Fellowship 101: Facebook Fellow Daricia Wilkinson outlines the basics for PhDs

The Facebook Fellowship Program supports talented PhD students engaged in innovative research in any year of their PhD study. Applications for the 2021 Fellowship cohort recently opened on August 10, and they will close on October 1.

“Each year, the program gets more and more competitive. Last year, we received around 1,875 applications — double the amount as the year before,” says Sharon Ayalde, Program Manager for the Facebook Fellowship Program. “We’re looking forward to the high quality of applications that we see every year.”

To prepare for this year’s Fellowship applications, we connected with Daricia Wilkinson, 2019 Fellow in UX/Instagram, to discuss the fellowship basics. Wilkinson is a PhD student in the Human-Centered Computing program at Clemson University, advised by Dr. Bart Knijnenburg. Her research interests are at the intersection of people and technology, and she is passionate about solving problems from a user-centered perspective.

Inspired by Wilkinson’s Medium post about how to make a successful PhD fellowship, this Q&A outlines the most common questions Wilkinson receives about fellowships, research statements, and the application process.

Q: How do fellowships work?

Daricia Wilkinson: If you are an incoming PhD student, you will learn about assistantships from your university (either teaching or research assistantship) that support your tuition and stipend. In contrast, fellowships are a source of external funding that could be offered by a governmental organization or a company. However, not all fellowships are the same. There are some key differences that can help guide you when deciding which fellowships to apply to:

  • Fellowship amount: You will probably recognize this fairly early, but the amount being offered could vary significantly. The typical range for PhD fellowships is $10,000 to $40,000.
  • Type of support: The support given could contribute toward covering tuition, your stipend, or travel. Some fellowships may only offer one type of support. It should also be noted that the money is sometimes paid directly to the school and not to you. That might make it easier or more difficult depending on your situation.
  • Duration: You may be offered the amount in a one-time payment, or it may be offered over a set number of years.
  • Additional offers: Some fellowship programs are more robust and hands-on than others. It is quite possible to be offered the opportunity to interview for internships. Programs that could possibly lead to your being hired want you to know this. I’d recommend taking some time to comb through each program’s FAQ to see whether this is an option. Beyond internships, some organizations allow you to collaborate and network with their research teams, which could be an invaluable experience.

Q: How is the Facebook Fellowship different from others?

DW: First, the Facebook Fellowship is very prestigious. Unlike many other fellowship opportunities, the Facebook Fellowship offers a very generous level of support. Facebook pays your tuition, and you are provided with a very competitive stipend of $42,000, meant for living costs and travel support.

Second, the Fellowship offers incredibly valuable networking opportunities. The Facebook Fellowship Summit, hosted virtually this year, is one of these opportunities. At the summit, Fellows are invited to a paid trip to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, where they can present their research and meet other Fellows as well as top Facebook researchers.

Third, and it seems not many people know this, the program is open to PhD students from all around the world, with no limit per university.

Q: What kind of research is Facebook interested in supporting?

DW: Research at Facebook is typically grounded in real-world problems. Research teams work on cutting-edge topics with a practical focus, which ultimately means that focus areas could include multiple disciplines. Consider that the Facebook family includes Instagram and WhatsApp (as well as others), which could result in various products within human-computer interaction, computer vision, privacy, or data science. For a more detailed list, I would recommend looking at the list of available fellowships on the Fellowship page.

Q: How do you write a research statement?

DW: Start by taking some time to really think about the topic you are proposing. This would involve reading up on the latest publications but also borrowing from an inspiration to solve real-world problems around you. In your first draft, do not focus on the word limit. Rather, try to effectively communicate the problem and why it matters. Afterward, you could work on reframing and then editing to adhere to the word limit. Generally, I recommend following the structure below:

Paragraph 1: Introduction

  • Present the problem
  • Identify who this impacts and why this is relevant in general and more specifically relevant to the company
  • One sentence summarizing your idea/approach

Paragraph 2: Body

  • What you plan to do
  • How you plan to do it
  • What you’ve done to show you can do this (optional)

Paragraph 3: Conclusion

  • Contribution to the community (academic and public)
  • Relevance to the mission/values of the company

Q: What advice would you provide with regard to the application process?

DW: Having ample time always works in your favor. Therefore, starting to plan earlier rather than later would be in your best interest. However, don’t let this discourage you if you find out about an opportunity close to its deadline. My high-level advice would be the following:

  • Ensure that your research statement is on a topic you are passionate about and that you clearly communicate that passion. When I applied for fellowships in 2018, I had two complete sets of applications prepared for submission. Both were well-motivated and important work. In the end, my adviser recommended that I choose the one that I was without a doubt most passionate about. Ultimately, that application was successful. Being able to communicate your passion could help to convince others why your research direction is worthy of a fellowship award.
  • Apply to multiple fellowships. I could insert multiple cliches to stress that “it’s a numbers game” and that “you shouldn’t place all your eggs in one basket.” Fellowships are very competitive. I applied twice before being awarded the Facebook Fellowship, and I received Google’s Women TechMakers Scholarship on the third try. I recommend creating a document or spreadsheet with possible options to help you manage.
  • Feel free to reach out to past fellows. I’ve had numerous students reach out to me for advice, and I try to provide as much help as I can. You could also look at the type of research that is normally conducted by past fellows to get a sense of what that organization might be interested in. However, keep in mind that some companies like Facebook are rapidly evolving and interests might change year to year.

To learn more about Wilkinson’s background, research interests, publications, and speaking experiences, visit her Fellowship profile.

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