Explainer: What Is a Fellowship?

fellow standing outside of a workplace

Adobe Stock

Profile Picture
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
July 20, 2024 at 7:38PM UTC

Fellowships are professional development opportunities that carry recognition and prestige and enable you to perform meaningful work in your niche while getting paid. Just what do these experiences entail, and how can you successfully land one? Here’s our rundown.

What does getting a fellowship mean?

Fellowships are professional development opportunities that give graduate students or post-grads experience in a field, generally enabling them to gain leadership experience, conduct research, or pursue projects with funding from the government or the organization sponsoring the fellowship. They are prestigious and highly sought-after short-term experiences, ranging anywhere from several months to several years, and often open doors for people in their careers after completion.

What is a fellowship program, and what disciplines and industries offer opportunities?

There are many types of fellowship programs in a wide range of careers and industries, such as:

• Medicine

• Science research

• Visual and performing arts

• Engineering

• International relations

• Writing

• Teaching

• Languages

• and many more disciplines 

Some particularly well-known and prestigious fellowship programs include: 

• The Fulbright Scholar Program 

• The MacArthur Fellows Program

• Winston Foundation for World Peace Fellowships

• TED Fellows

• Andrew W. Mellon Fellowships in Humanistic Studies

• and many others

Do you get paid for a fellowship?

• Stipends 

Fellows generally receive a salary, grant, or stipend to cover their living expenses during the program. However, unpaid fellowships do exist; keep in mind that you will still be receiving invaluable experience for your career.

• Benefits

Some fellowships also offer benefits like any other job, such as health insurance. If you are relocating to participate, the program may cover your moving and housing expenses.

What is the difference between a fellowship and internship?

While fellowships and internships both offer unique learning experiences and set you up for entry into your desired career, there are some key differences.

1. Fellowships focus on professional development.

Internships give students, recent graduates, or professionals looking to change careers the opportunity to learn about an industry and gain experience while working in some pre-entry-level capacity at an organization. Fellowships are also about gaining experience, but fellows are building professional recognition and credentials in a field in which they have already studied or worked.

2. Fellowships require a bachelor’s degree.

In many cases, people complete fellowships during or after graduate school. In almost all cases, fellows need to have at least a bachelor’s degree, with some programs requiring a master’s or doctoral degree. In contrast, undergraduate students and sometimes even high school students may participate in most internships (although this is not always the case).

3. Fellowships are almost always paid.

While internships may be paid or unpaid, with some offering college credit in exchange for the work performed, fellowships almost always carry some kind of funding, whether it be a salary, stipend, or grant.

4. Completing a project or research is often central to a fellowship.

Internships are about gaining experience, asking you to perform basic work to learn about the organization and industry. During a fellowship, on the other hand, you will need to submit a proposal to conduct some type of specific research or complete a project. 

Applying for a fellowship

1. Consider your goal for the fellowship.

Fellowships are rigorous and demanding, so make sure you know what you are hoping to get out of the experience. Outline some specific goals, such as something you want to accomplish or a specific type of experience you want to have. This will guide you as you look for opportunities and determine the best fit.

2. Identify opportunities.

Search for fellowships in your area of focus. (We have outlined some methods of finding these opportunities below.) Remember to pay attention to the eligibility for participation: many fellowships require certain GPAs, work or activities, and so on. Some cater to specific demographics.

3. Start early.

Make sure you leave enough time to gather your paperwork, draft new materials, ask for recommendations, and get everything in order. You don’t want to be rushing to meet the deadline or let anything fall through the cracks.

4. Develop your proposal.

Your proposal for your project or research will, in most cases, be the meat of your application. Make sure your idea is unique and that you describe it thoroughly. Really sell it here, playing up your previous experience in the field and skills you have to complete the project. Guidelines for specific fellowships will often tell you what makes a successful applicant, so pay attention to them; you want to demonstrate that you have done your research. Ask colleagues and friends to offer feedback as well. 

5. Complete your application.

Like most jobs, you will need to complete an application including a cover letter and resume highlighting your skills and qualifications for the role, along with a personal statement, and, depending on the nature of the work, a portfolio or samples of your work. Your application will also include your project proposal (see #5).

6. Ask for recommendations.

Your recommenders should be people who know you well and can attest to your strengths in this context. In many cases, they will be academics or professionals in the industry of the fellowship. You should make it clear to your references why you want to pursue this opportunity and what you hope to gain, so they can better understand your motivations, which will bolster their recommendations.

7. Interview.

After you submit your application, you’ll go through a rigorous interview process. Prepare thoroughly, rereading your proposal and application and going over your goals for the experience. It’s difficult to know exactly what the interviewers will ask, so just remember to be authentic and understand yourself and your motivations as best you can. 

Finding fellowships

How do you find potential fellowship programs in your niche? Here are some places to start looking.

• Colleges and universities

Colleges and universities offer plenty of fellowships across a wide range of disciplines. Check out university fellowship sites at schools such as Cornell, UC Berkeley, and many others. These websites also offer tips and resources in addition to opportunities.

• Fellowship and scholarship databases

Some online databases are dedicated to helping people finding fellowship opportunities in various disciplines. Try sites such as ProFellow, which includes more than 1,000 fellowship opportunities for candidates at different education and experience levels. 

• Job search sites

Search for fellowships on general job search sites, which can identify these opportunities in addition to regular jobs.


Talk to professionals in your field about opportunities in your area of focus. Try searching for alumni from your alma mater and other prospective connections on LinkedIn, as well as reaching out to current or former professors in your discipline. It is also a good idea to connect with past and current fellows of programs that interest you; many programs feature profiles of their fellows online, and you can reach out to ask them about their experiences and suggestions for applying.

Don’t miss out on articles like these. Sign up!

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always