Case Study – Fulbright Scholarship

This post is written to provide both inspiration and also some of the practical realities about applying for prestigious academic scholarships. I acknowledge that this post will not be widely nor completely read from start-to-finish. I do; however, fervently hope that one of you out there is a future Fulbright Scholar in-waiting and your ‘U.S. National Defence University Professor’ flash of inspiration happens while you read.

Fulbright Scholarship Background

I was incredibly honoured to be awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 2013. During the Scholarship, I was often asked by Australians how my ‘Albright Scholarship’ was going while others only knew the importance of a Fulbright Scholarship through being avid West Wing fans. While these were humorous cases of a scholarship with an identity crisis, it always gave me great pleasure to retell the story of J. William Fulbright – the man behind the Fulbright Scholarship. Fulbright stands as a fascinating example for military professionals about what happens after war when politicians and diplomats strive to make lasting peace. Here’s Fulbright’s story:

William Fulbright
William Fulbright

Fulbright was a U.S. Statesman who had a vision to increase mutual understanding as a mechanism to sustain peace following World War II. ‘People’ as the drivers of change and respect for each other were his key to enduring peace. Fulbright did this in two memorable ways. Firstly, he was a vocal advocate for U.S. involvement in the United Nations as an international peace-keeping mechanism and secondly, he cunningly initiated a bill that authorised the Secretary of State to use war reparations and foreign loan repayments for educational activities. Thus the Fulbright Scholarship was borne and if you read about the U.S. politics of that time, this was no mean feat.

Some interesting things about the Fulbright Scholarship for Australians:

  • The treaty which established the Australian Fulbright Program was the first official treaty between the U.S. and Australia. This treaty predates the ANZUS treaty by nearly two years.
  • The Australian Fulbright Program was originally funded from the sale of surplus war materials following the conclusion of World War II. You rarely read about what logistically happened following the declaration of peace – this one is a heart-warming yarn.

In the U.S., Fulbright and his Scholarship are household names. Saying you are a Fulbright Scholar opens doors and gives extraordinary access to extraordinary people. Furthermore, the conversations are not a one off – Fulbright Scholarships give rise to enduring connections and importantly strengthen mutual understanding. All thanks to Senator Fulbright – a man of morale forward-thinking who played his part in sustaining peace – a peace that so many soldiers had sacrificed their all for during World War II.

With this history, it’s my avid belief that military professionals should give the Fulbright application process genuine consideration. Here’s the catch – you can’t just apply for a Fulbright Scholarship because your last PAR told you that you have excellent potential. Fulbright is about ‘demonstrated success’ and hence they target mid-career professionals (and this makes Fulbright different to Rhodes which targets early-career professionals). Knowing about the Fulbright Scholarship as a junior officer gives you a career aiming mark and will also help you develop milestones for your professional development plan over a 5-10 year timeframe. The true value of a Fulbright Scholarship is immeasurable, hence it needs both talent and sustained hard work to fulfil the criteria of ‘demonstrable success’. This is not to put you off the Scholarship but hopefully motivate you to start your professional development now so that the ‘future you’ has the option to apply.

My Experience 

Firstly, I didn’t tell anyone that I was applying for a Fulbright Scholarship, except the people I asked to write me a reference and my Commanding Officer. I thought I had Buckley’s chance and I didn’t want to explain to people that I failed. So why did I apply? I had been asked to give a presentation at an international conference and at the conclusion, a U.S. National Defense University Professor approached me and asked me why I hadn’t applied for a Fulbright Scholarship. I told him it was for exceptionally smart people and I was only a subbie. He laughed. Three months later I was summoned into my two-up commander’s office. I thought I was in trouble for some ops report but it turned out the General had a letter from the Professor highly recommending I apply for a Fulbright Scholarship. Two years later I applied and in 2013 I was awarded the Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Australia-U.S. Alliance Studies.  I met with the Professor while I was in the U.S. and thanked him for the letter which truly was the impetus for applying. He said he thought I’d never back myself to apply unless it came as an order from a General. This Professor’s advice is enduring to all military professionals to ‘back yourself’ and also to go out of your way to encourage the talents of others.  So that’s how it started and here’s what I did:

I was placed as a Visiting Fellow at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh Foreign School. Placement at this prestigious and renowned U.S. university offered broad learning opportunities. Georgetown University provided immeasurable resources and mentoring for military, security and strategy studies. Benefits of basing in Washington D.C. also included geographic proximity to major defense facilities, government organisations, universities and think-tanks.

Georgetown University
Georgetown University

Opportunities included interviewing military and civilian officials in the State Department, United Nations, U.S. Agency for International Development, National Defense University, U.S. Military Academy – West Point, Marine Corps University, Army War College, and a number of think-tanks including the International Peace Institute and U.S. Institute of Peace. Conferences attended included the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, Inter-University Defense Seminar, Institute of Stability Operations Summit, National Security Policy Demonstration, Civil Affairs Roundtable, Association of the U.S. Army Meeting as well as Fulbright program activities. I used these activities to help me assess how the U.S. land forces and other government agencies taught ‘thinking’ to their junior officers including what lessons they were taking from current operations and embedding into their education programs. I was also able to assess their planning tools first-hand through participation in interagency and military planning sessions.

The benefits of progressing my research through the Fulbright program in the U.S. were immeasurable. I was able to engage with senior and emerging military leaders to hear ideas and engage in cross-sectoral learning opportunities. The U.S. military has a culture of Soldier-Scholars and hearing how the U.S. Armed Forces use their operational experiences to transform into actionable solutions through applied academic rigour was both informative and inspiring.

Besides the academic program, I walked and ran over 600km around the Washington D.C., Chicago and the New York areas in my three month period (not wanting to scare right-hand drivers with my left-hand driving skills). Going off the beaten track and exploring different suburbs enabled me to see a wider snapshot of U.S. life. My greatest revelation about the U.S., whilst simple, is that you cannot make a generalisation about the U.S. or their armed services – their strength lies in diversity. I was truly grateful, humbled and honoured by the experience. (See here for a photolog and here for Fulbright link.)

Types of Fulbright Scholarships

Here are the types of Fulbright Scholarships that may be applicable to military professionals:

  • Postgraduate Scholarships. For postgraduate students undertaking their Australian PhD to conduct research and/or study in the U.S.; or to support enrolment in a U.S. postgraduate program such as a Masters.
  • Postdoctoral Scholarships. For researchers who have completed their PhD in the past two to three years to undertake postdoctoral research in the U.S.
  • Professional Scholarships. For mid-career professionals in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors to undertake training or research programs in the U.S.

Very few people juggle the demands of a PhD with military life, so I recommend the Professional Scholarships as the type of Fulbright Scholarship worth researching. To further narrow this down – the Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Australia-U.S. Alliance Studies is profoundly relevant to military professionals. It was established in 2001 by the Australian Government as a contribution to Australia’s ANZUS 50th Anniversary commemorations. Here are some more details on this specific scholarship:

  • It is sponsored by DFAT and allows mid-career professionals to undertake training or research programs in the U.S. for a 3-4 month duration.
  • The scholarship aims to contribute in a practical way to contemporary Australian scholarship on the Australia-U.S. alliance relationship or broader bilateral defence and security issues.
  • Recipients need one primary host institution. They can visit other institutions but must spend the majority of their program at their primary institution. My host institution was Georgetown University.

Here are the general benefits of a Fulbright Professional Scholarship:

  • Living and travel allowance for a program of 3-4 months duration (I can attest to the generosity of this stipend)
  • Dependent allowance
  • ASPE medical insurance of up to A$100,000
  • National Orientation Program, Showcase Evening and Presentation Dinner
  • Enrichment Seminars in the U.S. with international Fulbright Scholars
  • Distinguished professional network in the U.S. and Australia
  • A support agency in the U.S. that assists with visas, events, and networks
  • Media and publicity support

How to apply

First check your eligibility here. The selection criteria includes:

  • High academic and professional merit.
  • Your program proposal identifying your study/research, goals for your research and the role of the U.S. and its institutions in achieving these goals, and the relevance and value of your study/research to further the mutual understanding and relationships between the U.S. and Australia.
  • Ambassadorial skills including your ability to promote mutual understanding between Australia and the U.S., and your willingness to share your knowledge on return including productively building ongoing partnerships and linkages.
  • Adaptability to life in the U.S. (a pretty easy criteria for a military professional to demonstrate).

You submit your application electronically. The application includes your personal details, Project Statement, Personal Statement (very important), academic record, professional accomplishments, CV, and three references. See here for further details. It is daunting but be bold and don’t let the paperwork pile get you down. I almost talked myself out of applying so I’m forever grateful that I just gave it a shot despite my doubts.

My tips:

  • Fulbright is about ‘demonstrated success’ therefore my first tip is simple – you need to have demonstrated success. This can actually be tough for military personnel who rely on PARs as a demonstration of their success. Of note, the Selection Board doesn’t know what a PAR is and I suspect care very little for this reporting.
  • We rarely talk about our successes in the military as individual accomplishments – they are always a team effort and rightly so. It therefore gives me angst to write about myself but I also believe in giving junior officers a Fulbright Scholarship case study so they know what it takes to achieve this goal instead of letting them blindly find the path to a Fulbright Scholarship by themselves. Therefore here is my case study and some of the things I think strengthened my application as ‘demonstrated success’: undergraduate degree with 1st Class Honours, masters degree with distinguished standing, military commendations,  published academic works, academic awards, and finally I had presented at 15 national and international-level conferences/forums by the time I submitted my Fulbright Scholarship application. The first presentation I gave was at the request of my chain-of-command following an invitation. I was asked to present at the following 14 through word-of-mouth from my first presentation. The subject I spoke on became my research subject for the Fulbright Scholarship – I was passionate about it. My chain-of-command approved me to present at all the forums but I had to self-fund travel and take leave for many of them. I was also self-funding my Masters (I didn’t want the free ones offered through ADFA) and self-funding attendance at professional development opportunities such as the Future Strategic Leaders Congress and the Lowy Institute‘s New Voices. I had paid for professional memberships with ASPI, AIIA, RUSI and the then Kokoda Foundation (now the Institute for Regional Security) in order to keep up to date on strategic level issues in defence. I gained my Chartered Professional Engineer status through Engineers Australia and at that time, I was also heavily involved in volunteer work for Engineers Without Borders. As you can see, actions I undertook as a junior CAPT (i.e. studying for a Masters) helped my Fulbright application many years later. I tell people I was a awarded a Fulbright Scholarship due to luck – I stand by this statement as the standard of applicants is truly impressive but I got the chance at luck through hard work. I’ll also admit that self-initiated and self-funded professional development isn’t easy – I missed out on many social events with my mates due to the finite resource of time. They are thankfully still my mates. I do not advocate you replicate this exact pathway described above if you’re interested in applying for a Fulbright Scholarship – it is merely a case study so that you understand what ‘demonstrated success’ may look like by a serving military officer to a civilian Sectional Board. My second tip is therefore – start now and don’t expect your first runs on the board to be handed to you (or funded). Unfortunately, your excellent PAR doesn’t get you a Fulbright Scholarship.
  • Last tip – be passionate about your subject. Know what you want to research and why, and have a desire to make a meaningful and enduring contribution both in the U.S. and back home in Australia. If this is natural for you – it will be hard to stop the momentum of your idea.

Application timeline

The general timeline for Fulbright applications:

  • May: applications open (submitted electronically)
  • Aug: applications close
  • Sep: short-listed candidates are interviewed by a Selection Committee
  • Oct: the National Section Committee reviews the recommendations made by the Section Committee
  • Dec: Scholarship applications are notified of the selection outcomes
  • Feb- Mar: National Orientation Program, Showcase Evening and Presentation Dinner
  • Jul: earliest time to commence your program in the U.S. (aligns to the U.S. academic year).

I know you’re only still reading this if you are genuinely interested in applying for a Fulbright Scholarship so feel free to contact me: I owe it to that U.S. National Defense University Professor to pass his inspiration forward and assist more members of our military community achieve the honour of being named a Fulbright Scholar.