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Home > Publications > Quill > Why Not (apply for a fellowship)?



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Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Why Not (apply for a fellowship)?

A fellowship year may be just what you need for your career — and for your personal life.

By Mark Woods

I deleted the email from my inbox. It came again. I deleted it again. The third time, for some reason, I not only read it carefully, I started to think, “What if …”

It was a call for entries for the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship, awarded by SPJ’s affiliated Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. It said the fellowship, which awarded $75,000 each year to one recipient, was established to enable a mid-career editorial writer or columnist to have time away from daily responsibilities to “broaden his or her journalistic horizons.”


I was about to turn 50. I had been working at newspapers for nearly three decades, yet I was, I hoped, a long way from the end of the road. I was mid-career. And I was a columnist, the Metro columnist for the Florida Times-Union.

So I figured I at least fit the basic requirements. And although I felt fortunate to have a good job after the waves of layoffs hit newspapers across the country, the idea of getting away and broadening some horizons sounded pretty darn good.

I thought about it. If someone gave me a journalism Golden Ticket — the opportunity to devote an entire year to one subject — how would I use it? I came up with plenty of worthy issues for someone to explore. Someone else, that is.

Then I recalled a question my daughter, who was 9 at the time, had asked me several months earlier. She believes that Disney World is indeed the happiest place on earth. I believe it’s a torture chamber with lines. So, she asked, “What’s your Disney?”

After running through some possibilities in my head — baseball stadiums, mountains, rivers, woods, the Grand Canyon — I came up with an answer.

“Not a theme park,” I told her. “A national park.”

With that in mind, I started envisioning a proposal for the Pulliam Fellowship. I assumed other proposals would involve some weighty topics. I knew mine had to be more than, “I’ll take a year off and travel to Yosemite and Yellowstone.”

Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship

• Entry deadline: June 22, 2014

• Awarded by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation

• For a mid-career editorial writer or columnist

• $75,000 awarded for one year of research or other proposed project

More information and application here

The National Park Service already was gearing up to celebrate its centennial in 2016. I figured that many people, from John Muir to Ken Burns, have documented the history of the parks. But what about the future?

What will these places look like, sound like and feel like in another 100 years? What if I spent one calendar year — going not only to Yosemite and Yellowstone, but also to lesser-known parks — trying to answer those questions?

My proposal was much longer and more detailed, of course. But that was it in a nutshell. After spending the bulk of one weekend writing and re-writing, I mailed it just in time to meet the deadline.

Then, for the most part, I forgot about it. The previous winner was Jim Dwyer, a Pulitzer Prize winner from The New York Times, with a plan to study the Internet’s effects on human rights. What shot did I have?

Then one day I got a call from Todd Gillman, chairman of the judging panel and Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. I had been awarded the fellowship.

So now it makes sense for others to ask me: What advice would you give to someone thinking about applying for a fellowship?

My first piece of advice is simple: Do it. Partly because you never know. Partly because the mere process of doing it makes you pause and think. (I know what you’re thinking right now. This is easy for me to say after winning the fellowship.)

I could try to point to what I believe made my proposal work. But I probably learned more about what makes a good (or bad) proposal the following year. As the 2011 recipient, I was part of the panel that reviewed the 2012 entries and gave the award to Sandra Shea of the Philadelphia Daily News for her plans to study poverty in America.

Some entrants had a clear vision for what they would do if they won the fellowship, but their writing samples were uninspiring. Some had impressive clips but vague plans. The strongest proposals had both, plus a dash of passion.

From my experience, I’d say don’t pick a topic just because it’s important. Pick it because it excites you. And then explain why it’s important not only to you but to others. Lay out a detailed plan, one that is much more elaborate than what you might do for a Sunday takeout.

Oh, and be prepared to change that plan.

I had my year mapped out: 12 months, 12 parks, each one symbolizing a different issue for the future. And then, five weeks into the year, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and told she was going to die. Soon.

It’s hardly a stretch to draw a straight line from my childhood cross-country trips in a station wagon without airconditioning to this fellowship. My mom loved the parks. She wanted me to stick to my plans. And for the most part, I did. There were some exceptions, most notably that when the year began, mom was planning to do one trip with me, to Denali National Park in July.

She died June 30, 2012.

Two weeks later, instead of going to Alaska, I went to New York City and camped in Gateway National Recreation Area. Between the planes and the mosquitoes and the grief, I was miserable. And yet, when I look back on the year, that trip was one of the most thought-provoking.

My project evolved during the year. It still is about the future of the parks and issues such as technology, climate change and budgets. But it also is personal. It’s about how the parks are passed from generation to generation — and how, as we approach the centennial, that connection is as endangered as any species.

Thanks to the fellowship, I did broaden my journalistic horizons in a variety of ways. I reunited with my first journalism love (photojournalism) and experimented with something I’ve always loved from afar (sound). I took more than 10,000 photos and played NPR reporter-wannabe, recording about 100 hours of audio.

But while I was able to stick to my plans for reporting and exploring — from the top of Half Dome to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, from the noisy campsite in New York to an eerily silent one in a Hawaii volcano — one key part of the plan fell by the wayside during the year: writing.

I wrote a series of columns for my paper and blog posts for a website I created, including one that went sort of national park viral. (It was about my mom, my daughter and the book “Everybody Needs a Rock.”) But I always planned to take what I gathered and write a book.

I didn’t put that in my fellowship proposal. I had a hard time even saying the dreaded “b-word” out loud. Still do. But that is still the plan.

When I returned to my job at the paper, I told myself that I’d find time to work on the book. Maybe early in the morning or late at night. Maybe on weekends. It just wasn’t happening. So when my sisters and I recently sold my mom’s house, I decided to take my share and do something I’m sure many financial planners would say is a mistake. I’m taking an unpaid leave in 2014.

My roommate at the University of Missouri, now a sports columnist, received a Knight-Wallace Fellowship about 10 years ago. When we caught up recently, he described how he still has boxes of the material he gathered that year sitting in a corner. He always planned to write a book.

“I keep saying someday,” he said. “That’s kind of my white whale.”

I feel like I owe it to the fellowship, my mom and myself to not let this turn into my white whale, to finish what I started and write a book. There, I said it.

Now, if anyone knows an agent or publisher who might be interested in such a book, please let me know. Hey, it never hurts to ask, right? Just like it never hurts to apply for a fellowship. You might be surprised with the result.

Mark Woods is an editorial writer and columnist for the Florida Times-Union. During 2014 he’s on sabbatical to write about his experience in the national parks as part of his 2011 Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship. More on his project is at markwoods.us. Reach him at mawjax@gmail.com.

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