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Watson -- Frequently Asked Questions

General Questions:

Questions About Designing Your Project:

Questions About the Application Process:


General Questions

How much advising and support does the Watson Fellowship offer?
Not much. Returning Watson Fellows have reported, "they answer your emails, but their basic message is to figure something out for yourself."  The Watson Fellowship is all about independence. You will be expected to make all your travel plans (visas, housing, etc.) yourself.    That said, in real emergencies, you can expect support and help from the Fellowship Foundation. Those named Watson Fellows do receive a packet with some basic information about issues like insurance.  In terms of advising about your project, this is very much your project. While some of your contacts may be important, inspiring, and influential figures in your life, they will not be advisers or supervisors as such. 

How much do grades count?

Grades, and especially GPA, are in themselves not an important part of the Watson application. However, transcripts and letters of recommendation from professors are required, and most students chosen as nominees and as fellows have been successful academically. A weak academic record may raise questions, but if other parts of the application are compelling, grades alone will not keep Bryn Mawr from nominating a student, nor will they keep the student from receiving a Watson fellowship.

Can I defer?


Would I be allowed to come back to the US for grad school interviews/ a sister’s wedding/ my grandmother’s 90th birthday party?

No. And if you’re an international student, you’re not allowed to go to your home country. However, if a genuine family emergency occurs (grave illness or death of an immediate family member), you will be permitted to return home.

Would I be allowed to have people visit?

Yes. As long as you realize that your overall reason for being abroad is to carry out your Watson project and not to be a tour guide, absolutely. Indeed, amid the challenges of a Watson year, having a friend or family member visit can be a much needed energy boost.

What would I have to produce at the end of my Watson year?

Essentially, nothing. The Watson is not about product, it’s about experience. The Fellowship Foundation will expect you to give them reports on your year at least every three months. You are also required to attend the “returning Watson Fellows’ conference,” held in early August each year. (Which means that your twelve months of travel must be over by then.) Almost all Fellows give a 10-minute presentation on their research at this conference.

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Questions About Designing Your Project:


Can I go back to a country where I’ve been before?

It depends. If you have taken a brief vacation someplace, yes, you may go back. However, you may generally not return to a country you have lived or studied before. If you lived in a country as a very small child (but are not now a citizen of that country), you may return there. If the country is quite large (for example, China) and you’re applying to be in a very different part (you studied in Beijing, you want to go to rural areas in the extreme west), that may be acceptable. But even then you should only include such a country in your proposal IF it is absolutely central to your research project.

This "no return" rule is in the spirit of the Watson in the sense that a Watson year is meant to provide new experiences, including exposure to various cultures and societies previously unknown to the Fellow.

Do I have to be able to speak the language of every country I travel to?

No. But you do have to think about how you’ll communicate in every country you travel to. The people you’re interested in may speak English, or there may be enough English-speakers around that you can count on others to do some translating. You may be able to rely on a lot of non-verbal communication. You may learn some of the language that’s spoken.

That said, you should think about both the psychological difficulties and the methodological problems raised by spending large portions of your Watson year in places where you lack linguistic proficiency. For most people, it is emotionally stressful and exhausting to spend long times linguistically isolated. In addition, it may make it very difficult for you to achieve the kind of depth of cultural understanding that is one of the goals of the Watson.

In general, if a language is widely studied in the US, then you should probably have at least elementary proficiency if you want to go to a place where that language is spoken. That might mean taking a language class, either at Bryn Mawr or at Penn, during your senior year.

Finally, be aware that if you chosen as a nominee, the official Watson application requires you to list all languages in which you are proficient and to state your level of proficiency. Your Watson interviewer may choose to conduct part of the interview in any language in which you claim proficiency.

What kinds of housing arrangements do Watson Fellows make?
All kinds. Depending on what kinds of places you are traveling to and how much you are traveling, you may be doing long-term hostel stays; short-term rentals; formal or informal homestays, etc. You can find a lot of resources and advice (including advice about safety) in online discussion forums devoted to such topics as couchsurfing.

How many contacts do I have to have? What if my contacts have not responded?
A contact list is something that shows you’re thinking about how you’ll actually go about carrying out your project. It shows you’ve identified possible contacts. Merely listing somebody does not mean that you’ve successfully reached them. Of course, if one of your contacts does respond, but negatively (“Sorry but I can’t help you”), you should not include them in your list of contacts.

How many countries should I propose?

It depends. Remember that a Watson proposal must be both feasible and a stretch. Part of what makes it a stretch is that most projects require travel to different places in the course of a year; part of what makes it feasible is that most projects allow a Fellow long enough in each country to begin to feel comfortable.

There is a Fellow this year doing exactly what I want to do. Is this a problem?
Not necessarily (assuming that “exactly”) is an exaggeration. The Watson selection committee is selecting Watson Fellows more than they are selecting Watson projects. They are also looking for a good match between a person and a project. If you’re potentially a strong Watson applicant – bright, accomplished, curious, with the determination and ability to make a difference in the world – and if you’re absolutely sure that sea turtle conservation is what you’re most passionate about, then you should propose a project relating to sea turtles. If your project has to do with sea turtles, then there are certain places you’ll have to go to. That will mean that your proposal may resemble, in broad outlines, that of a previous Watson fellow. That’s okay.

That said, of course you want to individuate yourself. You want to be creative in putting together your project. And you want to offer a compelling picture of yourself in your personal statement. That’s true for all Watson applicants. After all, even if no Watson fellow has ever done what you’re proposing, it may very well be the case that three or four nominees will have the same basic idea that you have!

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Questions About the Application Process

How specific do my project plans need to be?
This is not an easy question to answer.  The 5-page limit itself imposes some limit on how specific you can be, since you have a lot of territory to cover in that 5 pages.  That said, one way that a past Bryn Mawr Watson Fellow formatted her proposal might provide a helpful way to think about this.  She had a section called "Plan of Action" in which she wrote a couple of paragraphs laying out how she would proceed.  In other words, rather than worry about including enough specifics, make sure you're thinking in terms of what you will try to do.  You may not opt for a section entitled "plan of action," but somebody reading your proposal should be able to come away with a good sense of what your plan of action would be.  

One thing to realize is that it's pretty natural to be more specific about some countries than others.  In some countries you may have a contact, an organization that you know you will be able to make use, and this may make it easier to envision what you'll do.  Don't let the fact that you can't be quite as specific about other countries keep you from being specific about that one.  

The other thing to realize is that unlike many fellowship applications, the Watson process isn't over until it's over.  By which I mean, you need to continue to refine and develop your ideas as long as you're in the competition.  Most preliminary apps submitted over the summer are pretty general.  Proposals chosen for interview will be much more specific.  Students who have successful interviews are able to expand on what they've submitted in writing.  Those chosen for nomination will have the chance to revise before submitting externally and should continue developing their ideas through the time of their formal Watson interview.  

How detailed do my travel plans have to be?

By the time you submit an internal application to Bryn Mawr, you definitely need to know (and to say) what countries you’re proposing to go to, and to have some idea of where within those countries. You should have some idea of how long you would spend in each country. If you’re selected as a nominee, you will need to specify the order in which you plan to travel to various countries. By the time of your interview with the Watson foundation, you should know details – of visa requirements, travel costs, cost of living, etc.

What is the initial on-campus interview like?

The on-campus interview is conducted by the Bryn Mawr T.J. Watson Committee made up of Bryn Mawr faculty and staff. Many but not all of the questions will be focused on your proposal and your personal statement. We will be trying to assess not only how well you know your subject but also how well you will handle some of the personal challenges involved in any Watson year.

If I am chosen as a nominee, what is the official Watson interview like?

The official Watson interview is held on campus (usually in Wyndham) and is conducted by either the Watson Foundation director or a guest interviewer (who is then also part of the national Watson selection committee). The interview lasts approximately one hour. It will be quite conversational in parts, but may also involve a large number of detailed questions about your plans, conditions in the countries you are going to, etc.

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