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The six most common Fellowship questions, answered by Facebook Fellow Moses Namara

Since 2013, the Facebook Fellowship Program has supported bright and talented PhD students from around the world who are engaged in innovative research. Applications are now open and we invite PhD students to apply for the upcoming 2021 Fellowship cohort.

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In preparation for this next round of applications, we connected with Moses Namara, 2020 Fellow in Privacy and Data Use, to learn more about his experience applying to become a Fellow.

Namara is a PhD candidate in human-centered computing at Clemson University, advised by Dr. Bart Knijnenburg on privacy decision-making research. Namara first became involved in the Facebook Fellowship Program in 2017, when he won the Emerging Scholar Award. Before returning to Clemson for the 2020–2021 academic year, he completed a summer internship at Facebook on the UX Research team.

In this Q&A, Namara offers advice about writing a research statement, navigating the application process, being a Facebook Fellow, and knowing whether you’re qualified to apply.

Q: How did you decide on a research topic for your research statement?

Moses Namara: My decision was driven by my research interests, prior work, and what research questions I wanted to address. This process involved doing a literature review of the research topic to learn what others had done and identify existing gaps that I could address. However, this was done in relation to one or more of the available Fellowships listed on the Facebook Fellowship page.

To ensure that my topic was applicable to Facebook, I read blog posts and articles relevant to areas where my research topic could apply. Based on what I learned from this process, I came up with a plan, which I shared with my academic adviser and peers to ensure that it was both applicable to Facebook and academically feasible to do. After this feedback, I started drafting my research statement. In a nutshell, I identified a research topic based on a combination of my research interests, skill set, the importance of the topic to my research field, and its applicability to Facebook.

Q: What are some questions that I should try to answer while writing my research statement?

MN: For a concrete research statement, there are four key questions that you should try to answer in one or two sentences before you write out a full-fledged statement:

  1. What are you trying to do?
  2. How is it done today, and what are the limits of the current practice?
  3. What’s new in your approach, and why do you think it will be successful?
  4. Who cares about it? If you are successful, what difference will it make?

Thinking hard about these questions will help sharpen your ideas and hopefully help you produce a quality research statement.

Q: What advice would you provide with regard to the application process?

MN: Start to work on your research statement early enough so that you can receive feedback and continue to iterate on it up to a point where you are confident and happy with it.

Ensure that your final research statement is well written, grammatically correct, concise, and easy to read and comprehend, especially for people who may not be as familiar with your area of research.

Make sure that you get recommendations from someone familiar with your work, and ask for them well in advance. This will give the recommenders ample time to write high-quality recommendations for you, which they can’t do at the last minute.

Feel free to reach out to past Fellows; they are always happy to share their experiences and provide tips on how to go about the process. Ask them if they are able to review and provide feedback on your statement if they have the time. This can be an opportunity to hear from someone who has gone through the process, and also to get better insight about the Fellowship.

To help make your research applicable to Facebook, read some of the research that they have published within your area, read their research blog to identify new products or research challenges they are trying to address, and read the Fellowship FAQs in case you have any questions.

Q: What are the other benefits of this Fellowship, apart from the stipend and tuition award?

MN: The greatest benefit is the network that you would be able to form with other Fellows — especially within your cohort. These students come from some of the top universities in the world and are people who could potentially end up as your friends or collaborators.

Another benefit is being invited to the annual Facebook Fellowship Summit, where you get to meet and interact with some of the smartest people in technology who work at Facebook. This is an advantage because graduate school not only involves conducting high-quality research but also requires the ability to network and champion your work if it is to be known and/or impactful. The Summit is virtual this year, but it’s still a good opportunity to connect.

The Fellowship also allows us the freedom to work on any research project we choose, as opposed to one that needs to be funded.

Lastly, the conference funds help you to attend conferences you might be interested in whether you have a paper at those conferences or not, thus offering you an opportunity to network, and meet and interact with other people within or outside of your research area.

These are all great benefits just beyond the financial help. It is also important to note that the internship/employment process is separate from the Fellowship.

Q: What are some of the things you can expect from being a Facebook Fellow?

MN: Beyond the monetary compensation, you can expect to meet highly intelligent, passionate students just like yourself at the annual Fellowship Summit (whether it’s virtual or not). At the Summit, you are likely to meet recruiters and people who work in industry on applying the same concepts within your research area.

The Facebook Fellowship is a big opportunity for you as a graduate student. As with every opportunity, it is up to you to make the best of it. There is nothing extra expected of you, and your research agenda is driven entirely by you, without any external influence or expectation from Facebook. Actually, that freedom puts the onus on you — to make the best of this opportunity to further your career or next step, in and out of graduate school.

Q: How can I tell if I’m qualified?

MN: Anyone eligible to apply is qualified. It doesn’t matter if you go to a lesser-known university: As long as it’s accredited, you qualify. It doesn’t matter if you are from a developing nation: As long as you are attending university, you qualify. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing research in something like engineering or psychology: As long as it’s related to one or more of the Fellowships that are available, you qualify.

I encourage you to apply regardless of the background you come from, whether you are enrolled in a university located in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, or North America. Even if you are at the South Pole — if you are an eligible PhD student, you are qualified and should apply! It is very easy to do so since you do not have to go through your university. If at first you don’t succeed, then try again the next year. Your application will keep improving each time.

As a graduate student, you’re poised to become a researcher or an independent scientist who will have to work to get your research ideas funded. My advice is to take the opportunity now, because participating in the application process means you gain experience writing a research plan/proposal — something that not all graduate students explicitly get to do during the course of their studies.

The most important tip I have is that you do submit your application — and on time!

To learn more about Namara’s background, research interests, publications, and speaking experiences, visit his webpage.

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