Opinion Articles

Why Apply for Fellowship Programs

Fellows are selected based on their potential to make a positive, long-lasting contribution to their academic discipline.

Graduate school and postgraduate training can cost tens of thousands of dollars, often well into six figures. For some highly driven students, securing a fellowship could be one way to help pay for this type of advanced education. Here’s what prospective candidates need to know about applying for a fellowship, and how to determine if pursuing this type of academic funding is the right choice.

What Is a Fellowship?
Experts say the conditions and benefits of an academic fellowship can vary widely depending on the discipline, but the simplest definition is a funding award given to subsidize the cost of education. In academic settings, when people say “fellowship,” they are generally referring to a monetary award given to scholars to pay for their academic pursuits. A fellowship is typically a merit-based scholarship for advanced study of an academic subject.

Though the term “fellowship” is occasionally used by undergraduate institutions to label a college scholarship and sometimes used by private sector employers to describe an entry-level job for recent college graduates, the word is more commonly used by graduate schools. It is usually understood to mean scholarships for people who have earned their college degree and are pursuing additional education – typically either students who are completing a graduate program or graduate degree holders who are receiving hyper-specialized training that goes beyond what they learned in grad school.

Fellowships are prizes that graduate students or postgraduate scholars usually compete for, and fellows are selected based on their potential to make a positive, long-lasting contribution to their academic discipline.

Fellowships are investments in people – people who will help advance the fellowship organization’s mission and goals. While fellowships provide opportunities for you to enhance your skills and expand your professional network, that’s not the sole purpose of the fellowship, and that should not be the sole focus of your application.

All fellowship organizations have a social impact mission. Investigate what those goals are, and express in your fellowship application why those goals are also important to you and how you can help the organization achieve them. In addition to reading the fellowship organization’s mission statement, review their previously funded fellows and projects and identify the accomplishments they brag about. This is the best way to understand what they hope to achieve through their investment in you, the fellow, which will help you craft a strong personal statement and project proposal.

According to Stoddard, though some fellowships simply cover the cost of tuition, others fund scholarly activities outside of the classroom, such as trips and projects, or even dissertations, shows or thesis projects.

While most students would likely be interested in a fellowship that grants them free tuition, not everyone has specific extracurricular activities in mind, Stoddard says.

What Types of Fellowships Are There?

Among the various graduate and postgraduate fellowships, there are three major types.

1. Graduate fellowships

These fellowships for graduate students subsidize costs related to their graduate school experience, like tuition. Fellowships may also include a cost-of-living stipend and health insurance, and sometimes cover expenses related to professional development, such as fees for academic conferences.

2. Medical fellowships

These fellowships are reserved for physicians who have finished medical school and completed a residency in their medical specialty. Medical fellows are doctors seeking further medical training in a subspecialty, so they can become master practitioners in a niche area of medicine. For instance, a doctor who recently completed a residency in anesthesiology might pursue a fellowship in pediatric anesthesiology, which focuses on how to administer anesthesia to children during medical procedures.

3. Postdoctoral fellowships

These fellowships are designed for individuals who have recently completed doctorates but want additional time to devote to study and research. Some postdoc fellowships provide funding for deep-dive courses on a narrow academic discipline, so that scholars can become experts on a technical but highly important subject. Other postdoc fellowships subsidize the cost of an ambitious academic project.

Many postdoc fellowships require fellows to teach courses and conduct research. The most generous postdoc fellowships provide funding for both coursework and extracurricular projects

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How Long Is a Fellowship?

The amount of time required to complete an academic fellowship varies depending on the type of fellowship and the rules of the granting institution. A fellowship will typically last at least a year and often longer; some yearlong fellowships can be renewed after the fellowship year is over if the fellow meets certain eligibility requirements, such as maintaining a strong GPA.

It is possible for someone to combine several short fellowships to ensure that they have adequate funding for the duration of their academic program. A fellowship for a Ph.D. student may last several years, since earning a doctorate typically involves at least four years of study and one year of dissertation writing.

Why Might Someone Want a Fellowship?

Experts say obtaining a fellowship not only allows aspiring grad students, medical fellows and postdocs to gain the financial means necessary to achieve their academic goals, it also helps them bolster their professional reputation as scholars. Having a fellowship on a resume sets a candidate apart in the academic job market, according to experts, and pursuing a fellowship also allows people to develop new skills

How Does a Fellowship Affect Long-Term Career Prospects?

A fellowship doesn’t just make it easier to afford advanced education, it also helps bolster a person’s professional credentials.

According to Crowley, winners of highly selective fellowships should flag those honors on their resumes, since that will help them in the academic job market.

“Students who receive these fellowships can place them prominently on their CV, as well,” he says, “and future employers and funders may look at the receipt (or non-receipt, for that matter) of a graduate fellowship as a marker of external validation of quality.”




Fellowship vs. Scholarship–What’s the Difference?
The difference between fellowships and scholarships is fairly simple. Fellowships are awarded to students based on their future potential, while college scholarships are awarded based on past achievements.

What Are the Benefits of Fellowship Programs?

Now, onto the most important question: Why should you apply for a fellowship? Here are a few reasons why securing a fellowship could be a smart move:

  • Funding for school: Like college scholarships, securing a fellowship can help knock down the sticker price on your education. Just be sure to read the financial terms before you accept a fellowship. Also, keep in mind that you can apply for both college scholarships and fellowships.
  • Networking opportunities: Participating in a fellowship can connect you with highly-respected professionals in your field. These individuals may be invaluable when it comes to finding your first job out of college.
  • Make a lasting impact: Perhaps most importantly, a fellowship program can provide an opportunity to do amazing work in your field of study. Unlike many internships, fellowships allow students to perform in-depth research and intensive training. Who knows? You could find yourself working with NASA to develop innovative technologies or participating in a Greenlining fellowship program to help take on racial and economic injustice.

How to Find a Fellowship

Fortunately, fellowships aren’t too difficult to find. A simple search for [Fellowships + your field of study] on Google will likely turn up plenty of results. 

Here are a few additional resources for finding fellowship programs:

  • Professors: One of the best resources for fellowship programs is going to be your professors. Ask them if they know of any fellowship programs that you might be a good fit for. (Hint: Your profs are also a great source for getting letters of recommendation for your fellowship.)
  • College advisor: Next stop: your college advisor. They’ve probably walked a number of students through internships, fellowships, assistantships—you name it. Start building a relationship with your college advisor so you can tap them for career opportunities.
  • Search for internships: Take a closer look at internship opportunities in your field (stick with us here). The truth is that many internships are nearly indistinguishable from fellowships, so don’t be so quick to rule them out. 

Final Thoughts 

Pursuing a fellowship program can extend your skills, boost your professional reputation, and help you achieve your academic goals. However, many fellowships are also quite competitive, so you’ll need to bring your A-game when submitting your application. If you’ve got the passion, drive, and a glowing recommendation, you’ll likely be considered a great candidate for a fellowship.

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