Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Overview

Mohamed Ramy, 2018 Watson Fellow History and Purpose: The Watson Foundation was founded in 1961 as a charitable trust by Mrs. Jeannette K. Watson, in honor of her late husband, Thomas J. Watson Sr., best known for building IBM from its formation in 1914 until his passing in 1956. Now over a century old, IBM’s teams implemented the American social security system, guided the first human flight to the moon, and re-invented cancer treatment. The Thomas J. Watson Research Center includes twelve labs on six continents and has produced six Nobel Laureates.  In 1968, the Watson children created the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to focus the foundation’s work. The program’s goal – which has remained unchanged – was to provide graduating college students with a year to “explore with thoroughness a particular interest, test their aspirations and abilities, view their lives and American society in greater perspective and, concomitantly, develop a more informed sense of international concern." The philosophy behind the fellowship is to remove oneself from the comfort and stability of Home, exploring the world selectively in pursuit of a passion, and discover along the way one’s potential for humane and effective participation in the world community. The Watson journey is a “solo” experience, to be lived independently but shared broadly with humanity. This is the “Spirit of the Watson.”

Award description: Grantees pursue a year-long project reflecting their passion for and commitment to a specific concern, which may stem from academic or personal interests. The project must take them to countries with which they have no or very little experience (less than four weeks) through living or study abroad. The number of countries visited and the duration of stay varies widely. One awardee might spend six months each in two countries, and another may plan to stay for one month each in twelve. While fellows do and 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. It is more about the person than the project, and while the plan for exploration should be feasible in terms of subject matter, preparation, funding, contacts and skill set, it should challenge the grantee in transformative ways. A true “Watson” project will capitalize on the opportunity to pursue a deeply personal interest without the constraints of institutional structure, research process, or professional expectations.

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 are 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.

Funding details: Awardees receive a 12-month stipend of up to $36,000, meant to cover living and project expenses, as well as travel to and from the United States or other country of origin at the beginning and end of the fellowship year. Up to $1,000 of the stipend may be used toward the purchase of “capital equipment” necessary to the project. In planning their itinerary, candidates must keep in mind the cost of living in and traveling to each destination. Awardees are not allowed to supplement their budget for the year with private funds, so they must plan a project that is feasible with $36,000. Any un-used funds at the end of the fellowship year are returned to the foundation. Additional support includes health insurance reimbursement (up to $500), domestic travel funds to attend the returning fellows conference and, a student loan assistance program for qualified applicants for the year of the project.

Eligibility: Applicants must have/be citizens of any country; graduating seniors from a participating Watson institution; from any discipline; in strong academic standing (but there is no GPA minimum); and possess qualities such as passion, vision, intention, independence, resourcefulness, courage, leadership, responsibility; and emotional maturity. They must be able to attend the Watson Conference in August at the end of their year of travel. The Watson Foundation provides this description of an ideal Watson Fellow.

Application components: Application components are described in detail on the Watson Application page.

How to apply: Candidates apply through the Amherst campus process during their senior year. Interested candidates should request an appointment with the Director of Fellowships at least a few months before the internal application deadline. They may then expect to receive guidance and feedback on the application. The Director will register you in the Watson online application portal. There you will enter all of your application materials and register recommenders. To be considered, you must complete the application and have all required materials uploaded, as well as recommendations, by the initial internal deadline - OCT 7, 2019 at noon. After that time, AC fellowships staff will draw a pdf of your application from the portal. Note that you do not, and indeed cannot, submit the application at that time.

After noon on the 7th, AC fellowships staff will draw a pdf of your application from the portal. All applications are read and a selected number of candidates are invited to interview with the Faculty Committee on Student Fellowships. After interviews are completed, the Committee chooses up to four nominees to present to Watson. The nominees will be able to revise their materials before the final AC submission date. The Director of Fellowships uploads the nomination letter, then the nominees must submit their applications. A representative from Watson will come to campus to interview the nominees sometime between November to February. What's in the application? Read these detailed Watson Application instructions. Endorsement: Amherst may nominate four candidates to Watson. Nationally, up to 40 Watson candidates are named fellows each year.

For Recommenders:

The Watson recommendation is not a typical recommendation letter. Before agreeing to recommend a Watson candidate, please read the Overview on the Watson above, then review this sample form to determine whether you feel you know enough about the candidate's personal qualities to complete it fully. For some questions, a conversation with the applicant about their experiences and reflections on how they feel they exemplify Watson's desired qualities will be helpful. Applicants should also give you a draft of application essays. Do not complete the above sample form. Instead, you will receive an email from the Watson application system with a link to access an online version of the form. Your recommendation is one of only two for this application and is critical to the endorsement decision. Please submit the form by October 7, 2019 so that the campus committee will be able to review it along with the candidate's application materials.

Foundation website:

Questions? Contact:
Christine Overstreet, Director of Fellowships
212 Converse Hall, 413-542-2536,
Carter McClintock, Fellowships Specialist
213 Converse Hall, 413-542-5079,                                   
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 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.