NDSEG fellowship result
Applying for a fellowship is sort of like creating a time capsule. The lag between when you submit it and when you hear anything back can be 6 or more months, long enough that you’ve completely forgotten that you applied. Or at the very least it isn’t at the forefront of your brain anymore. I’ve kept an eye on my application sporadically, I know people who check weekly and I’m sure there are plenty who don’t check at all until the results are sent out. It’s a slow motion car crash, you hope for the best, but it’s no longer in your control.
First off, if you’ve applied for NDSEG, I wish you the best of luck! Results are coming out now so you should be hearing back (hint, if you check your application status it will tell you if you don’t want to wait).
For me, the dream is DARPA. No, I don’t plan on building weapons or anything like that. I don’t think my heart could handle that kind of responsibility, but I do want to build prosthetics. When it comes to funding long-shots they do it best (in my option), so working with DARPA has always been my end goal. I mean it’s only been… wow almost 15 years since I started that journey. Maybe I’ll hit it, maybe I won’t, maybe I’ll have a new dream when the time comes. I can’t predict the future and frankly I don’t know that I would want to know where I end up. What I do know is that no matter what happens, you miss every shot you don’t take, so I took another shot at NDSEG.
The National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate fellowship or NDSEG fellowship for short is a DoD (department of defense) funded fellowship to promote research in areas of interest to the military. Since my rehabilitation and recovery interests have always overlapped with the military I was more than a little excited to get the chance to apply. My first application wasn’t strong and I wasn’t selected, but looking back on it, that is not a huge surprise.
I guess we could start this story at the beginning, why not?
Once upon a time, a very young me had just got out of the military. It was a whirlwind and I didn’t leave by choice, I was hurt and they can’t use someone who is injured. So one day I woke up a civilian in a studio apartment with a second hand bed, no civilian clothing, and basically nothing to my name. When I decided being discarded wasn’t a good experience and I wanted to change that for people, I looked into what the government was doing to help veterans and that’s when I discovered DARPA’s revolutionizing prosthetics program, which had basically just kicked off when I had gotten out. I reached out to the head of the program and he was surprisingly kind enough to respond and thus unknowingly started me on the journey I’m still on to this day.
I haven’t got the chance to thank him in person, but I’ve worked with colleagues of his and they all agree when I tell that story that is exactly the kind of person he is, kind and responsive. You don’t always get that lucky. More often than not emails go unanswered and you definitely don’t usually get a phone call from someone that senior. Yet I did and while the call only lasted maybe half an hour it was life changing.
The journey wasn’t a straight line and it certainly wasn’t short. My undergrad was a struggle while I adjusted to civilian life. I’m going to gloss over the details quite a bit, but the short version is simple. Two years into my undergrad degree I tried to kill myself, was found by friends, and basically failed every class I took for two years after that. When I finally got back to solid ground my GPA went from almost a 4.0 to just over 2.0 (on a 4.0 scale). I managed to bring it back up to almost a respectable ~3.0 and I haven’t had problems with my GPA since.
However, in academia that follows you around. So much so that when I applied to PhD programs, I had been informed by one of the people in charge (after following up) that there was a good chance they didn’t even read my application because my undergrad GPA was not competitive. They didn’t read my story, they didn’t care why, they just saw someone who failed to overcome things enough to not let a little thing like suicide keep him from getting good grades. You are told that your letter of intent is the great equalizer, that it’s your chance to explain why things like that happened, but I can promise you that is a lie.
I’ve managed since then and I’m obviously in a PhD program now so it all worked out in the end (mostly). Which brings me to the NDSEG results. My application was rejected. NDSEG is somewhat unique in that they don’t tell you why, you can’t ask, and they specifically tell you to not email for answers. You just get a polite email saying you were not selected and better luck next year. There won’t be a next year for me, NDSEG limits you to your first two years in your program (not in a PhD degree, big distinction for anyone thinking of applying). If I had to guess, I was rejected because my undergrad GPA has come back to haunt me, but it could be for a lot of different reasons and it doesn’t matter why.
I’m not going to lie though it hurts. It feels like all the air was sucked out of the room and I don’t think rejection will ever stop hurting. You get told you get used to it, but from twitter and other academics who are much further along in their career it is obvious that isn’t the case. I mean why shouldn’t it hurt? You put yourself out there, you do the work, you fight to get it because you want it so badly. It’s going to hurt, it should hurt, and if it didn’t you need to ask yourself if you really wanted it in the first place.
This was just one of several funding chances for me. It was probably my best shot though and now I’m not sure what fall will have for me. Being without funding means taking on projects for my main-PI that have funding attached to them, which also means stepping away from the work I want to be doing.
My life in general hasn’t been easy and it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. I don’t regret the choices I’ve made I want to help people and that has always driven me to keep going even when everything is telling me it would be easier to just stop. The work continues I guess, while the future is uncertain there are still options for me before my funding runs out, hopefully one of them will work out.
It’s been a long journey and I wish I could share a victory with all of you. Maybe next time, but I do want to thank you all in taking this journey with me. It may be a long hard road, but at least I’m not alone.