From Application to Research: Fulbright in Japan

Aloha friends!

I’m Pamela Runestad, a PhD candidate in medical anthropology from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Paula Curtis of Shinpai Deshō asked me if I would share a little about my experience with scholarships in general and with Fulbright in particular. So, I’ve put together some general points about scholarship applications, Fulbright, and being in Japan on Fulbright Hays. I hope they’re helpful to you.

Just to give you an idea of my background with funding and where I’m coming from: I’ve been awarded scholarships sponsored by my departments (Anthropology and Center for Japanese Studies), my university (UHM), private foundations (The Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation), the US government (Fulbright Hays), and the Japanese government (Global Center for Excellence) during my time at UH.  I was granted a Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Award (DDRA) in Japan for the 2009-10 academic year, so I’ll focus on that award specifically towards the end of this post.

Over the years, I’ve gotten several tips from faculty and senior grad students about scholarship applications that are useful regardless of the type of funding agency. I’ll start with those.

Applying to scholarships in general

It is important to do your research before you apply to any scholarship. Having a competitive application is not simply about letters of recommendation, awards you have gotten in the past, and having an amazing research plan – although those things are, of course, essential. It’s about fitting your past accomplishments and future plans into the framework the scholarship committee uses to select applicants.  So before you even start the application process, do the following things:

1)      Read the scholarship and funding agency web pages thoroughly – and take notes. What are the goals of the program, and what do they expect of recipients? What types of people have the accepted in the past? Keep track of information like this, and then write how you fit their profile. When possible, use THEIR keywords to describe YOUR work when you write your application.

2)      Once you have a scholarship in mind, go to your advisor and/or department chair and find out if someone in your department has received it. Some departments keep successful applications on file as models – after all, the more outside funding their students, the better the department/school looks. If possible, contact awardees and ask if they are willing to talk about their experience and/or share their application materials. This is particularly important if your department doesn’t keep these materials on file.

Once you’ve confirmed that your goals and those of the funding organization match and you’ve gotten some advice on how to write a convincing application, notify your faculty that you’re applying and write out the application. Aim to show that you are a natural fit for the award by using their keywords to describe your research. Before you ask for letters or submit it, do the following:

1)      Get a classmate or two to read it and give you feedback on content, style and grammar. If you can get someone who has gotten the award in the past, even better.

2)      Once you’ve made changes based on your classmates’ feedback, send it to your advisor. If they give you feedback, revise it accordingly. If they OK it, ask for letters of recommendation from faculty (include websites explaining the award). Once you’ve gotten a positive response, send your recommenders a copy. This helps your faculty fit you to the fellowship even more closely.

Keep in mind that this – the efforts faculty make to make you and the scholarship look like a natural fit –  is one of the reasons why profs become irate when they are asked to write for you at the 11th hour. Writing something that reflects strongly on you – and THEM – is hard when they aren’t given any time to do it. It’s also a presumption, and makes faculty not want to write positive things about you.  So, if you find yourself in a situation where you need to ask for a letter of rec less than 2 weeks in advance: be apologetic, give them a reason why you’re late (making sure it’s not a habit!), give them all your application materials so they have what they need to do it quickly (if the letter can be similar to one they’ve written in the past, say so), and – be ready to be told “no” and accept it gracefully. SAY THANK YOU FOR EVERY LETTER and don’t ever take it for granted that someone will automatically write for you.

I hope this would go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: be sure to thank everyone who reads for you, writes for you, and files papers for you.  It’s polite, keeps you humble (NO ONE got where they completely of their own power), and is good for your relationships. I know of a faculty member who often holds social events at her house for both students and faculty. After a recent event, she remarked that I was the only student to thank her for opening her house to us and asked if I thought it was a generational thing. My response: “I sure hope not!”

And don’t forget the secretaries! No one would get anywhere without them.

Photo by

Showing faculty and staff you appreciate their efforts by writing thank you cards (yes, real ones, not emailed ones – especially if you do actually get a grant) or bringing them cookies or other consumables is a good idea. This is true wherever you are, but is especially true in Japan. I often give my advisors in Hawaii cookies or snacks, and my advisors in Japan sake or regional sweets.

Another thing to remember when doing your research on scholarships:  research your faculty, too. You should know which professors in your department have served as grant evaluators for which organizations.  For example, one of my faculty members used to evaluate proposals for the National Science Foundation (NSF). She could tell me in under 5 minutes whether or not my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) application was competitive or not.  Your best resources may be in your own department.

OK, so what about Fulbright-Hays DDRA specifically?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Fulbright Program and its awards, here are the basics. The Fulbright Program was started in 1946 by Arkansas senator J. William Fulbright.  It is sponsored by the US Department of State, and is administered by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, which is part of the Institute of International Education (IIE). Scholars at all stages of their careers (students and faculty) can participate in various programs, and Fulbright grants are awarded to both US citizens who apply to do research abroad and to foreign nationals who apply to do research in the US.  For more information, see the official website:  Because there are several programs, take a look and find the program that best suits your needs. PhD candidates who need to do research outside the US should consider the DDRA and the IIE. Because I am most familiar with the DDRA, I will discuss this one below.

Applying for the Fulbright-Hays DDRA

Last year, the US government didn’t fund the DDRA, but it’s back this year – I hope it’s back for good! It is a generous award that pays for a year of doctoral dissertation research in your geographic area of expertise – Japan is just one of the 155 countries where Fulbrighters from the US can go for research. The DDRA funds support 1) Roundtrip travel to your research country from the US, 2) health insurance, 3) living expenses, 4) research expenses.

Here are some suggestions about how to approach the application process:

1)      As I mentioned above, ask your advisor or department chair if there are students ahead of you who have been awarded a DDRA (also referred to as a Fulbright-Hays). If so, contact them and see if they are willing to talk with you – and maybe even share their application. If you’re lucky enough to get a copy of someone’s successful application, you can fit your information to their structure (if it’s appropriate), and you can find out the particulars of applying through your school since every place is a little different. But even if you can’t locate another student willing to help you, you can probably get some information from the person who serves as your school’s Fulbright Program Manager (see below).

2)      There is a Program Manager at each university who is supposed to be in charge of managing all Fulbright grants. Find out who this person is and make an appointment to talk to them.  If your application is successful, this person will be your point of contact, so make sure you foster a good relationship with them from the very beginning! Ask if they have successful applications on file that you can use as a model (even if you got one from someone already – the more you can see, the better). Ask about internal deadlines – these are different for every school. THIS IS IMPORTANT because you submit your paperwork to your school’s project manager, and the project manager submits your application to Fulbright. YOU DO NOT HAVE DIRECT CONTACT WITH THE FULBRIGHT OFFICES.

3)      Follow the tips I listed above about fitting yourself and your research to the organization. You’ll notice the Fulbright guidelines are very, very detailed.  They list everything they want in your application and award points for various parts of the application (ie, stipulating that you will give a copy of your dissertation to cooperating institutions in country where you’re doing research). Make sure you address EVERY SINGLE ONE. When I wrote my application, I addressed their points in a single sentence at the beginning of a section and underlined it. Remember that the reviewers are sorting through thousands of applications. The easier you make it for them to find relevant information, the more likely it is that your application will go to the top of the pile.

4)      Follow the tips I listed above about getting letters of recommendation; also, get a letter from someone in country stating that they are willing to work with you. This is not required per se, but it shows Fulbright you’ve done the necessary groundwork in Japan to get your research done.  Your advisor should have ideas about who to contact in Japan. Again, make sure you express your gratitude to your advisor and the host. If you do get the Hays (or any other scholarship or grant), remember once you get to Japan that how you work and interact with others is considered a reflection on your advisors.  Both your advisor and the person hosting you used social capital to get you there, so make sure it’s worth it for them as well as you.

5)      The budget is not very difficult, as Fulbright has a list of monthly stipend amounts per city. Don’t pad your project budget. Apply for what you really need. I applied for $3000 for in-country travel to do interviews and $3000 for books and they gave it to me. Make sure you calculate insurance funds for both Japanese national insurance AND an American policy that includes repatriation. When you choose flights, average the prices.

6)      Proofread everything yourself, and then have someone else do it before sending it.

7)      Don’t feel too bad if you don’t get it. Rejection is part of life in academia. Apply for the scholarships you think fit you best, and don’t waste time on others unless someone inside the organization has recommended you apply.  One of the hardest things to do as an academic is to balance the responsibilities of research, applying for grants, teaching, and everyday life. So keep the big picture in mind!! This will help you decide what you REALLY need to be spending your time on RIGHT NOW.

Preparation for Living in Japan

Once you’ve been accepted, breathe a sigh of relief and take some time to celebrate! Then get ready to do some more paperwork (it never ends!) and practical preparation.  You will be in charge of getting your own visa, buying your airline tickets, getting health insurance and securing a place to live.

1) The Visa. I was able to extend my visa while in country, so I can’t offer advice on getting one Stateside other than to call your local consulate or embassy and ask them exactly what documentation you need.  A letter of affiliation from the Japanese faculty who agreed to host you (on university letterhead) and the award letter (with the dollar amount you will receive) from Fulbright will help things go smoothly. If you are in Japan and already have affiliation, go to the foreign student support office. They will basically fill out the visa forms for you. Once you get the visa, you will have to send a copy to your program manager (I scanned mine, along with all my receipts). The immigration laws JUST changed in Japan (as of July 2012), so you may not actually have a visa stamp in your passport. Instead, you may be issued an immigration card (formerly the “gaijin card”) with an electronic chip in it. The upside of this, for those of you who have spent a lot of time in Japan, is that you DO NOT NEED a re-entry permit, and you do not need to go register at your local city office to get your foreign registration card. The immigration card is your ID, your visa, and your reentry permit all in one. The downsides are increased surveillance and the very practical issue that if you lose it, it is not fun to try to replace it (back to the immigration office you go).

2) The airline tickets. Make sure to double-check with your project manager about restrictions on the airline tickets, and keep in mind you will have to leave from the US and return to the US in order for Fulbright to pay for your travel. Book your tickets to arrive on the day you listed on your application. KEEP YOUR RECEIPTS, because Fulbright refunds you.

3) Once you get to Japan, check in with Fulbright Japan and register with the embassy so they know where you are. This is particularly important in case of emergencies. For example, after the March 11 disasters, the Fulbright offices in Tokyo contacted my program manager in Hawaii to ask if they’d heard from me because I had forgotten to send in my contact details. Once I was added to the Fulbright Japan list, I started receiving information about the disaster and repatriation guidelines from the State Department.

4) The domicile. Getting a place to live can also be time consuming. You will need a guarantor to sign your apartment rental agreement – even unmarried Japanese need this. So, start asking around for someone who is willing to serve as your hoshōnin.  One of my doctor friends agreed to sign mine, and we opted to use a fudōsan (agent) to help us find a place rather than a big chain like MiniMini. But those places work, too. Remember that you might have to pay reikin (thank you money that is non-refundable) and shikikin (deposit).

5) The health insurance. Fulbright requires you to have health insurance from the United States, and it MUST include a repatriation policy (so any costs to get you out of the country for medical reasons will be covered).  I bought my plan through the university. You are also required to enroll in the Japanese health insurance system at your local government office. Once you have both your American and Japanese health insurance policies, send copies to your program manager and KEEP THE RECEIPTS.

6) RECEIPTS. Fulbright pays a monthly stipend for rent, bills, etc and you don’t need to keep track of how you spend it – that is up to you. What they do care about is what I listed above: airline travel, health insurance, and your research budget. You have to submit these when you return. I recommend putting them in envelopes or taping them into a notebook. I taped mine to printer paper in chronological order, numbered them (and provided an index because no one in the office reads Japanese), scanned them, and then sent them to my program manager. Doing it as you go saves you lots of time in the end and ensures you stay within your budget.

7) Before you go, Fulbright will ask you to fill out a form about your language abilities – at least if you are on the Hays. I am not sure if they do this for IIE. They’ll send it to you again once you finish.

While in Country

While on Fulbright, you represent your country (and region), university, department, advisor, and Fulbright. The reason programs like Fulbright (and particular schools, departments, and advisors) are so sought after, respected and well-recognized is that the people who have gone through the program have, for the most part, done important work.  People and programs in academia stand on past successes, and it’s expected that you will continue to shape the reputation of Fulbright as well as that of the other organizations/places with which you are affiliated.  To some extent, you are being branded. Some people put more stock into this than others; but I found that it was worth remembering this from time to time – particularly when dealing with difficulties involving research.  When facing some type of problem, I find it useful to consider not whether I’m being a good representative, but rather if what I’m trying to do will prevent me or people who come after me from doing further research. Then you can decide to what extent the issue is a problem and how you handle it is worth your time, energy and social capital.

That may sound heavy or severe, but actually, Fulbright is rather “hands off” once you get there and get started – and your other sponsors may be, too. Basically, I just checked in with my program manager every once in a while.  The program manager will send you a handbook, and ask you to send signed confirmation that you’ve read it. The rules in the handbook are straightforward. Basically, you cannot leave the country during your time as a Fulbrighter unless there is a natural disaster (like the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown – I left for 5 weeks) or a family emergency (someone dies). You will not be allowed to leave for conferences or family events like weddings, so keep that in mind when you enter your start and end dates. There is also information about Fulbright contacts, etc.

Me at an HIV/AIDS candle parade in Kyoto this May

In terms of research, your US and Japanese advisors will determine just how much time you spend doing what. In my case, I was almost completely free to decide my own schedule. I attended my Japanese advisor’s graduate seminar regularly, but spent the bulk of my time attending events related to my research, preparing for and conducting interviews, traveling, and processing data at home.  Likewise, how much time you spend socializing with other Fulbrighters is up to you. For some, it is a wonderful network. For others, especially people who have spent extensive time in Japan and have already established social networks, it may not be so essential.

On a personal note, being in the field can be lonely. Make efforts to find out if other people from your university will be in Japan at the same time. Make use of social networks you established on previous trips.  Go out with people from your advisor’s seminar group. Attend talks at advertised on H-Japan or other list-serves. Visit I-House in Roppongi, and the Japan Foundation library in Yotsuya. Join a sports team or club at your host institution. The Fulbright handbook actually says that grantees are not allowed vacation time. But play is important, so make sure you get out and stay social. Your research will be the better for it.

Just a side note: don’t forget to start looking for write-up grants while on the DDRA. Time will go fast, and it can set you back if you do not have funding to write up your research.


When you are getting ready to leave, make sure you have all your receipts for your health insurance, project allowance, and travel organized in some sort of file. You will also be required to fill out a closing report online.  It basically asks if you had to change your research plan and to what degree you were successful in carrying out your research. Of course, you will have to make preparations to leave (utilities, moving your stuff home, saying farewells, etc), and you MUST leave on the day you list on your application, so make sure you start the preparations about 6 weeks in advance.

When you get home – expect to be tired and incapable of doing much professionally. If you have taken comprehensive exams, the period just after your research year can be similar to that sort of post-exams exhaustion.  Focus on re-integrating yourself back home rather than on doing a lot of work. I planned to leave the field just before Thanksgiving and this was a wise choice for me. I spent 6 weeks enjoying the holidays and then got back to work in January.  But of course everyone is different! Just beware that settling back in at home or school or both may take some time.

Those are the essentials – or at least, what was essential to me.

Best wishes!

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
This entry was posted in applications, financial assistance, funding, graduate school, living abroad, main posts, program review, social networking, study abroad, study tools, undergraduate, useful links and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to From Application to Research: Fulbright in Japan

  1. Caleb Carter says:

    Thanks for the great post, Pamela. I’ve just received the Hays for this coming year and with only a trickle of information flowing down regarding logistics and what not, its helpful to hear the advice of an alumni. Still have plenty of questions but psyched to get underway with it soon. Best of luck with your work!

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