My best tips for your AAAS Mass Media Fellowship application

I was a fellow at WIRED magazine this past summer, so for any of you applying now, here’s what I remember from my own application process.

1. A lot of the final selections are down to fate. Last year, I worked on 2 fellowship applications. I really wanted one of them. I spent 5 months perfecting every essay and briefing my recommendation writers and stressing over every last thing. My application was spat out the first round. For the AAAS mass media fellowship, I was much more ambivalent. I put my application together in 4 days, tops, spread out mostly in early January before the application was due – and asked for recommendations in a somewhat off-hand manner. From sundry clues and intuition, I got the sense that I breezed through the selection process. And I can tell you that I was just as qualified for the fellowship from which I was tossed as this one. So keep in mind no matter what you do with your application, the final decisions are not in your control. If you’re not chosen, possibly your application wasn’t strong; but more possibly the devil was sitting in corner cackling at you being heartbroken. Sad but true.

2. Follow the format of their sample resume. I was able to obtain a sample resume from AAAS to see how to format my own (you can probably email the contact to get one, too.) The resume sections they suggest are: a qualifications summary, Educational and Professional Experience (in a quick list), Professional Societies, Science Writing (a list of publications), Science Outreach and Mentoring, Online Outreach, University Teaching, Awards/Honors/Fellowships, Professional Service, Poster Presentations in Science Outreach, Peer-reviewed articles, Science Abstracts. *These suggested sections were also listed on the Application Tip Webpage, but it was still very helpful to see the actual sample resume.*

I mostly stuck with those sections in my application resume, except I did it a little differently at the end: Qualifications Summary, Educational and Professional Experience (in a quick list), Professional Societies, Science Writing (a list of publications), Science Outreach and Mentoring, Online Outreach, University Teaching, Awards/Honors/Fellowships, Professional Service, Presentations and Talks, Peer-reviewed Articles, Poster Abstracts. In all, my application resume was 3.5 pages.

3. Science writing samples can be locally or personally published. I had eight pieces listed under the “Science Writing” resume section. These are pieces that you’ve already published aside from the two pieces of sample writing you submit. Now, none of my pieces were published in very prestigious places. In fact, two of them were personal essays that I had just published as online PDFs myself. Three I had published in my University/community newspaper. And three others I had published on a science graduate school blog at my university, that pretty much accepts any submission. So don’t worry about where you’re publishing, just as long as you’re publishing.

These were my eight:

The Governors of Bonn: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2017/11/summit-talk
Fossils that slumber in the mountains and the mud: http://www.thepipettepen.com/feature-article/fossils-that-slumber-in-the-mountains-and-the-mud/
The Women of Bonn: http://www.dailytarheel.com:8080/article/2017/11/summit-entry-eight-real-1116
Arctic tales of icy trails: http://www.thepipettepen.com/blog/arctic-tales-of-icy-trails/
The making of Mr. Turtle: http://www.thepipettepen.com/blog/mr-turtle-gets-sick/
A trip to World Water Week: https://issuu.com/nejlike/docs/swea_3
An EcoPark in Jordan: https://issuu.com/nejlike/docs/ecopark
Curie and Brontë as BFFs: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2017/04/column-curie-and-bront-bffs

I submitted them just as they look above, and in the same order: the title and the URL next to it. I didn’t want to risk embedding the URLs in the titles as hyperlinks and then the links becoming corrupt. And I also realize, looking at it now, quite a lot of my articles were not necessarily super science-oriented, but had a lot of personal reflections involved, too. I included 2 articles where I’d interviewed someone — I think that’s important to include as interviewing scientists is a big part of the work when you’re on the fellowship. And I guess it goes without saying none of these samples should be boring technical writing!

4. It doesn’t all have to be about writing. I stressed about this, since on the one hand, it is called a “Mass Media Fellowship”; but on the other hand, nearly all the work of past fellows at their sites has been science writing, rather than videos or illustrations. So did I want to include science outreach activities that were not strictly science writing, and how much emphasis should that get? Looking back over my application, it looks like I ultimately decided that my science writing experience would get top billing, and everything else was relegated to the second half of the application questions. For the questions, “What in your background has prepared you for this fellowship?” and “Have you had previous media-related experiences?” I focused on science writing, without much mention of science animations or science outreach in schools. But then the science animations and the science outreach made up the bulk of two later questions: “Describe activities, other than previous media experiences, you have undertaken that increased public understanding of science” and “What community outreach or educational activities have you participated in, science-related or otherwise?”

5. How to answer application questions that seem repetitive. It seems like the questions we answered last year are still the ones required now. The main six are:

  1. Why are you interested in this program?
  2. “What in your background has prepared you for this fellowship?”
  3. How do you think the skills learned will impact your future career?
  4. “Have you had previous media-related experiences?”
  5. “Describe activities, other than previous media experiences, you have undertaken that increased public understanding of science”
  6. “What community outreach or educational activities have you participated in, science-related or otherwise?”

I don’t know about you, but I spent quite some time puzzling out how I wasn’t just going to repeat myself for some of these. I mean, #1, #2, #4, and #5 kind of flow together. I did end up repeating myself, but I tried to keep it to a minimum:

For #1, I tried to answer the question without falling back on, “well, I’m interested in the program because I’ve already done science writing for x, y, and z organizations.” I wanted to avoid that, because you’ll just be listing all those organizations again when you get to question #2. Instead, I tried a more overarching approach: I like science writing, these are some of the key insights I’ve learned so far, and being part of this fellowship will help me to learn more.

Or, I guess you could also flip around my answers to questions #1 and #2. Just as long as you’re not answering with the same material!

For #2 and for #4: yes, these were tricky! In fact, in my notes below question #4, I wrote: “what can I say that I haven’t said in other sections?” I ended up describing briefly 3-4 different science writing experiences for question #2; and for question #4, I chose one of them and expanded on it.

For questions #5 and #6, I described science outreach that wasn’t focused on writing. For me, this meant either making science animations or working with kids. Of course, the wording of question #5 somewhat threw me, since science animations definitely are a “media experience”, no? I tried to wiggle out of that one by pretending the question referred to not “media” as in books and digital material, but “media” in terms of a “formal media organization.” Which was honestly just a racket on my part, because that would imply the media experiences I listed for question #2 and question #4 were very formal, and they were not. Just a graduate school blog here, a student-run newspaper there.

Any case, for question #5 I ended up describing mostly science animations, and for question #6, I described science outreach with kids. This seemed true to what the questions asked for. Although things definitely overlapped, because some of the science animations I wrote about in question #5 were actually completed with a group of kids; and some of the science outreach with kids described in question #6 involved making a video.

In conclusion: having written all this out, I’m no longer quite sure that my application was actually very well organized, but I think it would be true to say that there is a certain fluidity to the questions, and it’s possible to answer a question in multiple ways. An answer to one question could also work as an answer to another. I guess just mix and match things as best as you can and try not to repeat yourself! Just convey the depth of your experience and your interest in the fellowship at every turn.

6. The “sample news story” writing assignment. I was at the AGU conference in December, 2017, and while wandering around the exhibition hall, picking up as much swag as I could, I was offered an issue of “Science.” It’s kind of funny because I am just now realizing this must have occurred at the AAAS booth (which both runs this fellowship and publishes “Science”.) I wasn’t going to take the magazine at first (oh, I’ll just toss it) but then I did, and when it came time to write my “sample news story” for the application just weeks later, I remembered I had the magazine and flipped through it to pick the story that seemed most interesting to me. And I think this was more efficient than trawling through whatever thousands of articles I could have found on an online database. The story I chose was about dinosaurs, so not even my field of expertise, and it took me a while to understand the article, but that was okay.

7. Do connections help? I don’t know if I’m now making up this memory, but I feel like when I was at the AAAS booth picking up that issue of Science magazine, they must have also mentioned: hey, and we have this fellowship you can also apply to! Maybe I picked up a hand-out about it, I don’t remember, but I didn’t “sell” myself or even exchange names, or grandly hand them a resume. So it looks like that’s not necessary.

But then, very randomly, I met up with a friend for dinner during the conference, and her other friend also joined us. This other friend had been a AAAS mass media fellow in summer 2017, and while we were at dinner, she told me about her experience, I asked her some questions, etc. I never thought much of it, but these days, I’ve been getting emails from AAAS about helping to judge the 2019 year’s crop of application. Apparently, once you’ve done the fellowship, you can be part of the selection panel. I have no idea if the woman I met was on the selection committee, but maybe she was, and maybe she saw my name and gave me a good word? But probably not. Very likely the application is “blind”, meaning they don’t know the name of the person they are judging.

So in conclusion, I would guess that connections don’t help that much, it’s just you and your application.

8. Don’t worry too much about labels. This goes along with what I said earlier about my science writing publications having been exclusive to community/student newspapers and university blogs. You don’t need to have published in a big name organization. Also, which I think is interesting, one of my science outreach activities in question #6 was taking place between myself and kids in the apartment complex I lived in as a PhD student. There was no fancy-sounding name or non-profit attached to this, it was just something I did after getting to know some kids who lived around me. I hesitated to include it, because I think often we perceive “community outreach” as something that happens within the fold of a formal organization, like a school or a museum, where there’s some sort of higher-level supervisor who can back up that you volunteered there. When you’re doing the same activities with your neighbors, it suddenly doesn’t count; and there’s no official “volunteer log” that lists your hours. Well, I ended up mentioning my apartment outreach anyways, just a sentence in question #6. Granted, it was packed alongside many other more ‘official’ sounding activities. But by the time I was applying, I had put aside the more official-sounding outreach. So being able to talk about the apartment outreach gave things a nice, continuous ring. It showed I still had heart in the game, that these weren’t activities I had just given up on.

And I think that’s the major insights I can provide based on my own application. Good luck, and if you have questions, feel free to post in the comments and I’ll try to answer them.

Finally, I actually started blogging when I was a fellow, so you can read my posts from my time at WIRED here. If you click on the link, you’ll see all the posts are in backwards chronological order. There’s everything from my first day at WIRED, to the thrill I felt when I published my first article,  to my favorite moments, to various heart-aches and disgust and failures and tantrums scattered throughout. It was an interesting summer.

 

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