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What is a MacArthur Fellowship?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2016
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The MacArthur Fellowship, Genius Award, or MacArthur Fellows Program is a $500,000 US Dollar (USD) award given to several people annually, by the MacArthur Foundation. The foundation began operation in 1978, and started to give its first fellowships in 1981. Since then, it has been considered one of the most enviable fellowships to earn, though its application is not similar to many other granting programs. Usually nominees are those showing exceptional promise in their field, which can be in any number of disciplines. Nominees have often demonstrated past work of extraordinary merit and are likely to be able to use fellowship funds to stimulate more creative work.

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People cannot apply for a MacArthur Fellowship. In fact they really don’t have any path to the award unless one of the people employed as a nominator suggests them. The foundation has numerous experts in a variety of fields that act as nominators each year, and they work hard to select those people they know, meet, or have heard of, who might benefit from a MacArthur Fellowship and who deserve one because of extraordinary creativity or potential that might have a strongly positive impact on the world. Each year, a selection committee and the head of the foundation then evaluate all people nominated. They make final determination on the best people to receive the award. Number of people receiving the award per year may vary, but is usually over 20. In addition to possessing “genius,” the only requirements for any nominee is that they are legally resident in the US or US citizens.

Nomination for a MacArthur Fellowship is typically kept private. Those who receive the award frequently have no idea that they have been nominated for it. Rising stars in a variety of fields might hope they receive a nomination, but there is usually no way of telling for certain, especially if the award is not won.

Another unusual aspect about the MacArthur Fellowship is that people who receive it aren’t expected to show any results for receiving it. They don’t have to produce a specific kind of work. Moreover their continued privilege to receive a fellowship, paid out in five increments of $100,000 USD isn’t predicated on production. Even without any restrictions of this nature, many people who receive this award are selected for their extraordinary creative potential, and a number of them become well known and do make significant contribution to their field. A list of a few people who have received the MacArthur Fellowship makes this fairly clear. Some genius grant awardees include: Robert Penn Warren, Stephen Jay Gould, Harold Bloom, Thomas Pynchon, Sarah Sze and Cynthia Moss.

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