Watson Fellowships

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the United States.


  • Preliminary: Aug. 1, 2023
  • Internal: Sep. 20, 2023
  • External: early Nov. 2023

Who is Eligible?

You are eligible to apply for the Watson if you are a graduating senior nominated by one of 40 partner colleges. All majors and fields of inquiry are eligible. 

Watson: Application Procedures 2023-24

Preliminary Application Draft—Optional

Bryn Mawr College rising seniors interested in applying for a Watson are strongly encouraged to email a preliminary application draft to Bryn Mawr's Watson Liaison, Assistant Eleanor Stanford, our Fellowships Adviser, who will provide feedback before the start of the semester.

Online Preliminary Application Form 

This preliminary application should include:

  • A comprehensive resumé listing extracurricular activities, paid and unpaid internships and employment, languages spoken (with degrees of proficiency), and previous significant travel.
  • A five-page essay describing who you are, what you’re proposing to do, and how your proposed project has personal significance.
  • For more guidance on this, see the prompts below. While you need not go into great detail at this point, the prompts below will give you an idea of what information the Watson application requires.
  • A list of any questions you have about the fellowship or the application process.

This draft application will not be evaluated as a part of the formal competition. Instead, it is intended to get you thinking, researching, and writing early in the summer. It will also help the Watson Liaison give you specific feedback.

Campus Application

In accordance with Watson Fellowship policies, all applicants for the Watson Fellowship must complete the official Watson online application by the internal deadline. (Note that the online application is quite lengthy and uses a unique application platform, so nominees will want to budget a good amount of time to complete. In addition to the items discussed below, some other materials are required, including a .jpg passport photo not exceeding 150 KB and 600 pixels wide. The photo must abide by U.S. passport guidelines.)

Please request access to the official online application by filling out the application request form. You may request this application at any time; it does not commit you to applying.

The application consists of the following:

Personal Statement

Use this statement to introduce yourself and provide a backdrop for the entire application. (It should also introduce the project topic, but save most details for your Project Proposal.)

This statement should highlight your special gifts and potential, what the Watson refers to as "unusual promise." This promise can be evident in many dimensions — service, leadership, resourcefulness, creativity, vision, independence, integrity, responsibility, emotional maturity, and courage (to name a few). Each applicant will display one or more of such qualities in their own unique ways. Use the personal statement to tell us about your unusual promise.

The statement should also explain the personal significance, and provide the personal context, for the proposed project. You should discuss why you chose this topic, how it developed out of previous interests and/or experiences, and how it represents new challenges that will enable you to grow personally. It should be clear from this statement why, of all topics you could have chosen, you chose this one.

The statement has a 1,500-word limit.

Project Proposal

Describe your plan for the 12-month Fellowship year, including a description of your project and an outline for carrying it out. It should also include a clear explanation for why you have selected certain countries/cultures and your strategies for engaging with people "on the ground." The proposal should detail the challenges you expect to face and the preparation/strategies you have to confront these.

The proposal should also indicate efforts you have taken thus far to secure contacts on the ground in the proposed countries (note that contacts need not be finalized at the time of the Internal Application, but you should provide evidence of excellent leads in at least 1-2 proposed countries).

If any of the countries you have selected is on any of the following lists: State Department WarningTreasury Embargo or designated CDC Level 3, you will need to provide a plan B should that country remain off limits during your Watson year.

The proposal has a 1,500-word limit.

The online application will prompt you to include the following:

  • A resume.
  • A list of all countries traveled to, with approximate dates. Please note whether travel was with family, with friends, or solo. (Note that you are permitted to return to a country if you have spent no more than 4-6 weeks there.)
  • Languages spoken and level of proficiency (elementary, intermediate, or advanced.)
  • a 100-word bio description of yourself.

Two Letters of Recommendation

Arrange for recommendations from two people. You will enter their information in the online system, and they will receive emailed invitations and submit within the online system. 

Two recommendations may include either: two from within Bryn Mawr/Haverford (Bi-Co), or: one from within the Bi-Co and one from someone external to the Bi-Co.

We highly recommend that you have at least one recommendation from someone who knows you outside the academic context.

Be sure to provide your recommenders with your project proposal and personal statement so they can be as specific as possible in their letters of support. 

On the basis of written applications received, the Bryn Mawr Watson Selection Committee will select approximately 8-10 candidates for a 30-minute interview. Four nominees will be chosen as soon as possible after the interviews and will have between two and three weeks to complete revisions for their application.

During this time, nominees are invited to work with the Watson Campus Liaison to revise and refine their application materials.

Online National Application

Nominees will be given access to the online system when they learn that they have been selected in order to make revisions.


Each nominee will have an in-person, one-hour interview with a member of the national Watson Selection Committee on campus sometime between November and February.

The interviewer may request that nominees upload additional information (such as additional contact information) onto the online application platform.

The Bryn Mawr College Watson Liaison will meet with nominees prior to the national interview and will set up mock interviews in preparation.

Watson Fellowships are announced March 15 of each year. Fellowship awardees will receive an email from the national Watson Foundation. Their projects will be posted on the national Watson Foundation website.

Getting to Know the Watson Fellowship

  • You need to be familiar with the Watson program, its requirements and application procedures, so take a good look at the Watson website.
  • To learn more about what a Watson Fellowship year is like, check out the "Meet the Fellows" page of the Watson website. Be sure to scroll down to the section titled "Watson Fellow Journeys" for an overview of several T.J. Watson Fellow years.
  • Many recent and current Watson Fellows from institutions other than Bryn Mawr have also published or are publishing blogs of their Watson years. A little time on Google should turn up several of these.

In addition to learning more about the Watson Fellowship, much of your time getting started on a Watson application should be spent looking inward to explore who you are and what your passion is. Your project must emanate from your passion.  

The Watson Foundation invests in people, not projects. While the project must hold deep personal significance for the fellow, for the Foundation the project is equally important as a means to their ends. The stated goals of the Watson Foundation are to foster "enhanced capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership" and "humane and effective participation in the world community." An inspiring project, well-matched to the fellow, helps ensure a successful 12-month experience in the field under often trying circumstances and will enable the fellow to develop the personal capacities listed above.

What is Your Passion? 

Turning inward is a key part of thinking about a Watson project. Projects must emanate from a personal passion. A Watson year is not a cerebral, intellectual undertaking. It is quite different from anything you've likely been doing in your years as a Bryn Mawr student. Rather than thinking about developing a formal research project, you will need to identify your passion and develop a project out of this. 

Questions to think about as you identify your passion might include the following:

  • Is there a skill, talent, or interest you possess that you have cultivated for some time, that your are passionate about, and want to explore in other contexts around the world?
  • Is there a particular issue you are passionate about that you would like to have time to explore in different contexts around the world? 
  • Is there a question that has captured your attention for some time now, a question that has personal meaning and that you want to explore in difference contexts around the world?

Designing Your Project

In designing your project, you will want to link your passion to an inquiry that will take you to different parts of the world, expose you to new cultures, and that will enable you to develop the capacities listed above.

To learn more about countries you might want to go to, you can begin with something as simple as Lonely Planet’s worldguide or as complicated as the U.S. Army’s Country Studies

Regarding the logistics of the year, fellows rely on contacts in the field to ground their stay in each setting. Contacts can range from people or organizations that are central to your inquiry, to people who can help you figure out the necessary logistics of housing, local transportation, etc. Remember that developing contacts takes time and effort. You will need to be resourceful, drawing on networking skills and internet research. Identifying good contacts often takes persistence as you will likely face many dead ends and unanswered emails, so be sure to give budget a lot of time for this process!

For questions about the Watson Fellowship, please contact Bryn Mawr Watson Liaison, Eleanor Stanford, Fellowships Adviser — 610-526-5375.

Watson: Frequently Asked Questions

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.

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!

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.