Advice for Einstein applicants

My 2015 Einstein Fellowship has come to an end, and (after a writing retreat in Donegal, full of clouds and seawaves and newborn lambs) I prepare to take up a new job at the University of Oslo on April 1. But April 15 is the deadline for the next Einstein Fellowship, and messages arrive via all sorts of media — Facebook, LinkedIn, Academia — with requests for advice. Unfortunately, replying personally to all of them is a bit unrealistic. So here is a compilation of some of the most common questions I have seen.

“Of Murder and Memory: An Unfinished Story from Post-War Ukraine” — the publication that resulted from this fellowship: The King’s Review (2018)

This may sound absurd, but it belongs to the basics: it would make sense to prepare by reading the official call for applications (CfA). As with any announcement, it will have some useful information. Plus, the list of past fellows at the very bottom of the page offers a sense of projects the Einstein Forum has already supported.

Given that this fellowship, in the spirit of Albert Einstein’s own work, is designed for “a project in a different field from that of previous research”, what constitutes such a project? I would say: an undertaking that you can (a) defend as stimulating and relevant, and (b) work on steadily, with some fruitfulness, over the course of six months. In other words, it isn’t necessarily required to complete everything during your stay, but it is expected that your concluding talk will be of substance. Ideally, the concept of this project has been on your mind for a while, and now is the chance to make it happen — beyond the restrictive framework of your current field of specialization.

It may help to know that shortlisted candidates are interviewed not by one, not by two, or three or four Einstein Forum representatives, but more or less by the entire Board of Advisors (plus the regular Staff — but see Mischa’s comment below). This is because these interviews take place via Skype during the annual Board meeting in June. So you’ll see a room full of accomplished folk on your screen. One needs to interest them and convince them. This does not mean you must have all your future answers ready, but it does mean that there needs to be some potential for finding some of these answers during your time with the Forum.

The application timeline works as follows: you apply by mid-April, shortlisted candidates are interviewed in June, and the selected person — who is informed rather quickly, usually via a follow-up call on that same day — will be next year’s fellow (the current year’s fellowship is already underway by this point). Technically, one can choose the five or six months she’d like to use for her fellowship during a calendar year, but the Forum encourages summer stays.

Update: The Einstein Fellowship is among the top 10 Trendiest Fellowships (2015)

Just how different does your proposal need to be from your regular field of work? Different enough to warrant a need for this rather unique fellowship, and not for a regular academic grant one could get elsewhere. Glance at the CfA again: “the purpose of the fellowship is to support those who, in addition to producing superb work in their area of specialization, are also open to other, interdisciplinary approaches”. This is your chance to finally try out that special, unusual idea that crosses into other fields to the extent that standard funding bodies might find it beyond their (and your!) specialization.

In my case, it might have been difficult to show a traditional funding body (say, the Arts and Humanities Research Council) why a literature-oriented person wants to enter the archives: I had no record of archival work in the past. But relying on a record of work with literature, I could ask the Forum to let me try this new move with history. It might be helpful to keep this in mind as you prepare your application: (1) show them you want to, (2) show them you can, (3) show them how the Forum can uniquely step in where a ‘traditional’ funding body might not.

Speaking of the Einstein Forum itself, it is a small, intensely busy, creative place, more open to new things and ideas than most of the organizations I’ve worked for in the past. Even though it’s not an NGO, it has that great NGO feeling — a rather small group of people staying after working hours, putting various new events together, designing posters for those events, etc.

They’ll be warm and welcoming — and totally stressed with their own projects. You should be prepared for the fact that you won’t have a working space at the Forum; working spaces are in short supply. No one will hover around to supervise you. It is a highly independent endeavor. As the CfA explains, you’ll be living “in the garden cottage of Einstein`s own summerhouse in Caputh”. That’s your home and office combined: it includes a study with a huge table facing west, into the sunset. The Forum itself is located in Potsdam, not Caputh.

The cottage, or Gartenhaus, is a small wooden two-story building, maybe 25 or 30 sq.m. on each level. My family and I have absolutely loved it — and I miss it to this day — but it is not luxurious by any means. It’s located on a hill, so you enter on the top floor and use the stairs to reach the bottom floor. The name of the street in Caputh (Am Waldrand, edge of the forest) should offer some idea about the level of isolation you may experience while working. But if long walks in the woods and by the lake are your thing, you’ll be in heaven.

To get you back to urban civilization, bus 607 to the main station in Potsdam (Potsdam Hauptbahnhof, S-Bahn line S7) runs through Caputh more often during the week, less often during the weekend, and very seldom at nights; the ride is about 12 minutes if not too many passengers stop it en route. From there, Berlin is just next door, and all such trips are covered by a monthly ticket issued as a part of your fellowship.

And just to clarify, the big house in all the pictures is not the cottage — that’s the main Einsteinhaus, the museum that draws crowds of tourists from April to November. The little Gartenhaus sits beside it. One of the reasons to schedule your stay in Caputh for the summer months is to have those tourists (and museum tour guides) hustle around nearby during the day. After the tourist season ends, you may not see a single soul on Am Waldrand for days, maybe weeks. The introverts among us, of course, would hardly complain.

We’ve all contacted others for advice, and most of us make sure to pass it on as we move along our paths. Hopefully, this post is of help in some way. Good luck!

The Einstein Fellowship is awarded by the Einstein Forum and the Daimler and Benz Foundation

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2 thoughts on “Advice for Einstein applicants

  1. Thank you, Tanya, this is wonderful and will save me a lot of time, as I can now refer everyone to this post when they contact me with similar questions.

    Just one small point: you write that shortlisted candidates “are interviewed not by one, not by two, or three or four Einstein Forum representatives, but more or less by the entire Board of Advisors (plus the regular Staff).” To clarify, the Einstein Forum staff are usually present during the Skype interviews and will very occasionally ask a question (especially if the Advisory Board members feel that one of us is particularly qualified to do so). However, we do not have a vote, as the candidate is selected solely by the Board.

    Liked by 1 person

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