I've had a number of people ask me for Fulbright application advice, and at this point, have compiled enough of a list of questions/ answers that they seemed to merit a whole post. I'm planning to update this post as more questions come in, and will also write up more thorough reflections on my Fulbright experience (as opposed to the application process) at some point. For those who don't know, I was a Fulbright Research Fellow for the 2013-2014 academic year in the Netherlands. I studied EECS in college, but my Fulbright grant was categorized under "Urban Development and Planning" because my grant proposal was to apply quantitative methods from statistics and computer science to study urban planning. This advice is reasonably specific to Yale. Before I answer any questions, I'll say that one of the best general Fulbright application resources I've found is Kelly Stoner's Fulbright Application Advice blog post. I didn't find her post until after I'd applied, but it is an extremely useful compilation of information about applying for a Fulbright, and would have saved me a lot of mental strife during the application process.
When did you start reaching out to professors, universities, etc? Is that the first step?
I did this in August, before the October application deadline. I definitely recommend reaching out to affiliates earlier, since you want to lock down a sponsor/ affiliation as soon as possible. I researched professors online and emailed them out of the blue, but if you've got them, having connections at a university is great. I think it's probably a good idea to reach out to professors with an initial idea for a project proposal and get feedback from them. They can help you shape it into something that would be useful/ exciting to them, but remember to keep it your own as well! Make sure to mention that you would be a free resource for them.
Do you have any advice on getting an affiliation?
Locking down an affiliation is tough. As mentioned above, I sent cold emails to a bunch of professors and lecturers at different universities whose research was roughly aligned with the themes of my proposal, and was lucky that one of them emailed me back. I can't offer a fool-proof way of finding an affiliation, but I would make sure to mention that you'll be receiving your own funding and won't require their lab/ university to support you financially at all.
It's also important to note that the national Fulbright deadline (often mid-October) is usually later than the internal deadlines at most universities, which are often early September. This gives you a bit of extra time to lock down your affiliation. In your initial application, you could write something like: "I am planning to work with 'x person' at 'y institution' on 'z project'", and then, when you hear back from your affiliate, you can update your application with more specific details and include the affiliation letter. When I was applying, Yale let me make small changes to my application and add the affiliate letter in mid-September, before the national deadline.
What are other first steps?
I started by deciding on a country (see more on this below), and then thinking about a project that was personally interesting to me but would also fit well with the country I was applying to. I think that brainstorming an appropriate/ meaningful/ exciting/ feasible project proposal is the most important and most challenging part of the application. Keep in mind that your project can change once you start your Fulbright (mine changed completely), but you should be convincing and detailed in your application.
Was there an information session at Yale during the process?
During my time, there were several info sessions at Yale in the spring. However, don't worry too much if you missed them - I missed the ones my junior spring since I wasn't planning to apply. You should email Kelly McLaughlin, the Yale Fulbright coordinator to let him know you're planning to apply and get advice. He's extremely nice and very helpful!
What were some other grants you applied to that are similar to Fulbright and how did the application processes compare?
I applied to two other year-long, Yale-specific fellowships: the Gordon Grand and the Howland. The Yale Fellowships Office has a fellowships "common application" where you can apply to up to six different year-long Yale Fellowships (as long as your application fits the intent of the particular fellowship). I basically recycled my Fulbright proposal for this application, just changing a few things to make it more suited to the Gordon Grand application. These Yale fellowships also require a recommendation letter from your Master and an on-campus interview.
Do you think it would help/hurt me to apply for a Fulbright in [X] when I've already spent a semester there?
While I can't say officially, I don't think having a study-abroad connection to the country hurts you. Anecdotally, one of my fellow Fulbrighters in the Netherlands had spent a semester there during college, and was able to use his contacts to do follow-up research during his Fulbright. That said, most countries do have some restrictions about who can apply for fellowships; for example, students who live in the Netherlands or who have dual Dutch and U.S. citizenship cannot apply for fellowships in the Netherlands. There is much more details about these restrictions on the country profile pages.
You told me a little bit about how you chose the Netherlands, but what were the other contenders and how did you narrow it down?
I used the country profile information and the grant application statistics to create a spreadsheet noting several different factors: the number of grants offered by country, competitiveness of applying to that country, my interest level in the country, professors/ universities of interest in that country, language requirements, desired "candidate profile" (e.g. Do they take people right out of undergrad? Do they prefer scientists?), grant duration, etc. The Netherlands ended up being the best fit for me in terms of language requirements and research interests. Please email me if you'd like to see my spreadsheet!
Each Fulbright application is to a specific location/ university, correct?
Yes, you just submit one application to a specific country. The only exception is that there are several Fulbright grants intended for people studying a broader region. For example, one of my Fulbright friends had a grant for the European Union at large (instead of just the Netherlands). She spent half the year in Belgium, and half the year in the Netherlands, doing research at different universities. If you have arranged a university affiliation, then you should include the details of that affiliation in your proposal.
Is there room to develop your project between when you submit the application and when you start the fellowship? If so, how much? What if you discover that your methodology isn't as feasible as you thought, and you need to change it? Or if you want to redirect your project goal? What are the expected research deliverables and outputs?
My project changed almost entirely between when I wrote my proposal and the end of my fellowship. My experience - which has been corroborated by Fulbright fellows from several other countries - is that, when you arrive in your fellowship country, twelve months after writing the proposal, your knowledge, skill set, and interests may have changed, and there's no overt pressure from Fulbright to stick to your original proposal. I ended up working on a project that was thematically similar to my proposal, but completely different in terms of specific subject matter and methodology. The Dutch Fulbright Commission was incredibly relaxed, and did not seem to mind this change of direction. In my experience, the only deliverables were a mid-year project update, and two surveys - one half-way through the fellowship, the other at the end - where I was prompted to give feedback on my research progress and overall experience with the fellowship. None of these were particularly harsh or evaluative - they seemed more an opportunity for me to give feedback to Fulbright and share my research. My overall impression is that, while Fulbright wants you to do good research, they are even more concerned with you having an authentic and enduring international experience, e.g. getting to know the country you're living in and interacting with people from that country.