What it takes to become a Knauss Fellow

This was originally going to be a standalone post, but it fits in nicely with my series on leaving academia so I folded it into the mix as Part 0.5. 

For those of you how pay close attention to our blog, I am currently not an academic. Upon receiving my Ph.D. in ecology, I transitioned into the world of science policy. This is relatively uncommon in the circles in which I run, but not necessarily with my group of Knauss Fellows. Honestly, I am somewhat the outlier as I had no policy experience prior to becoming a Fellow. So I’ve mentioned the Knauss Fellowship numerous times on the blog, but I’ve never really explained the process and what it takes to become a Fellow (and why some of you out there should look into it as a post-graduate school option). So, for your consideration, the process of becoming a Knauss Fellow.

Host State/Consortium
The Knauss Fellowship is provided by Sea Grant, a NOAA affiliate. If you’re not familiar with Sea Grant and do any sort of work related to oceans or the Great Lakes, you really need to check them out. Roughly each coastal state has a Sea Grant program (some of the Gulf states make up the Gulf Coast Consortium). In order to become a Fellow, you must first apply to your state Sea Grant (if you live in an interior state like I did, you usually pick a program based on closest geography, or in my case, where you were raised).

The Fellowship is unlike many grants that we see in academia. While it’s similar in some of the required materials (letters of rec, abbreviated CV, personal statement), the emphases put on each of these items is a little different (more on this later).

The selection process takes place in two parts: 1) at the state or consortium level, and 2) at the national level. Depending on the state program, up to 6 candidates are chosen from each program to make it to the national level. Honestly, some programs are more competitive than others, so those who have the opportunity to pick their program may be at a little bit of an advantage. Being at a land-locked university, I was one of these individuals. With a nod to my home state, I applied to the program through Pennsylvania Sea Grant (thanks to that small tip that touches Lake Erie).

Every state program is also different in how they make their selections to pass on to the national level. Some require phone/Skype interviews, some face-to-face, some require none at all. I fell into the latter category. A few months after I submitted my application I received an email notification that my application was moved on to the national level. I think that state programs can pass on up to 4-5 fellows, but it depends on the size of the program and the number of applicants. Smaller programs like PA usually pass on 1-2, while bigger programs such as MD pass on 4-5.

Once the states make their decisions, a selection board is formed at the national level. I was fortunate enough to be on the board this past year to pick the class of 2015. The panel is made up of current/former fellows, Sea Grant directors from different states, board members, and headquarter employees. I’m not going to get into the specifics of the week-long panel – lets just say that the process is incredibly civil and fair. Members of the panel have very disparate backgrounds and focus on different parts of the applications, ensuring that candidates are incredibly well-rounded. The cutoff for number of fellows is anywhere between 48-52 (this year is 52 I believe, the largest class ever). Fellows are placed in ether the Legislative (N=10, to be placed in the office of a Congressperson, Senator, or on a Committee) or Executive (N=38-42, to be placed at a federal agency) Branch.

Placement Week

Once the selections are made, fellows are invited to D.C. for placement week. At this point, all fellows are ensured placement, they just do not know exactly where they will spend the year.

Placement week is insane, there is not a more scientific way of putting it. Basically, it’s like the Knauss version of med school match. Fellows arrive in D.C. on Sunday evening and participate in a giant meet-and-greet. Everyone is excited and full of energy, unaware that they won’t sleep for the next week.

The Monday of placement week is the roughest day. The way the fellowship works is that there are more available offices than fellows, in both the legislative and executive branches. On the legislative side, there are anywhere between 15-20 (usually) offices and 10 fellows. On the executive side, there are around 50-55 offices for 40 fellows. Monday is when all the offices provide pitches to the fellows about why they would want to work with them during their tenure as a fellow. Legislative fellows usually have the option of going democrat or republican, or serving in an office or on a committee. With executive fellows, most of the options are at NOAA (not surprising since Sea Grant is in NOAA). Other offices may include Fish and Wildlife Service (my placement), USGS, DOE, Dept. of State, Army Corps, EPA, as well as a few others and potential joint positions. All of these agencies, specifically the offices within them that are looking for fellows, give 10 minute pitches over the course of Monday. 50+ for the executive fellows, 15+ for the legislative. It is an exhausting day of information overload.

After the deluge of information, Tuesday is when the interviews begin. On Tuesday morning, the fellows assemble and schedule which offices they would like to interview with over the next few days. There is some strategy here geographically speaking; most people do a “NOAA day” where they schedule all their NOAA interviews so that they do not have to leave Maryland. Similarly, fellows might schedule a day for agencies/offices that are downtown. Once scheduling is complete, interviews being on Tuesday afternoon.

Interviews are 30 minutes and with anywhere from 1-6 people, depending on the office and position. Fellows are encouraged to interview with at least 15 offices – some do upwards of 20. Fellows are told prior to beginning their interviews, “they want you more than you want them”. The thought process for this is that there are more offices than fellows, so every fellow gets placed but not every place gets a fellow. This “need” to get a fellow is not entirely evident in the interviews, but it is at the happy hours.

Arguably the most important part of placement week is the happy hours. Every night, incoming fellows meet with potential offices and former fellows, who are trying aggressively to recruit them into their offices. Offices are instructed not to really recruit, but it never works that way. Placement week is a week of not eating, surviving on caffeine and alcohol. Resourceful fellows bring along cliff bars to snack on, or get to the happy hours first and grab a bite before offices arrive.

Interviews span from Tuesday afternoon to Thursday morning. On Thursday afternoon, fellows must call back their 3 top offices to let them know where they stand. The idea behind this is to help offices, who may interview upwards of half the class, make some decisions based on who really wants to be in the position. This is awkward and I have found nothing like it that really exists elsewhere. Even more awkward is the Thursday night happy hour. There, fellows are courted by their “top 3” while trying to avoid the offices they didn’t call back. Most fellows find a way to sneak out of the happy hour early to get some rest and collect their thoughts (I was guilty of this). At the end of the evening, offices rank the fellows in order of those who they would want to work with over the next year.

Friday morning is the big day. Fellows are assembled in a room where sheets from each office ranking the fellows are laid out before them. Everyone can see where everyone else ranked. This is daunting and humbling for many people, it was for me. But, it’s actually genius. The idea is that if a fellow is at the top of a list and wants that position, then they take it and cross their name off every other list, allowing other fellows to move up in rank. The process usually takes 2-3 hour. In that time, fellows converse among one another and posture in the most civil way possible. For example, about half way through the process during my selection process, I was 2nd on two lists, right behind the same fellow on both. She and I sat down and chatted about which of the two positions we liked, and it turned out we liked different ones. She chose hers which bumped me up to chose mine. Win/win!

Finally, after everything is said and done, fellows meet with their new offices on Friday afternoon to sign some paperwork and make everything official. With signature(s) in hand, fellows return to NOAA, hand everything in, and are reaffirmed with the fact that they have a place of employment. After a year of stress, anticipation, fellows can rest easy knowing that their future (at least for the next year) is secure.

A couple months later the fellowship begins and everything is crazy once again.


One thought on “What it takes to become a Knauss Fellow

  1. Hi – thanks for these great posts! I’m a graduate student studying polar biological oceanography in CA. I’m about midway through my program and increasingly interested in transitioning more towards policy. I’m really interested in the Knauss fellowship and appreciate your insight.

    You mentioned that you had relatively little policy experience in your graduate degree (I am similar). In that case, what is your advice for making an application stand out? Is there any advice of things to pursue that you would give to someone hoping to get this fellowship who still has a few more years of grad school left? (e.g. specific class experience, fellowships, involvement, opportunities etc)

    Thanks so much!

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