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License to explore – my alt-ac story and three top tips for professional Fulbright applicants

I have been asked a lot about how I ended up here in the US, working on a project on practical humanities. A huge thank you for that opportunity goes to the Fulbright Finland Foundation that is giving me a license to explore a new topic of interest at this point in my career. For any professionals in Finland looking to tweak their job settings, I can warmly recommend the ASLA-Fulbright Mid-Career Professional Program – at the point of writing this, the next application round is about to open!

Of course, the topic of practical humanities didn’t just appear out of thin air. Quite the opposite, I see it as an accumulation of all my previous job descriptions during the last 10+ years. And so I thought I would offer my full career story as an example of a pretty satisfying “academic adjacent”, “alt-ac”, or “third space” career path (the terms proliferate!) for any fresh PhDs out there searching their options.

After completing my PhD in 2010, it was quite clear to me that I wanted to take the professional path instead of the academic one. I started close to home, as the coordinator of my own doctoral program in gender studies, and from there got hired to a doctoral program in science and technology to develop, among other things, their transferable skills training. The way I see it, the interdisciplinary environment of gender studies together with the experience of working on the other side of the reputedly insurmountable SSH*/STEM** divide laid the groundwork for everything I have been doing since.

My expeditions into the world of knowledge exchange and societal impact of research began in 2012 at the Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki. In addition to facilitating doctoral education, one of my responsibilities was to set up research funding services to better support the academic faculty in securing external funding to their research. At that time, the term ”societal impact” started trending heavily in European research policy. As a result, no matter what the topic of your research, you had to include an impact statement in your funding application. Helping researchers figure this out for themselves was extremely rewarding, and since then, societal impact of humanities has been my passion.

As it turned out, however, my career path took a different turn, and I got a chance to set up a new service unit in support of doctoral education for the University of Helsinki, its 32 doctoral programs, and nearly 5000 doctoral researchers and their supervisors. During my time in this role, it became more and more evident that doctoral graduates need to be prepared for career pathways that go beyond academia. Enabling such career choices requires not only career guidance in the customary sense, and not only training in so-called transferable or “soft” skills, but capacity building on how to translate your hard-earned research expertise into a job description for non-academic sectors.

Little by little, these two themes – societal impact of humanities and the diversity of doctoral careers – began to twirl together in my head. I was itching to look at their intersections more closely, but my duties kept me busy elsewhere and there never seemed to be enough time.

And then I attended a higher education conference where the Fulbright Finland Foundation had their own booth, showcasing their scholarship programs. It turned out that their Mid-Career Professional Development Program was made to order for exactly my kind of people – people in professional roles at a mid-point of our career journeys, looking to pursue a project, further education, or training that would enhance both our professional development and our field at large.

I applied for the grant at the end of 2019 for a project that aimed at facilitating societal impact of the humanities – both in terms of research outcomes and doctoral careers. I was thrilled to get to the interview phase, and overjoyed at getting the actual award – and then Covid-19 interfered. I was supposed to start my grant period in November 2020, but campus closures and restrictions on immigration here in the US made that impossible. It was clear that I would have to postpone and, in practice, reapply.

In the meanwhile, I changed jobs within my home university to set up operations for our newly established collaboration within Una Europa – one of the European University alliances. I had been wanting to work in a more international role, and the European Universities were a terrific initiative to boost hands-on collaboration between European higher education institutions. Looking back, even if the delay to the grant period felt like a setback at the time, advancing an international partnership to facilitate joint teaching and learning in fact only added new layers to my project.

In the fall of 2021, I started to see signs of hope that I would finally get to start my scholarship period at the beginning of this year. And so I did, and for the last three and a half months I have been sharing my time between the University of Michigan and MIT.

I actually have an office at both universities, but in truth I haven’t spent that much time in either, as the hybrid work policy at both ends means that I would usually end up being there on my own. Instead, since meeting with people is at the very core of my project, I have sought to connect with people one-on-one. I have been meeting with numerous academics, grad students, and professionals both on campus and online, and the ease that we nowadays have of arranging online meetings has in fact made it easier to navigate the geographical distance between the two host universities.

In other ways, too, my project hasn’t gone exactly according to plan – but what projects ever do?

Due to the continuing situation with Covid-19, I have cut out all travel other than those between Ann Arbor and Boston but doing so has allowed me to integrate better with my host universities. I started my interviews with the academics instead of the knowledge transfer professionals as intended, but because of that I have been able to take a more critical look at my own presumptions. I was hoping to get to talk to academics and companies on their mutual collaboration, but for various reasons these connections are not very readily available. In their place, I have focused more on interdisciplinary collaboration and now see that as an integral element in the societal impact of scholarship in the humanities.

This week, we met with a fellow Fulbrighter in Boston. During an enthusiastic sharing of experiences over lunch, we came to acknowledge that the MCPD program is a pretty unique opportunity. And not just for us personally but for professionals in general, as programs like this are not that common. We agreed that the grant has offered both of us an occasion to take a new look at everything we have learned during our careers thus far – and most importantly, it has allowed us the time to explore where to go with that from here. At this stage of our careers, we have a lot to give but also a deeper understanding of how and where we want to make that contribution.

Having had this opportunity myself, I want to promote it for others, too. So, if you are looking for career enrichment and want to take a stab at doing it in the United States, here are my top-three tips on applying for the ASLA-Fulbright Mid-Career Development grant:

  1. Designing your project: Even if the grant is for your professional development, think of your project in a larger context. How will your project contribute to your profession or your field in general? Is there a larger problem or a knowledge need that your project will give answers to? How would it be of benefit to carry out the project in the US in particular? And what kinds of connections can you create between your home and host institutions, or between Finland and US more generally?
  2. Choosing your host university: Don’t just look at the big brands but spend time going through different options and choose the one that will be a best match to your specific project. I applied to the University of Michigan because of their strong commitment to the humanities, and to the MIT because their pioneering Program in Science, Technology, and Society answered my interdisciplinary interests. I have learned tremendously from both, but I’m also discovering that not all their practices will be easy to translate to a Finnish context.
  3. Approaching potential hosts: The closer the match between your project and the host unit, the easier it is to get a positive reply. I in fact tried first approaching the universities’ innovation and knowledge transfer units, but I see now that my focus on the humanities was not quite central enough to their interests. Instead, it turned out to be very well aligned with the interests and objectives of the two academic units that did offer me their invitation. Having said that, however, I must add this: people get so much email that don’t be deterred if you don’t hear back immediately. Keep your initial message as short and clear as possible but do send a follow-up after a few days or so.

And one more thing: Remember that time always goes faster than you think, so start planning early and be realistic with your project. It takes time to put together a strong application. Also, for the project itself. the better you can prepare beforehand, the easier it will be to get started with the work once your grant period begins. Even if it happens that you won’t immediately get the grant, the time that you spend preparing your project will help you figure out how you want to enhance your career regardless.

Of course – I for one had planned to start this blog as a calling card already before the official start of my project, but it turned out I just wasn’t ready for it. So instead of a calling card, it became a tool for me to document the evolution of my thinking during the course of the project itself. If you are interested to read more about that, you can start here. And if you are ready to know more about the ASLA-Fulbright Mid-Career Professional Development Program, please find out about the application deadline and specific instructions on the Fulbright Finland Foundation website!

*SSH – Social Sciences and Humanities
**STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

Original photo: stevepb by Pixabay