Graduate Fellowships: What are they all about?

what is a fellowship

Graduate fellowships are a great way to finance part – or all – of your graduate school education. While you’re obligated to pay back loans, plus interest, fellowships offer an opportunity to work in your academic field for pay. Some fellowships even offer financial assistance with no work obligations, only academic ones. An institutional fellowship is awarded by the school itself, while a portable fellowship is issued by the government or an independent organization, and can be applied to any institution.

The 411 on fellowships

A quick note about terminology: the words “fellowship”, “grant” and “scholarship” are often used interchangeably. In reality, the terms have slightly different meanings, and it’s important to check with the sponsoring organization to ensure you’re clear about their expectations. Fellowships usually apply to graduate or post-graduate projects. Scholarships generally support undergraduate work, and grant is a broad, catch-all term referring to a sum of money in exchange for an educational project.

Each fellowship comes with different requirements for applicants and guidelines about what the recipient is expected to do in exchange for funding. Often, fellowships are based on merit, and exist to increase representation in academia of historically marginalized groups. For example, science is a male-dominated field, so many fellowships exist for women in science.

Insights from a real-life Fellow

Arisa White attended graduate school at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, from 2003-2006. Here, she shares with some of her experience, as well as the benefits of obtaining a fellowship.

What did your fellowship involve?

“I had a Diversity Fellowship for three years,” White explained. “During my first year, I got to enjoy my graduate school experience with all expenses paid, including health and dental insurance. Second year, my fellowship still covered my tuition, and I was given a teaching associate position in the College Writing program. Third year was similar to the second, but I taught Creative Writing in the English department.”

Any disadvantages to your fellowship?

White felt strongly that her fellowship was an entirely beneficial experience. “There were no disadvantages I can speak of. I had dental and health insurance as a result of my graduate school fellowship. I got valued college-teaching experience, and I had the support of my department to help with troubleshooting, coming up with syllabi, and guidance in classroom management,” she said.

What was the fellowship application process like?

White was one of the lucky students who didn’t have to go through a detailed application process. “There was not a fellowship application process per se; the fellowship was awarded to me. I applied to the graduate school program in creative writing, which required an essay, GRE scores, college transcripts and a writing sample,” she said.

What advice would you offer to students seeking fellowships?

White suggests casting a wide net. “Apply to schools that offer all kinds of fellowships to their graduate students—you want to be able to be taken care of and supported during this time when education is your priority,” she advises. “And know what it is that you seek. If you want teaching opportunities to beef up your resume or other opportunities that can put you in a good position on your particular career path while you are getting your degree, then look for schools that have fellowships that will help you meet your goals.”

By Stephanie Small

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