Fellowship Failure

This past December, I applied for a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship (information on this and other fellowships can be found here). If received, this fellowship would fully fund my graduate education, providing me the freedom to join any lab I wanted at my institution. The application requires a 3-page description of a research project you would perform for your graduate studies. I proposed a project designed in collaboration with a former boss/PI and was incredibly proud of the research plan. My proposal outlined the development of a new model to study vascularization and tissue growth in bone tissue engineering scaffolds. I felt, and still feel, that the project has the potential to change the way tissue engineers evaluate the potential in their technologies.

Unfortunately, the NDSEG review committee did not agree. I received the email shown above on Friday afternoon, letting me know that my application was no longer being considered.

While the application was due in December, I had started writing the research proposal in August, so it feels like I have been waiting a very long time to hear their decision. Waiting to hear back about fellowship applications is a lot like waiting to hear back about acceptances into college and graduate/medical school. You can wait for months to get one email or letter dictating your future.

In that time, you imagine what your life would be like if you got everything you wanted; what you would do if you got the fellowship (or got into your top-choice school/program). You tell yourself that the scenarios playing in your head are hypothetical, but you want them so badly to be real. You ignore the statistics of acceptance rates and likelihoods of getting what you want because you’re smart, you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished, and you believe that you deserve to be recognized. But maybe that’s just me.

NDSEG has an acceptance rate of roughly 5%, so simple math dictates that there was a 95% chance I would not get the award. Those should be overwhelming odds, but they don’t feel that way when you think you’re a good candidate.

I re-read my submitted research proposal after receiving the rejection notice and it still feels like a really good project that I would love to work on. Unfortunately, the research advisors intended for the project do not currently have funding for a graduate student, so I have to look elsewhere for my PhD.

Thankfully, my current rotation is in a fantastic lab which has funding for a PhD student and is under the guidance of a PI who I am confident will be an amazing advisor and mentor. I am formulating a plan to make sure that the researchers I’d wanted for my fellowship project will still be involved in my graduate training, but I have some time to work out the details of that arrangement.

I don’t regret applying for the fellowship or taking the time to write my ultimately-failed research proposal. This was the first time I wrote a fellowship/grant application entirely on my own and about a project for which I would be solely responsible. I took the time to plan the project with a trusted advisor and made sure to get feedback from multiple individuals from different backgrounds. I think it’s a good thing that I don’t know what I could have done differently to make myself a better candidate. Even with the rejection, I am proud of what I accomplished.

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