Start Exploring Fellowships Early

BY ERIN ARCHERD

This is the second article in a series on public interest fellowships available to HLS students. In this installment, Fellowships Director Judy Murciano shares tips on how to begin and focus the fellowship search.

Judy Murciano, Fellowships Director for the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising, has an uncanny ability to listen. Not only does she hear what students say to her, she reads the silence and draws out questions from that silence to guide students toward self-realization. Combine that with the enthusiasm of a summer camp counselor, encyclopedic knowledge, and connections with the directors of some of the nation’s most coveted fellowships, and you have a formidable ally in the fellowship application process.

Murciano focuses on getting to know the individual student and helping him find the best fellowships to meet his goals, rather than having students try to fit into a preconceived notion of what fellowships are seeking.

“Although [OPIA] publish[es] guides with hundreds of fellowships, at then end of the day it’s about one on one counseling,” said Murciano. “There are so many subtle twists and turns. I don’t want to have someone tailor themselves to the fellowship.”

It’s never too early to start thinking about the process of applying, and, more important in Murciano’s eyes, to start reflecting on the areas that motivate you to excel and the areas in which you would like to acquire skills. For 1Ls, she recommends focusing not on what you can or cannot do, but on what you would like to be able to do.

“I want students to get past ‘I’m not sure what I want to do,’ to what they enjoy doing and the special talents [needed] to be able to do it, and what they can’t do now that they would like to do.”

She acknowledges that many 1Ls genuinely are not sure why they are in law school, but encourages them to explore what will make them feel accomplished and to interact with professors. Moreover, students can take advantage of all the opportunities available university-wide.

“In a typical week I’ll talk to several students about learning a new language,” Murciano said. “I remind 1Ls that they’re in a fortunate position and not to think narrowly about the curriculum. Even just speaking to people [helps,] and you don’t have to register for a class to speak to someone at the business school.”

It can be valuable to start early since there are some fellowships – such as the Marshall and Rhodes that allow study in the United Kingdom – that are often only open to first year students. There are also fellowships that can help fund students’ graduate education, including the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, for students whose parents were both born outside the United States; the Liebmann Fellowship for graduate studies, including law; the Zuckerman Fellowship, for Harvard students pursuing an MBA, JD or MD who want to study at the Graduate School of Education, Kennedy School of Government or the School of Public Health; and the Reynolds Fellowship for study at the GSE, Kennedy School, or School of Public Health.

Likewise, for 2Ls, Murciano watches for windows of opportunity that might be lost. These often include traveling fellowships like those offered by Harvard or the Fulbright and Rotary fellowships. At the same time, graduates can apply to other fellowships, like the Skadden, from a clerkship, and that might give students time to do some traveling or explore other areas before they start applying for fellowships.

“You can do traveling and clerkship abroad and apply for fellowships that require clerkship. You just have to be aware of the stipulations.”

Prior planning is key for having a wide range of choices and Murciano urges any 2L interested in fellowships to see her before leaving for the summer, key planning time for fellowship applications.

“Please don’t leave for the summer without talking to me,” she requested. “If you’re going after any fellowships that come due in the early fall, we have to plan a lot of this out in the spring. I’m constantly on the phone with people during the summer.”

It’s critical for 2Ls to attend the fellowship information meetings, if only as a means of networking with the heads of fellowship organizations. Murciano thinks 1Ls can also benefit from the opportunity to learn more about these organizations.

“I bring in the heads of all the major fellowships, but don’t be intimidated. Take advantage. The next time you write a cover letter, you can start by saying you enjoyed meeting them on campus. There is already a connection.”

Murciano sees her role as a matchmaker in the fellowship process.

“I’m fortunate in all the wonderful students and heads of foundations,” she said. “I’m drawing my friends together. Friendships and credibility I’ve built up can benefit the match between students here and those fellowships.”

For 2Ls who feel they won’t have a shot at fellowships if they work for a law firm, Murciano points out that students can split summers. Students can also split between two public interest positions if they want exposure to different interest or geographic areas. She stresses that summers are about freedom, not constraining yourself to one position.

Even 3Ls are not out of luck. There is a team of staff at OPIA, who will make sure that students can pursue public interest work at any time. Murciano recommends doing some homework about fellowship options and areas you’re interested in, and then making an appointment to speak with Alexa Shabecoff, Director of OPIA.

“She makes wonderful marriages everyday with students. No one should bank on a fellowship, but Alexa will make sure no one falls through the cracks. As a team, we work incredibly well together brainstorming for each student. We ensure you’re being watched on each front.”

It’s not about competition between students. By working to suit each student’s individual needs and to have students support each other, everyone presents a better application to fellowship organizations.

“It has invariably been the case that the community supports one another even going after the same fellowship. Last year with Equal Justice two students with similar backgrounds both went to the same organization in Chicago. It is all about mutual interest and it works well.”

As for those students who think they need to be academic superstars to score a fellowship, Murciano wishes she could show them the transcripts of past recipients. Some fellowships, such as Equal Justice Works, make a point of not taking transcripts at all.

“People think it’s about walking on water. The point is distinguishing yourself as an individual. Nobody has had your experience in life,” she said. “It’s not about convention. When it comes to public interest, it’s all about the non-lemming. It’s about being motivated by something distinct to the way you feel, and think, and have experienced life”

Future installments will include interviews with fellowship recipients and overviews of some of many fellowships available to HLS students.

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