How MacArthur 'Genius' Fellowships Work

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus

How Can I Snag A Fellowship?

When Stephen Wolfram received a MacArthur grant in 1981, he was the youngest to do so.
When Stephen Wolfram received a MacArthur grant in 1981, he was the youngest to do so.
Courtesy Wolfram Research

If a no-strings-attached gift of $500,000 sounds appealing, you may wish to nominate yourself for a MacArthur Fellowship. Except you can't. Nor can your parents or friends. The selection of MacArthur Fellows is an intense, secretive process that begins when the Foundation pulls together an anonymous committee of more than 100 experts, carefully chosen for their combined variety of experience and expertise. Committee members are then set loose to find nominees. Nominees must be "the most creative people they know within their field and beyond," according to the Foundation. They also must be U.S. residents or citizens [source: MacArthur Foundation].

Next, the nominations are presented to an independent Selection Committee. The committee is comprised of roughly 12 leaders in the arts, sciences and humanities, plus bigwigs in the for-profit and nonprofit arenas. Each nomination consists of a nomination letter, evaluations from other experts and some of the nominee's original works. The 20 to 30 fellows are then selected, with the awards doled out in the fall, usually September [source: MacArthur Foundation].


While there are few restrictions on who may receive a fellowship, trends have emerged over time. Nearly all recipients are liberal, for example, and they tend to live on the East or West Coast, namely Manhattan and San Francisco. Working in academia or the arts is a definite plus, too. Lots of fellows are professors, often employed at Harvard or the University of California, Berkeley, and many are writers, choreographers, directors, musicians and artists. Finally, being a bit of a contrarian and quirky appears to help, too [source: Plotz]. Doesn't sound like you? That's OK. Most MacArthur Fellows toil in relative obscurity anyway.