Japan Society for the Progress of Science (JSPS) fellowship for 2024. This was not done alone; a successful fellowship application is credited to countless supportive faculty, mentors, peers, friends, and family. Through my experience with these fellowships, I would like to share a few personalized tips. If you haven’t read my first part on STEM PhD fellowships yet, you can find it here!

Fellowship applications can be VERY different

The Quad Fellowship emphasized the broader societal impact of my research and career trajectory. It required a clear articulation of my intentions and dedication to contributing to positive societal change. There were three rounds: one paper round and two interviews (one with a more academic focus and the other emphasizing soft skills, personality/attitude, and big-picture discussions). This is an excellent example of needing to be prepared to be tested on different parameters and outcomes. Several mock interview rounds with friends and family enabled me to practice my ‘pitch’ (a ~2-5min delivery on your goals and objectives, with concrete examples). 

This is also where you will need to make sure to be consistent. While the paper round was submitted around May 2022, the interviews were much later, in September and November 2022. Revising your paper application materials and ensuring common ground with your interview responses is crucial. To the applicant, the paper and interview content are months apart. For the interviewer, they are days to moments apart. Lastly, knowing your interviewer (if possible; for me, it was mentioned for the first round but not the second) is very helpful. This gives you an idea of their background and the questions they are prone to ask. Interviewers are humans, too, often asking questions within their comfort zone (their discipline or expertise). If you are unaware of your interviewers until the last moment, take a deep breath and proceed logically– they would perhaps introduce themselves, and this will give you some information about how to tailor your responses. With one scientific advisor in the Australian Prime Minister's cabinet and a Pentagon official as my interviewers, the common ground was using my abilities and experiences to work towards STEM for something bigger than myself and my career. This is how you can use and streamline your personal goals with your interviewer’s frame of reference.

In contrast, the JSPS fellowship focused solely on academic merit and research rigor. Demonstrating compatibility with my host lab in Japan, showcasing my research expertise, and highlighting my published papers played pivotal roles in securing this fellowship. In this case, working in absolute harmony with my host lab to construct a compelling project proposal and, my personal favorite, an organized monthly-binned timeline to show you are prepared and justify the duration of your tenure. 

Typically, there is room to explore how your non-academic pursuits could also put you on a path to succeed in your academic pursuits. To elaborate, pursuing three years of Japanese language education at Rice affords me a level of proficiency that proves beneficial to this application, so mentioning something ancillary like this in your personal statement could help you more than you would give it credit for (sometimes it breaks ties between two highly qualified candidates; a personal touch or going the extra mile is always appreciated). There are also things you may not want to highlight, in this case, my interest in STEM policy. We can deduce what information is ancillary to an application based on their requirements or approach to selecting candidates. The JSPS fellowship focused entirely on high-quality research and fostering inter-lab collaboration. Policy, in this case, would stretch much farther than the scope provided by the program itself. In some cases, deciding what information you should avoid including in your application could be just as important as the information you have. This ensures you do not come off as someone who spreads too thin or lacks focus.

But they will have common elements

While fellowship applications vary greatly, one huge common denominator is YOU. Your passion, goals, dreams, and experiences shape your academic journey, and it is the thread that stitches the fabric of your application together. Always be true to yourself– do not ‘fake’ a writing style to sound better, and do not make false promises (the political cliche ‘if I am awarded this fellowship, I will…’). If you are referring to previous awardees’ application materials, do NOT try to imitate them. Reviewers are highly experienced; sometimes, a mild gut feeling that something seems off about a particular application packet can permanently and subconsciously bias them against you.

Applications are also almost always holistic. When your reviewer reads your packet, they must feel like they are being told one strong, cohesive story. We, as applicants, may write up only the essays and the resume sections, but everything needs to complement each other. This includes your reference letters. But aren't you not supposed to know what your recommenders write? Of course, it is only ethical. What you can do, however, is to send your recommenders anywhere from a mid-tier to final-tier draft of your materials with a bulleted list of interactions/traits/experiences that you would appreciate if they would cover (and also mention that they have full liberty to follow as little or as much of your suggestions as they wish). This will ethically redirect their attention to highlight your attributes that would better suit the application in question.

Your starting point is earlier than you may think

A lot of the work toward a successful fellowship application begins before you consider applying. Being consistent in your approach with your academic interests and research pathway can be helpful as it sets a ‘track record.’ We have limited time as Ph.D. students, and identifying interests early on and being selective with commitments and what sort of experiences you wish to collect can go a long way. With such a focused and meticulous approach, application essays and prompts will practically write themselves. Don’t forget to leave some room for adjustment, though, because tailoring your application to be unique is just as important as having a solid and persuasive narrative. Revisions play a crucial role in significantly improving your application quality. Do not hesitate to start a very rough first draft. Most grad students seek or aim for perfection, and this is not possible– nor expected– in the first draft. I found a bulleted list of ideas/thoughts a good starting point to create such a skeleton draft. Soon after, you can restructure your draft as the days or weeks pass. Giving time in between drafts is important to get out of the headspace so that you have a new perspective each time you get back to it.

Once you submit, forget it ever existed (for your sanity)

The fellowship application review process and a journal peer-review process have one big thing in common– once you submit, consider it as good as “thrown into a black hole.” Submitting a fellowship application is like launching a message into an uncertain void. It's crucial to detach emotionally post-submission, recognizing that the review process is beyond your control. Resist the urge to check for updates obsessively; set specific times to maintain a healthy balance. Engage in positive distractions, be it other projects or quality time with loved ones, to alleviate the anxiety of waiting. This is a challenging process to get used to.

It’s okay to fail (maybe even good), as long as you get back up

In the pursuit of academic and professional endeavors, setbacks are inevitable. However, it is crucial to recognize that setbacks and failures are not synonymous with defeat. They are integral components of the learning journey. It is okay, perhaps even necessary, to stumble along the way as long as we summon the strength to rise again.

I want to share a personal aspect of this journey by revealing a list of fellowships I have applied to and did not secure, including the Texas Science Policy Fellowship, the Rice Innovations Fellows Program, and the Microsoft PhD Fellowship. Despite these setbacks, I persisted, continually improving my approach with each attempt. This highlights the non-linear nature of the application process and, most importantly, our perception of success in general.

Failure is not a roadblock but rather a stepping stone towards growth and self-discovery. It provides us with valuable lessons, sharpens our resilience, and molds our character. Each stumble is an opportunity to reassess, recalibrate, and emerge stronger.

Embracing failure as a part of the process fosters a mindset that views challenges not as insurmountable obstacles but as chances to refine our approach. It is the willingness to get back up, dust off the setbacks, and continue the journey that truly defines success. As we navigate the complex terrain of academia and career pursuits, let us remember that triumph often follows tribulation, and resilience is the beacon that guides us through both. To close off on a humble note; here is a popular example of resilience: “CV of failures” as captured by Prof. Melanie Stefan in 2010 in this article in Nature.

I wish you have a greatly satisfying and peaceful journey ahead of you. And remember, its the people along the way that make the journey worthwhile.