Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Overview


Eniola Ajao 22
History and Purpose: The Watson Foundation was founded in 1961 as a charitable trust in honor of Thomas J. Watson Sr., best known for building IBM, whose teams implemented the American social security system, guided the first human flight to the moon, and re-invented cancer treatment. In 1968, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship was launched, offering college graduates of "unusual promise" a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel in new international settings to foster their more humane and effective leadership in the world community. The Watson journey is a “solo” experience, to be lived independently but shared broadly with humanity. 

Margot Lurie 21 Award description: Grantees pursue a year-long project reflecting their passion for and commitment to a concern born of academic or personal interests. The project must take them to countries where they have no or little experience (less than four weeks). One awardee might spend six months each in two countries, and another may plan to stay for one month each in twelve. While fellows  should establish contacts ahead of time with local culture hosts, they must strive to maintain independence throughout the year. The project should not be dominated by formal research; rather, a Watson year is about personal transformation through international travel and interaction with the world’s people. While the project must be feasible and well-designed, the year is more about the person's transformation than the project itself.  A true “Watson” project will relish the chance to pursue a deeply personal interest without the constraints of institutional structure, research process, or professional expectations. All Watsons participate in a conference at the end of the travel year, where they present on their journeys.

COVID-19 NOTE:  Those awarded in March 2021 were offered a deferral of up to a year. Under normal circumstances, however, deferrals are not an option. 

  globe with flags Award stipulations: Grantees must not return to the United States or their home country during the year, and must follow Watson guidelines regarding countries and regions within countries where travel is considered dangerous. Generally speaking, travel to countries with Level 3 or 4 status is prohibited. Applicants should check individual country pages on the U.S. State Department website, as well as the Treasury Embargo, and CDC Level 3 list. Many countries are currently at Level 3 or 4 due to Covid-19. If there are no reasons beyond the pandemic that the country would be off-limits, you may include it in your itinerary.

Funding details: Awardees receive a 12-month stipend of up to $36,000, meant to cover living and project expenses, and travel to and from the U.S. or other country of origin. Up to $1,000 of the stipend may be used toward the purchase of “capital equipment” necessary to the project. Keep this budget in mind when planning your itinerary; it cannot be supplemented with private funds. Unused funds are returned to the foundation at the end of the year. Additional support includes health insurance reimbursement (up to $500), domestic travel funds to attend the returning fellows conference, enrollment in comprehensive travel and risk management services, and student loan (institutional and federally guaranteed) assistance program for qualified applicants for the year of the project.

Eligibility: Applicants may be from any country or academic discipline; be seniors; have strong academic standing (but there is no GPA minimum); possess qualities such as passion, vision, intention, independence, resourcefulness, courage, leadership, responsibility; and emotional maturity. 

Ideal Candidate: The Watson Foundation evaluates candidates on Person, Project, and Fit. 


Read this description of the selection criteria to evaluate your "fit" for the fellowship. (The director of fellowships can help evaluate this, too.)

How to Apply:

Read this and the Watson application page, then request an appointment with the director of fellowships at least a few months before the internal application deadline.  You will be registered in the Watson online application portal where you can enter your application materials and register recommenders. In the summer, you will plan your project, reach out to contacts, and write your essays. Complete the application with recommendations by the internal deadline above (you do not actually submit it at this time). Your application will be reviewed first by a staff committee for first round selection, then a faculty committee who will conduct interviews. The Committee chooses up to four nominees to present to Watson. Nominees will revise their materials for final submission. After the director of fellowships uploads a nomination letter, nominees will submit their applications. A representative from Watson will visit campus to interview the four nominees between November to February, or conduct them virtually. 
Endorsement: Amherst may nominate four candidates to Watson. Up to 40 Watson winners are named annually.

For Recommenders:

The Watson recommendation is atypical! Before agreeing to recommend a candidate, please read the overview above as well as this sample form to see whether you know enough about the student's personal qualities to complete it. Sometimes, a conversation with the applicant about their experiences and how they see themselves as a fit will be informative. Ask applicants for a draft of their essays. If you agree to recommend the student, you will receive an email from the Watson application system with a link to access an online version of the above form. Your recommendation is one of only two for this application and is critical to the endorsement decision. Submit it by October 7, 2021 so that the campus committees can use it to evaluate the applicant. We can retrieve it from the portal.  

Questions? Contact:
Christine Overstreet, Director of Fellowships
212 Converse Hall, 413-542-2536,                             
Office of Fellowships, 213 Converse Hall, Amherst College, Amherst, MA 01002

AC Watson Winners: In the past 50 years, Amherst has had over 90 Watson winners. Recent Fellows include Eniola Ajao '21 and Margot Lurie '21 (pictured above), Patrick Frenett in 2019, Mohamed Ramy in 2018, Tomal Hossain, JinJin Xu, and Sheila Chukwulozie in 2017, and Aleksandra (Sasha) Burshteyn and Ben Walker in 2016.