As I was looking for funding opportunities for my Japan-based dissertation research,a professor on my dissertation committee told me about the Fulbright-mtvU fellowship. There was never any question about where I would carry out my Fulbright-mtvU project since I’m pursuing a doctorate in Japanese music at Cornell, although I didn’t become interested in Japan until I was a junior at the University of Chicago. I was studying abroad in an immersion-only advanced Chinese language course in Beijing during the summer of 2007. It was only my second time leaving the States, and the program I participated in was extremely demanding. I imagine that pre-Olympics Beijing was quite a lot for anyone to process: as one of the biggest cities in the world with a mind-boggling energy and jarring income inequality, it quite honestly took me a little while to get used to it all. I inevitably fell in love with China (The people! The energy! The food!), but by the end of the program and a two-week solo sojourn throughout the country, my nerves were totally fried.
On my flight back to Chicago I had a one-night layover in Japan. I saw it as a chance to have a night on the town in Tokyo, and it was during those thirteen magical hours under the city’s neon lights that I became fascinated with Japan. Of course, the contrast between the chaotic energy of Beijing and the highly manicured immaculateness of Tokyo was definitely exaggerated given that I was experiencing it all after three very intense months in China. Nonetheless, I became very curious about the precarious coexistence of futurism and ritualism in Japan, and to this day I continue to consider this dichotomy through a prism of contemporary music cultures. My advice is to find a place that you’re in love with: find a place that makes you wonder and imagine and dream, a place that you’ll get to know inside and out through its music. The best research comes from the heart as much as the mind.
Because I felt my project was a perfect match for the Fulbright-mtvU Fellowship and its unique altruistic outreach component, I made sure – first and foremost – that my research proposal very clearly reflected my ideas as well as my personality; I figured that if it got rejected it would be because I wasn’t a good fit for the grant, and not that my ideas were muddled or undeveloped. The key to writing any research proposal is to have a clear sense of what your hypothesis and plan of action is – to know enough about what your goals are to talk about them clearly – but to leave your proposal open-ended enough that the project can evolve (hint: it almost certainly will). Know what it is that you want to say (or ask!), and do it confidently. You need to be prepared to embrace unpredictability.
At the same time, it is absolutely crucial to let your personality shine in your writing. I would pretend that I was writing my best friend an email about my research whenever I found myself in a writing rut, and found that this trick helped bring academic writing to life. It’s also important not to shy away from clearly conveying why you feel that you are qualified for the fellowship, while also keeping yourself humble. There’s no need to brag; real and applicable accomplishments speak for themselves. Also, I cannot emphasize this enough: give yourself enough time to revise, revise, revise! A first draft will never be as good as a third, fourth, or fifth, and be sure to scour every line for typos (I find that printing out your writing and reading it on paper is oddly effective for finding pesky mistakes that you might have missed on-screen).
Infusing personality into the personal statement is less challenging than it is in the research proposal, but I tried to make sure that my personal statement revealed the dedication I have to my research at the same time that it painted a portrait of the kind of person I am. To me, the most crucial part of writing is to be clearly and boldly yourself. It’s also important to have a clear message in mind about yourself that you want to convey to your audience, be it a letter to your family or a panel of application reviewers. Be memorable.
The logistical aspects of putting the application together – mainly securing a host institution affiliation and getting my recommendations in line – were probably more straight-forward for me given that, as a graduate student, I’m around professors all the time. I had produced a translation of a chapter of a book written by a Japanese professor who is is a colleague of one of my dissertation committee members, and so I wrote him an email with an attachment of my personal statement to ask for his university’s affiliation. I imagine that the steps for asking for affiliation remain essentially the same even if you don’t have international academic connections, though: be clear, concise, humble yet confident, and convincing.
All in all, the process of applying to this fellowship went smoothly, and I was excited to apply for a fellowship that cared about “Jill, human being” as well as “Jill, aspiring academic.” My time in Japan has been absolutely amazing so far, and already my project has surprised me with its flexibility. The music I’m hearing has me so inspired, and I look forward to teaching a class at Cornell next year to share it with fresh ears and open minds.