In 2021, I had the enormous honor of being selected for the Microsoft Research PhD Fellowship. When the 2022 call was issued, I started receiving many emails from applicants asking what to do. I get it! I was there too—stunned at earning my department’s nomination, confused about what to do next, unsure about the merit of my work, and, on top of it all, swamped in summer deadlines.
Here is advice compiled from what I send people who reach out. I hope it helps.
First things first, disclaimers apply. I don’t know that I have any replicable insights on what made me successful. I actually still to this day don’t know who read it and why they made the final decision. (I’ve asked, and tbh, I think the team is a little too busy running and administering the actual fellowship to answer). I’m also a person applying from an elite institution, who has benefited over the years from a lot of privileges. What worked for me may or may not work for you.
With all of that: here’s how I think about fellowship applications.
- My high-level approach to fellowship applications
- Tactical questions
- What do I even put in the 1-pager?
- It’s close to the deadline and I’m not happy with my application. Is it better to submit something than nothing, even if I’m not happy with it?
- This is a fellowship sponsored by a big tech company. Should I adjust my ideas accordingly?
- What other fellowship opportunities will this work be good for?
My high-level approach to fellowship applications
I approached the application like a dry run of putting together job materials for a faculty position. Several scholars in my field (HCI and information science) had just gone on the job market, so I went hunting for their research statements to get a sense of what the format tends to be. I would recommend doing this as early in the PhD as you can—it helped me sort out where in the field my work sits, and helped me get to know people to look up to.
I also looked at the last bit of proposal work I had done: my application to PhD programs. The format isn’t perfectly mappable, but it really helped to see what had inspired me to come to the PhD in the first place.
A note on this: You may send a lot of cold-emails asking fellowship winners for meetings, or for them to send you examples, and only get some responses back. Do not take this personally. Many of us put in-progress work in our proposals, and can’t send them to you, no matter how much we want to help you. Many of us are also swamped trying to meet academic milestones ourselves. My rule of thumb: Send one email, wait about a week to follow up, and then if you haven’t heard back, drop it and completely forget about it.
Also, I hope it goes without saying, but: if someone is kind enough to send you their fellowship materials, do not forward them to more people without their explicit permission.
Write the app like a grant.
My advisors told me very early on to think of the application more like a grant than anything else. For me, this meant forcing focus on a subset of all the research projects I’m involved in. The fellowship doesn’t commit you to executing one project or the other, so it’s more about telling a compelling story that also shows off the work you’ve done to-date. (I do actually intend to execute parts of what I proposed in my dissertation, but I’m not committed to doing all of it).
For me, this meant describing an overall research program, and then detailing specific projects I wanted to complete in the course of a dissertation. I outlined 3, which in sequence told a complete story. I had already done the first one and half the second one.
I was at the time somewhat mixed about what my overall research program should be (and still am! I hear this never goes away!). For the purposes of this application, I picked the one that had been most successful thus far, according to external validation metrics like publications and awards.
Ask for help.
In my field, I’m socialized to treat grant proposals, papers, and faculty job materials as collaborative efforts. It’s very normal for me to get and give feedback, to and from both peers and mentors. So I treated the application similarly.
Basically from the moment I heard I got the department nomination, I started a long process of going back and forth with trusted advisors and peers about what did and didn’t make sense, and how to refine the contribution for the right research communities. I made sure to tell my advisors early on that I would need their eyes and ears on drafts by certain dates. I made a Google Doc available to everyone so we could all see each other’s comments. And I got a lot of feedback from peers in related research communities who were also applying to the fellowship and other deadlines around the same time. We did markups of each other’s drafts, and spent hours workshopping each other’s materials.
It was definitely an exhaustive process that took a significant amount of time out of my summer (and out of the CHI deadine I was working toward at the time…). But the work was much better off for it. Again, I’m socialized in my research community that this is normal. YMMV.
Academia can feel like one big cycle of acceptance and rejection, and when you’re just starting out, it can feel like a ton of rejection. Worse, it can feel like you don’t even know the rules of the game you’re failing at. My advisors have always been very good about helping me stay focused and grounded, so I’m passing that advice along, too.
In short: The outcome of this particular selection process is not the point.
Every fellowship selection process contains so much inherent randomness, and does not reflect your worth or your quality as a scholar. There are lots of excellent people who don’t win these fellowships because their work wasn’t a fit at the time, because their reader had a bad morning, because of any number of things outside of their control.
Doing the work—sweating over the proposal, soliciting feedback and having intellectual exchanges with your community, staying up late wondering what you can and can’t actually accomplish—that’s the point.
In my group, we take a similar attitude to paper rejections. The point is to have a paper. Getting it into a particular conference or community is secondary, and mostly a matter of tactical positioning (e.g., CHI will want to see this vs that).
Obviously, you want the outcome to be positive (and I’m very aware I can only say this because it worked out for me). But the process of writing these materials forced me to articulate my research ideas, and that by itself was incredibly worthwhile. The intellectual work I put in that summer has fueled the rest of this PhD. I’ve used bits of writing from that proposal in subsequent papers, presentations, dissertation stuff, etc etc. And the conversations I had with my community around that time have brought me new connections and opportunities. I know I matured as a scholar and a person through that work alone.
If you’re in the position of earning this nomination to submit, you have excelled so consistently that your community has rallied around making you ready for this particular moment. All you have to do is try, all you have to do is take your shot. It’s the trying that matters. It’s the work of being ready for the opportunity that matters.
Some little bits of nitty-gritty people have asked me—note the app format might change year-to-year:
What do I even put in the 1-pager?
Quick context for posterity: The year I applied (2021) and the subsequent year (2022), MSR asked for a dissertation proposal and also a 1-page summary of it.
The 1-pager tends to give the earnest grad student a lot of grief. You’ve just poured hours into a writing a nuanced, ambitious, and beautifully crafted proposal many pages long. It’s very hard to compress it into one page. And it feels even worse because you assume if you mess this up, they won’t even read your full proposal.
Here is how I dealt with the 1-pager:
- I used bolded paragraph headers to give a birds-eye view for the quick-skimming reader.
- I skipped references. I’ve seen some people include them, I’ve seen others not. I needed the space.
- I knocked the font size a half-point down and widened my margins. Hey, it’s a PDF game.
Roughly, it looked like this. I based it off of NSF proposals, which is what I’ve been socialized to. (This also serves as a rough outline for how my full proposal was structured.)
Summary. One sentence on the problem. One sentence on what my research does to address it. At a field level, where my work contributes. More broadly, what my work contributes to the world.
Approach. A couple more sentences detailing what makes the problem hard. Then more detail on my proposed approach, broken down into: (1) first project, with description, (2) second project, with description, and (3) third project, with description. Then a sentence on my particular methodological toolkit and a shout-out to interdisciplinarity. Then another sentence on why my work so far, with the deep partnerships I already have, make me well-positioned to do it. Through these partnerships, my work explores:
First project. More detail, with a focus on impact.
Second project. More detail, with a focus on impact.
Third project. More detail, with a focus on impact.
Future work. Three sentences of next-steps research work I care about, with clear links to broader debates in the field. Then two closer sentences on how all of this work will help people and have impact in the world.
It’s close to the deadline and I’m not happy with my application. Is it better to submit something than nothing, even if I’m not happy with it?
I totally get the impulse, and I also went through periods where the stakes felt high and I wanted more time. But the short answer: Yes, it’s better to submit something than nothing.
Earning the department nomination is a vote of confidence in your quality, and to do right by the mentors who helped you get to this stage, it’s definitely better to submit something. To be frank, you want them to think highly of you for future opportunities.
Also, odds are that it’s good, even if you’ve been staring at it so long that you no longer think it is. See Retain perspective above.
This is a fellowship sponsored by a big tech company. Should I adjust my ideas accordingly?
This is a good, conscious question.
First things first: It’s important to remember this is a fellowship sponsored by Microsoft Research. MSR has for many years had a reputation for fostering research at the level of an academic institution.
I don’t know whether this is replicable advice, but I didn’t do too much to force my application to fit with what anyone at MSR specifically does (this was not an internship application). I checked some boxes of rough topic areas that seemed relevant (for me, HCI and security/privacy). But the contents of my app were much more about my group’s work and my ideas. Again, MSR has a reputation for fostering research, so I felt I had this room.
Note that I applied to the U.S. fellowship, which does not come with a guaranteed internship (I believe some fellowships in other regions do). Would my calculus have been different in that situation? Maybe!
Depending on your work and your perspective, this question may take on more of a moral or ethical valence for you. I cannot answer for you whether your research ought to be supported by particular for-profit entities.
If it helps: The fellowship is basically a big, unrestricted gift to fund two years of your PhD. We are invited to share our work with MSR at various points throughout the year, but I’m not obligated to have them approve uses of funding, or even to report back to them what I do. There are no IP implications, as the fellowship FAQ reports. For posterity: “The Microsoft Research PhD Fellowship is not subject to any intellectual property (IP) restrictions unless and until the fellowship recipient also accepts an internship. If you accept an internship, you will be subject to the same restrictions as any other Microsoft intern.”
What other fellowship opportunities will this work be good for?
We’re lucky in computing and information science to have many options for PhD funding. In 2021, the MSR application was longer and due earlier than the PhD fellowships at Meta, Google, Apple, etc. Putting this time in over the summer meant I would’ve been ready to go for those other opportunities had I needed them.
Check out this list of fellowship opportunities maintained by my academic sibling Chinasa T. Okolo. (Shout-out to Chinasa for assembling and maintaining a really great list!)