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Applying twice: How Facebook Fellow David Pujol adjusted his application for success

The Facebook Fellowship Program supports promising PhD students conducting research in areas related to computer science and engineering. Each year, thousands of PhD students apply to become a Facebook Fellow, and only a handful are selected. To prepare for the end of this year’s application cycle on October 1, we reached out to 2020 Fellow David Pujol to offer some insight for those who may not succeed the first time they apply.

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Pujol is a PhD student at Duke University, advised by Ashwin Machanavajjhala. His research interests lie in the fields of data privacy and algorithmic fairness. Pujol, like other Fellows we’ve chatted with, applied to become a Facebook Fellow in 2018 and was unsuccessful. In 2019, he applied again — and won.

In this Q&A, Pujol tells us about his first approach to his Fellowship application, what changed the second time, what he spent the most time on in his applications, and more.

Q: How did you approach your Fellowship application the first time you applied?

David Pujol: When I first applied, my goal was to impress the reviewers. I tried — in my opinion, unsuccessfully — to make my research sound like some grand project that would change how we view data. In reality, it wasn’t that. I ended up writing a confusing, unfocused, and overly technical piece that failed to convey the information that I wanted it to.

I eventually learned that most projects don’t need to be major, paradigm-changing work. In fact, most are small steps in the right direction.

Q: How did you approach your application the second time around, when you won?

DP: The second time around, I was more process-oriented, and I focused less on making my research look more impressive or more important than it already was. I decided to instead highlight what my research was and why I thought it was important. That meant toning things down — everything from the technical points to the overall vision. Where my first attempt ended with a grand vision of my research, my second attempt highlighted a system that solves a practical problem that has been given little attention.

One of my primary goals was to write in a way that my family (with no technical background) could read my proposal and understand three things: the problem being addressed, why it was important, and why my system was an effective answer.

Q: What made you want to approach things differently?

DP: I think the primary difference was having more experience and more confidence. When I wrote my first proposal, I was completely new to the ins and outs of academia — at least in this field. The second time around, I had a better understanding of how the system at large worked and, more important, I had a bit more confidence in my research. I more fully understood the role my work played and why it was important. I felt better writing about those aspects of the research and didn’t feel the need to overstate their value.

Q: What did you spend the most time on for each application?

DP: Editing, editing, and editing. The first draft of my second application was five pages long. (I think it goes without saying that it was past the word limit.) I asked people to help me edit that draft until it was in a condition that I thought satisfied my standards.

First, I sent my research statement to my adviser, mainly to make sure it was coherent and had no egregious errors. I then edited it myself while taking into consideration the points my adviser had brought up. Then I sent it to one of my friends who had a technical background but not at the PhD level. I asked him to edit so that the draft could be understood by most people, and to make sure nothing went too deep into technicalities. Again, I edited it myself afterwards.

The last round of editing came from my wife, who has no technical background. She adjusted it so that the messaging was clear. We made sure that if I took out everything describing my research, the reader could still tell that there was a problem that needed to be solved and that the solution given addressed that problem and not something else.

I also can’t stress enough how important it is to give yourself some time before editing. It is difficult to be self-critical, especially when you have just finished writing something. Having some time in between edits helps clear up your mind and gives you time to acknowledge your own mistakes.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who doesn’t win the first time they apply?

DP: Just because you didn’t get the fellowship the first time doesn’t mean that your work isn’t relevant enough or that you don’t “deserve it.” It’s always worth trying again once you have some more research experience under your belt. The difference between a good application and a bad one could just be the way you approach things. It might not have anything to do with the research itself. However, it’s different for everyone, so I suggest doing some research to figure out where you could improve.

For me, both of my proposals were about the same project. The only difference is how I went about presenting it.

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