The Joys Of Rejection: Being A Finalist But Not A Fellow

Aug 21, 2012

By Ryan Johnson

Back in May, while scouring the web for new fellowship opportunities, Vicki stumbled across the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, a brand new 6-month fellowship in Washington, D.C. that aims to change the way the U.S. federal government interacts with its citizens. Within seconds, a link to the fellowship hit my Inbox along with the message: “Ryan, you have to apply to this fellowship.”

Announced by the U.S. CIO and CTO at TechCrunch Disrupt New York in May, news of the fellowship spread quickly. Within days there were more than 600 applicants. And why wouldn’t there be? The fellowship’s purpose is to disrupt the federal government to make it more lean and effective, cheaper and scalable, and customer-centric. It’s focused on liberating government-owned data to power new apps and services, laying the foundation for the next generation of e-government. This fellowship wasn’t just a project that I believed in, it was the project I wanted to work on. No matter the odds, I had to apply.

The fellowship application required a 300 word essay and a resumé. At the time, the application deadline was not clear, however the website stated that fellows would begin their roles in July, so I knew I had to get my application in quickly. I spent the next week conducting research and crafting my application. I read every article and watched every YouTube video I could find about the fellowship and its founders, and carefully reviewed the president’s Digital Government Strategy, taking down notes along the way.

Compared to most fellowship applications, a 300 word essay seems trivial, but developing few pertinent and compelling points on why I think I am a great candidate for this opportunity was harder than I expected. For my resumé, I focused on layout and my accomplishments, making sure the most critical information was front and center, and my experience was accompanied by numbers rather than deep explanations of responsibilities. I spent several days on my essay and resume, circulating updated versions to friends and family for feedback. On June 1, I submitted my application.

Even though I knew only 15 fellows would be selected out of the now more than 700 applicants, I didn’t let that deter me and I prepared for a potential interview. I spent the next month continuing to research for the fellowship. I read reports galore, including the U.S. Shared Services Strategy, Federal Cloud Computing Strategy, State of the Federal Web, and international reports covering the successes and failures of international open government initiatives in Canada, Europe and Brazil. I reviewed slews of news and journal articles, surveys, blog posts and websites related to open data and open government, and leveraged my personal and professional networks to have Skype calls with our contacts currently working on such initiatives. I felt energized, knowledgable and ready.

I found out I was a finalist on Friday, June 22 and practically yelled aloud when I read the email. My interview via WebEx was scheduled for the following Thursday. That was not much time, but I felt prepared due to my research, and I continued to read and speak to others that could help me craft my approach. Vicki even grilled me with hard questions they might ask.

The day of the interview I was nervous, but once we started I felt calmer. I was interviewed by a panel of three people, including  Bev Godwin, Director of the Federal Citizen Information Center and Kathy Conrad, Principal Deputy Associate Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). Some of the questions they asked me include:

Why should we choose you to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow?

What accomplishment or project are you most proud of and why?

You’re selected and it’s Day One of the fellowship. What is the first thing you do?

I thought I did well with my answers, but only five days later I received a rejection email. I felt frankly, like crap. I really wanted this opportunity. But after allowing myself a day to mope, I woke up the next morning feeling proud that I had even received an interview. I knew they were interviewing the cream of the crop from all over the nation, and it was an honor to be a finalist. I added my accomplishment of being a Finalist to my resumé.

This opportunity hasn’t deterred me from pursuing other competitive opportunities. In fact, it has inspired me to work harder and reach higher. If I got that close to winning such an amazing fellowship, surely if I stick at it, I will achieve my goal.

© Victoria Johnson 2012, all rights reserved.