What a Fellowship Is and Why You Might Want One

US News & World Report
By Ilana Kowarski
January 28, 2019

A fellowship can help you pay for graduate or postgraduate education.

Graduate school and postgraduate training can cost tens of thousands of dollars. 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 a scholar to pay for his or her 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. The word “fellowship” is usually understood to mean scholarships for people who have already earned their college degree and who are pursuing additional education – typically either graduate students who are currently 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 typically compete for, and fellows are selected based on their potential to make a positive, long-lasting contribution to their academic discipline.

Christine Sloan Stoddard, a graduate student at CUNY–City College who is pursuing a master of fine arts degree, has received multiple fellowships. According to Stoddard, though some fellowships simply cover the cost of tuition, there are also fellowships that 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.

Stoddard suggests students consider extracurricular fellowships, highlighting her fellowship with the Freshkills Park Alliance as especially rewarding. “This fellowship gave me the opportunity to put my professional interest in environmental art and community design into practice,” she says. “I assisted with planning the 2018 Reclaimed Lands Conference … which involved curating video installations, designing the event booklet, installing scientific posters and more.”

What types of fellowships are there?

Among all 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 they sometimes cover expenses related to a grad student’s professional development, such as fees for academic conferences.
  2. Medical fellowships: These fellowships are reserved for physicians who have already finished medical school and completed a residency in their medical specialty. Medical fellows are doctors who wish to receive further medical training within a sub-specialty, so they can become master practitioners within a niche area of medicine. For instance, a doctor who recently completed his or her residency in anesthesiology might elect to pursue a fellowship in pediatric anesthesiology, which focuses on how to anesthetize children during medical procedures.
  3. Postdoctoral fellowships: These fellowships are designed for individuals who have recently completed doctorates, but who 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.

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 for 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.

Trevor Bibler, an assistant professor of medicine with the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, says he completed a postdoctoral fellowship in clinical bioethics after earning his Ph.D. degree in religious studies, because he was interested in becoming a bioethicist who helps doctors navigate ethical dilemmas.

“I started looking for fellowships when I realized that they would be able to extend my skills in a way that would allow me to both finish up and continue working on my current projects and grow in the way that I saw I needed to grow at that moment,” Bibler says.

How hard is it to get a fellowship?

Winning a fellowship is difficult because of intense competition, experts warn. Fellowship awards are often granted on the basis of impressive accomplishments such as influential research, a compelling publication or beautiful artistic work. These prizes are also given to scholars who have a great idea for a project that they need money to execute, and they are occasionally granted on the basis of academic credentials like GPAs or test scores.

Experts say the most competitive fellowships tend to be the national and international ones that are not reserved for students and researchers at any particular school, but that instead can be granted to any promising scholar.

“These fellowships are quite competitive, and winning one of them is an excellent thing for a prospective graduate student!” wrote Dr. McGreggor Crowley, a clinical research fellow at Harvard Medical School, in an email.

“For one thing, the funds can be above what a university offers to grad students, which frees up graduate students from some of the financial burden of low-stipend programs. Additionally, many graduate students will have a teaching requirement as part of their list of obligations. Receiving external funding may free students up from having to teach, allowing them to spend more time focused on their research during a critical time in their academic development,” Crowley says.

Crowley warns that many fellowship programs are extraordinarily selective. “After all, the best and brightest of our country’s college seniors who are headed into graduate school are all applying for the same funds,” he says. “A student might be one of the best in their college’s major, but there are hundreds of other schools in the U.S. with great kids, and they present quite accomplished competition for these limited funds.”

What makes someone a compelling candidate for a fellowship?

Crowley says fellowship directors generally seek fellows who have a clear sense of purpose and who can articulate precisely how a fellowship would help them achieve their long-term career goal.

“If an applicant is more ‘formed’ in terms of their academic interests and plans, they may come across as a more solid, qualified, and convincing applicant,” he wrote. “If an applicant is able to clearly explain her academic interests and career plans, she may be in a better place to apply to these fellowships.”

Crowley says another key factor to consider is what the specific requirements are for a particular fellowship. “I advise my students to read the qualifications and stipulations of the fellowship in detail to see if they even qualify. Some programs are specifically for certain subsets of Ph.D. studies, such as educational research or science and engineering.”

What are some key things to know about graduate school fellowships?

Justin Pierce, senior assistant director of graduate recruitment and marketing at Binghamton University–SUNY in New York, says fellowships for graduate students are simply one of many types of funding students may be eligible for.

“A fellowship is a funding award that has the benefit of having limited or no work requirements, which is what distinguishes it from, say, an assistantship where you would be receiving funds in exchange for work,” he says.

Experts say that a fellowship award often supplements the money that a student earns through work at his or her assistantship, which can involve teaching, lab research, an academic project or administrative tasks that are necessary for the functioning of a university. Sometimes, winning a fellowship negates the need for a student to take on the work obligations inherent in an assistantship, Crowley adds.

What’s important to know about medical school fellowships?

Experts say it’s crucial to understand that pursuing a medical fellowship isn’t necessary to become a physician, since it is possible to practice medicine immediately after completing a residency if you pursue a career in a general medical specialty like obstetrics and gynecology. However, experts say a fellowship is mandatory for subspecialist doctors who practice in a narrow and highly technical medical discipline, such as gynecologic oncology.

“You cannot really be a fellow without having completed sufficient training to be (in) one of the original specialties,” says Dr. Daniel Giang, the associate dean for graduate medical education at Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California.

Giang says fellowships are a form of “extra” medical training that supplements the lessons a doctor learned in his or her residency. “You’ve completed training for one specialty, and now you’re sub-specializing,” he explains.

What are the key things to know about postdoc fellowships?

Experts say postdoc fellowships typically supplement academic training after the completion of a Ph.D. program. Bibler says fellowships are useful for Ph.D. students who are unable to delve into their preferred subject during their Ph.D. program and who want to learn more about that subject.

How does a fellowship affect long-term career prospects?
Experts say that a fellowship cannot only make it easier to afford advanced education, but also help bolster a person’s professional credentials.

According to Crowley, winners of extraordinarily selective fellowships should highlight 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, 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,” he says.