Practical Advice for Fulbright-Schuman Applicants: Getting Started then Getting Settled

Doctoral Research in the US with a Fulbright-Schuman Grant: Part I

I was asked to write a brief blog entry about my personal experiences with applying for a Fulbright-Schuman grant and the organizational issues surrounding the preparation of a stay at a US host university. Since I just arrived a couple of days ago, all impressions are still quite fresh and ‘untainted’ by any ‘jet lag free’ reflections. Thus, please bear with me, if I should change my mind later on…

In this entry I shall briefly touch on three points: the application procedure, the pre-departure preparations and the first days at the host institution.

Application procedure

The application for a Fulbright-Schuman grant consists essentially of two steps: a written application and an interview in your home country or country of residence.  The core of the written part is to explain convincingly “why YOU”, and “why in the US.” To the best of my memory, it was crucial to underscore the wider implications of one’s research and in particular its link to the United States. That is to say, try to explain why the work you are doing is important for other people or a specific community and also how it might impact them. This part of the application required a considerable amount of time. It took me at least a week to complete the written application. Also, take into account that you will need to ask professors for recommendation letters.

The interview on the other hand was rather short (about 20 min). Essentially, I was asked to explain my project and to elucidate what would be the value added of a stay in the US: What precisely is the question you would like to answer? Who would you like to work with? Why? And so forth. Moreover, I was asked to describe my previous experiences of living abroad and coping with new circumstances. Last but not least, some general knowledge of US internal affairs is not harmful for the interview. All in all, the atmosphere was very relaxed and friendly.


Pre-departure preparations

Still being in Europe and enjoying the summer in Italy, I was contacted by Stanford Law School to decide in which courses I would enrol during the quarter. The system of enrolment at Stanford is different from all universities I had attended before (all of which were continental European institutions). Whilst at all other universities I had been before, it usually sufficed to sign up or even just show up in class, Stanford conducts lotteries or requires students to file applications for courses, stating one’s motivation to attend the class. On the one hand this systems ensures that only students who are genuinely interested in a course will attend it. On the other, it obviously enlarges the ‘paperwork’ to be done by prospective students.

In general ‘paperwork’ was a recurring topic in the preparations for my stay. First of all, the visa procedure made it necessary to get various documents together and to file an application with the US embassy, followed by an interview. Unfortunately, one of the required documents, the so-called DS-2019 form, was not issued until mid August, which was shortly before my departure. I was pretty nervous at this stage but thanks to the great people at the Fulbright Commission (who by the way were very helpful, patient and friendly regardless of the many times I called them) I received the form in time and eventually received my visa exactly one week before my departure. Lesson to be learned: don’t plan to have your visa much in advance but be prepared to arrive only briefly before the beginning of your program!


The First Days

After being in Stanford for five days now I slowly get the feeling of settling in, at least a little. However, these days were also particularly busy because I had to arrange all the formalities such as reporting my arrival, activating my health insurance, registering with the Law School and so forth. Each of these issues taken in isolation only took a few minutes. However, because they were to be dealt with all at once, they turned out to be quite time-consuming. In the meantime already the first events at the Law School started and also I had to take care of all the everyday things such as finding a permanent accommodation, opening a bank account and getting a SIM card for my cell phone; not to mention to learn how to orientate myself on campus.

Therefore, the better you are prepared, the more enjoyable your first days will be. And let’s be honest, arriving in a foreign country thousands of miles away from home is not a daily experience. Coupled with a ‘good’ jet lag, it is enough stress for the beginning. So my advice, try to prepare as much as you can before your departure and have all important documents handy. It will save you a lot of time at your host institution and enable you to do what you are there for: experiencing a very interesting country, which is (at least this is my experience so far) inhabited by very welcoming and helpful people.