Bessie Young pursued a series of prestigious fellowships to travel the world and pursue her unique interest: photography and cross-cultural gerontology. As an undergraduate at Amherst, Bessie was a double major in Psychology and Art with focus on aging and Turkish language study. She won a Critical Language Scholarship for study abroad in Turkey, and also won a $10,000 Davis Projects For Peace grant from the Kathryn W. Davis Foundation to travel in Turkey, France and the U.S. and photograph the experience of the aging in nursing homes. After college, Bessie was one of 17 people nationally to win the prestigious Luce Scholarship, which funds a year of professional development in Asia. Bessie chose to live in Nishinomiya, Japan, where she studied and photographed aging and long-term care for the elderly to better understand the aging environment in differing cultural contexts. Bessie subsequently won the George J. Mitchell Scholarship, which funds a year of graduate study at universities in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Bessie is now enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Ulster in Belfast where she is collaborating with a faculty member who is researching photography as a memory aid for those suffering from Alzheimer’s. It is clear that Bessie will continue to excel in her interdisciplinary studies. We sat down with her to ask her more about pursuing her niche interest using a series of fellowships.
1. Tell us about your path to pursuing a MFA in Northern Ireland. What inspired you to apply to four fellowships and work abroad?
I began college with an interest in both art and psychology. In my first semester, I took a class called the Psychology of Aging and loved it. Soon both my art and psychology coursework began to focus on issues related to aging. Fellowships are a great way to explore specific passions in an interdisciplinary context, so I began applying to different opportunities that would allow me to use art as a way to understand aging in different countries.
Prior to coming to Northern Ireland, I was confused. Should I be a photographer who advocates for the elderly? Should I be a gerontologist who photographs aging issues as a part of research? While researching programs for a scholarship application, I was shocked to find a photography program in Northern Ireland where the director of the program was conducting research related to both photography and Alzheimer’s. I immediately decided this was the right program for me and I couldn’t be happier here. Sometimes applying for scholarships (whether your application is successful or not) will help you discover programs or collaborators you never would have otherwise.
2. What career paths are you considering after you complete your Master’s?
Even though I decided to pursue this MFA in Photography, my future is still very much open. I plan to continue to live abroad for the next several years and learn as much as I can about cross-cultural issues of aging. My main goal for this period in my life is to humbly learn and seek to understand as much as possible, so that one day I will be in a position to make positive change for the world’s elderly. Whether I’ll end up in the field of photography, psychology, medicine, anthropology, or something else, I’m not sure.
3. What advice would you give to others applying to competitive fellowships?
Follow your passions wholeheartedly and be truthful in explaining them and yourself to others. Just like you won’t be the perfect person for every fellowship, every fellowship will not be perfect for you. That’s why it’s important to be true to yourself and thoroughly thoughtful, genuine, and honest throughout your application and interview processes. Take time when answering questions to not just come up with a good answer, but to come up with the answer that is truest to who you are. Not only will others respond to your sincerity, but when you are offered a fellowship, you will also be confident that they saw the true you and liked it.
“This work is a way to connect the individual and the subjective aging experience to aging as a social phenomenon. It is a way to draw lines between the visible and invisible. There is specificity here that words cannot capture.”
- Bessie Young
Bessie Young is a 2011 summa cum laude graduate of Amherst College. She spent the last year as a Henry Luce Scholar studying eldercare in Japan. Currently, Bessie is studying for her MFA in Photography at the University of Ulster Belfast through a George J. Mitchell Scholarship.
© Victoria Johnson 2012, all rights reserved.
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A few years ago when I first began looking at Master’s and PhD programs, I wasn’t aware that many universities fully fund their doctoral students. Full funding normally includes full tuition and a stipend for living expenses for the four to six years a student is in the doctoral program. Because I didn’t know this, I considered a PhD impossible and pursued a Master’s instead, taking out both a federal and private loan to fund my studies.
I learned of fully funded doctoral programs while looking for fellowships for others, and I was very fortunate to enter a PhD program last year at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand that is fully funding my studies. I never would have considered Massey University previously if I had to pay for my doctoral studies.
In most cases, finding and entering a doctoral program with full funding is easier that winning a competitive external doctoral fellowship, like the Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship. Not only are these external fellowships more competitive, but often they only fund the 3rd, 4th and 5th year of your PhD study, when you are completing your dissertation research. Therefore, when considering a doctorate, research all the potential PhD programs in your academic field, including small and lesser-known schools both in the U.S. and abroad, and ask the admissions office if they fully fund every admitted student. This may have a major impact on the schools you consider applying to.
Just a small sample of PhD programs that are fully-funded:
All PhD students at Columbia University get full funding. Columbia has particularly strong programs in medicine and sciences, as well as public administration and policy.
Boston College’s Department of Psychology offers a four- to five-year, full-time, fully-funded, research-oriented doctoral program. The ratio of faculty to doctoral students is approximately 1 to 1.
Students admitted Duke University’s PhD program in Military History receive multi-year funding packages from the graduate school, including tuition waivers, a stipend, and a teaching assistantship or gradership.
Most doctoral students in the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering doctoral program are admitted under a policy of full support. Doctoral students admitted with financial support who enter with a master’s degree will receive four years of guaranteed support as long as standards are achieved and milestones are met.
One thing to keep in mind is that “full funding” may be substantially less than what you are earning in the private sector and is likely not enough to support a family. Yearly stipends normally range from $18,000 – $30,000. Smaller cities have lower costs of living, so another major factor in your consideration should be location.
Some people also consider fully funded doctoral programs to fund a Master’s degree. While frowned upon in academia for obvious reasons, you could enter a funded PhD program, complete your first 2 years of coursework, and suspend your studies once you receive a Master’s with ABD (All But Dissertation) distinction. A retired Cornell professor clued me in to this. But you didn’t hear it from me!
Also sign up to check our fellowships database to learn about other opportunities to fund graduate and doctoral study.
© Victoria Johnson 2013, all rights reserved.
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Our step-by-step guide for a competitive fellowship application
1. Create a plan
2. Project proposal ideas
3. Talk to current / former fellows
4. Prepare an effective resumé
5. Find a host institution
6. Write a compelling personal statement
7. Prepare a strong project proposal
8. Get great recommendation letters (P1)
9. Get great recommendation letters (P2)
10. Nail the individual and group interviews