In theory, being a working journalist means you get to spend your career steeped in curiosity. You ask questions, you write stories, you learn endlessly about how our society functions.
But in reality, other duties get in the way. There are deadlines to meet, breaking news events to respond to, newsroom meetings to join (or lead), mid-year evaluations to write. It can feel far away from the thing that got many of us into journalism in the first place, that desire to learn more about the world around us.
If you are a journalist who’s felt this itch, you’ve probably entertained the same options I did. Grad school. Law school. The prestigious paid fellowships at Harvard, Stanford, University of Michigan, and Mizzou.
But what I didn’t know about for many years was one of the coolest opportunities available to journalists: a Fulbright.
Wait, isn’t the Fulbright for students?
You might be familiar with Fulbright grants for recent college graduates. But there are in fact several programs under the Fulbright umbrella, which are all administered by the U.S. Department of State to promote international diplomacy and cultural competency, and many are available for early- and mid-career journalists.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program, for example, offers two opportunities in Germany for early-career working journalists (meaning less than seven years of experience): one that lasts up to an academic year, and a shorter one that gives you international exposure without having to take a leave of absence from your job.
What I applied for was the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, which places American professors and mid-career professionals at universities around the world. There are hundreds of grants available each year. Among the options: You could take on a reporting project in Japan. Teach investigative journalism in Albania. Do research in Ireland.
All of these options are listed on the awards page. Every country administers its own grants, and each grant has its own set of requirements. I don’t have a Ph.D., so I immediately filtered the awards page by degree requirements. I’m a professional, not an academic, so I filtered by career profile, too.
You can also filter by discipline to find awards that specifically invite journalists to apply. But confusingly, this eliminates any award that’s open to all disciplines. So make sure you look for both journalism-specific awards and at any award that says “all disciplines.” The one I applied for in Ireland was an “all disciplines” award. This meant I was competing against applicants from all backgrounds, not just journalism — I just had to make the case that my project was worth funding.
What is the Fulbright Commission looking for?
A very compelling project proposal. As this excellent blog post by Betsy O’Donovan explains, you have to be able to answer the following questions:
- Why is this a great project?
- Why am I well suited to do it?
- Why does the world need it?
For my project, I decided I didn’t want to pursue reporting for a story. I wanted to pursue research that could help the journalism profession. Specifically, I wanted to understand how Irish journalists covered the country’s major abortion referendum in 2018 and identify takeaways for American journalists. I read some books about Irish history, made the case for why this was important and under-studied, and talked about the potential impact in Ireland and America. You can read my research proposal here.
Fulbright applications are typically due in September, a full year before the actual start of the award. In other words, award applications are now open for grants that start in fall 2024 or even spring 2025.
And it’s important to start early. For Ireland, I had to secure an invitation letter from a university that would be willing to give me office space and mentor me, which involved cold-emailing a bunch of professors. I ended up finding a knowledgeable and supportive media studies professor at Maynooth University who served as my advisor on the project. Not all awards require a letter of invitation, but many do.
To strengthen my application, I also reached out to some former Fulbrighters in Ireland who had similar areas of expertise — you can see a list of all past Fulbright recipients here — and watched a webinar on the application process. The application itself also required a portfolio and several additional answers to prompts. It’s totally doable, but time-intensive.
My Fulbright was an incredible experience that allowed me to deepen my relationship with the field of journalism in a way that I couldn’t have expected going in. I got to have deep conversations about reporting with working journalists abroad, and I learned how to translate that work into an academic setting.
The good news? Mid-career journalists are uniquely strong candidates for Fulbrights. You already know how to do self-directed research and put together a compelling pitch. You know how to drop into a new place, talk to people, serve as an unofficial ambassador, and come out with a good story. And to do all that abroad? Time to apply.
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