Is Rhodes worth it? Choosing on a postgraduate fellowship

fellowships strategy
By JT

As you approach the twilight of your undergraduate studies, you might (like me) be finally forced to confront the specter of life after graduation. You might be staring down simultaneous job hunts and graduate school applications. But then, you might hear names floating around (Rhodes? Marshall? Fulbright?) that promise you funding, travel, and prestige. Indeed, a postgraduate fellowship like these can offer you all of these things – and more – and I encourage anyone and everyone who is able to apply to consider applying. But the decision to apply is not one to be made lightly, so I want to offer some reflections on my experience of simultaneously applying to the three fellowships that I’ve named, among others. Admittedly, I speak from a somewhat biased perspective (I am currently studying on a Rhodes Scholarship), but hopefully this can also lend the valuable insights of someone on the “other end” of these processes.  

1. Do your research.

A rather obvious one to start out with, but bear with me. Many postgraduate fellowships take place in international contexts that are quite different from the places where you have lived, worked, and learned before. So, you should seek out information from a variety of sources. For graduate schools, this looks like combing through departmental websites, speaking with professors and students, and reading testimonials. Get a good sense of a place as you consider living there – in my case, this helped narrow my search. For example, my language skills are embarrassingly subpar, so I restricted my search to English-language institutions. Figure out where you want to go, then look for opportunities that will take you there.  

2. Consider what happens if you win.

Perhaps less obvious is the fact that you might actually end up having to follow through. This is a really exciting, daunting, and life-altering prospect. It’ll likely be a mixed bag – for me, it meant the opportunity to critically engage with my field, live rent-free for a few years, and become part of an incredible alumni network. It also meant two years away from my family, partner, and friends, and an even longer wait before I can begin practicing as an attorney. Your tradeoffs might be worth it to you, but they also might not. What’s important is that you’re honest with yourself about the potential costs and benefits. 

3. Prepare to make sacrifices.

As with any serious commitment, applying to postgraduate fellowships means rearranging your priorities. My research and drafting process began in May, and the process lasted through interviews in late November of the same year. The fall of my senior year was dominated by these applications – balancing them alongside schoolwork, a serious relationship, and a meaningful social life was not an easy task, and I certainly wasn’t perfect. Going into the year, I also decided not to apply for a year-long job that I had been looking forward to for about three years; I simply wouldn’t have the capacity, and I missed out on what I know could’ve been a fulfilling and transformative experience. In doing so, I had to make peace with the fact that this sacrifice would not necessarily lead to my desired outcome. Additionally, you might miss out on recruiting and application periods for other opportunities during this time. All of this to say, you will have to make meaningful sacrifices to engage with this process, and there is still a very good chance that your application is unsuccessful.  

4. Set realistic expectations.

On a related note, statistically, your chances of winning many of these fellowships aren’t great. From a sheer numbers perspective, many of them have an acceptance rate of around 1%. Additionally, you just might not have what a particular committee is looking for – and this often has nothing to do with your qualifications. I submitted nearly identical applications to two extremely similar fellowships to study at Oxford; I won one, and didn’t even get a first-round interview for the other. You can put together a stellar application, but this is by no means a guarantee that your application will be successful. 

5. Detach your self-worth from the process.

Finally – and this is the most important thing – do not attach your worth to the outcome of these applications. This means a few things. First, if you decide to embark on this endeavor, you need to be at peace with any outcome. Obviously, you’d prefer a successful application – but in the other scenario, you should not feel like the last six months were a waste of time. This process is also a time for you to think about what you want your future to look like, where you want to be, and how you want to make an impact. At the end of the day, that might be all that you walk away with, which can be a hard thing to accept, but you must accept this if you’re going to start the process. Otherwise, you set yourself up for bitterness and regret in the event that things don’t work out. 

Second (and this is really the most important), understand that no committee can make a precise judgment on your potential or your personhood. These processes are inherently deficient, because you are asked to distill yourself into a few thousand words (if that). Committees interact with only an idea of you, an approximation that will necessarily miss out on most of what makes you, well, you. As difficult as this can be (and I speak from experience), you must disabuse yourself of the notion that the success of these applications is in any way tied to your worth or potential. 

I’ve had an amazing experience, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been a perfect one – nor is it a typical one. I hope that these (sometimes sobering) reflections are helpful to anyone considering an application, and I sincerely commend anyone who has been down this path, who is about to set foot on it, or who decided that it simply wasn’t for them. 

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