Idealist logoidealist
Land Your Dream Job
Careers that help you move from intention to action

6 Questions to Ask Yourself When Applying to a Fellowship

Clouds in the shape of question marks.

There are many advantages to participating in a merit-based professional fellowship. Typically funded by foundations, non-profits, or corporations, a fellowship can provide you professional training and skills-building opportunities, a first job out of college, entry into a new industry, support to develop a social enterprise, or an international work experience. A fellowship will expose you to invaluable professional networks and engage you in challenging and varied work.

In an earlier article, I discussed why fellowships are exceptional. However, there are three aspects of fellowships that make them unique to traditional jobs: fellowships are time-bound, they typically offer lower pay and benefits than comparable jobs, and they have a long and time-intensive application process (similar to applying to graduate school). Here are six questions to ask yourself when determining whether a fellowship is the right opportunity for you.

1. Am I at the right point in my career for a time-bound fellowship?

Most professional fellowships are between three months to one year in length and are full-time. Typically, there is no guarantee of a permanent job at the end of the fellowship. Therefore, to pursue a professional fellowship you must be strategic in your professional and personal planning.

A good time for a professional fellowship may be very early in your career, when you need an opportunity to gain professional experience and/or a foot-in-the-door to a particular industry or sector. When I was a senior in college, I applied to the New York City Urban Fellows Program, because the program offered an opportunity for recent graduates an introductory orientation to New York City policy and politics, and a full-time work placement in a New York City agency. Although the Urban Fellows program is only 9 months in length, I knew it would afford me an entry point to other positions in New York City government and provide me an invaluable professional network.

Other points in your career when a time-bound fellowship might make sense is immediately following graduate school, when you are seeking a career change or professional skills development, or when you are ready to pursue a work opportunity abroad.

2. Do I have the time and capacity to prepare a competitive application?

Fellowships have a competitive application process that can be both lengthy and time-intensive. Professional fellowships usually require an application, essays, 2-3 reference letters and in some cases, a project proposal. Unlike a job application that typically requires only a resume and cover letter, a fellowship application can take weeks to months of planning and preparation. Therefore, be realistic about your current demands at school, work, and home, and consider if you have the adequate free time to work on your application. If you have less than 2 months to prepare your application, time will be tight. Note the application deadline and create space on your calendar for the following types of activities: reach out to former fellows for advice, brainstorm ideas, prepare multiple drafts of your application essays, and request recommendation letters. In particular, you should be sure to give your references at least three weeks to prepare your recommendation letter. Ideally, you would also build in time to meet and discuss the fellowship with your references.

3. How will the fellowship provide skills or experiences needed for your next career or academic step or a career change?

It is important to consider what your long-term career goals are and whether a particular fellowship provides you a step in that direction. If the fellowship is in a field or industry you are not interested in working in long-term, or provides only a lateral career move for you, it might not be a good fit. However, if the fellowship would help you enter a particular industry, enhance your skills and resume for graduate school, or provide you an important professional network that you do not yet have, then it could be the perfect next step.

For example, the ProInspire fellowship provides professionals with 2-5 years of business experience a yearlong analytical or strategic role at a nonprofit organization. It supports those in the private sector who want to use their skills for social impact, and provides them a year of work experience, training, and a professional network to help them transition their careers. Therefore, if you are a young professional and your goal is to transition from the private to social sector, ProInspire might be a great fit.

There are fellowships for all career levels and interests, so I would encourage you to take the time to search for the right fellowship opportunity. Research the types of career paths former fellows have taken to get a sense of where the fellowship could take you. Bookmark the ones that you might pursue later in your career. 

4. Will the fellowship provide you adequate financial and logistical resources?

Professional fellowships typically provide a stipend or grant for living expenses during the fellowship period, but in many cases it will be lower than what you would make in a permanent job in the public or private sector. The main reason for this is that many fellowships are funded by foundations and nonprofits that have limited resources. A temporary, low salary may be manageable if you are able to live frugally. However, it can be difficult or impossible to pay down debt, support dependents or save for retirement while on a fellowship. Also, most professional fellowships are full-time so it may not be possible to have a part-time job or take other grant funding at the same time. So, consider carefully if the funding and benefits the fellowship provides are adequate for your needs and lifestyle.

Current and recent fellows are great sources of advice on how to find affordable accommodations, the best neighborhoods to live and shop, and free and low-cost entertainment in your location. When I was a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow living on a modest stipend in Washington, DC, I kept my expenses low by living with roommates within walking distance to work, bringing my lunch rather than eating out with colleagues, and earning extra spending money through occasional babysitting and tutoring.

5. Have candidates who are similar to you been selected for this opportunity?

The best way to determine if you will be a strong candidate for a fellowship is by looking up the backgrounds of current fellows. Consider the age, years of work experience, academic credentials and pre-fellowship positions of current fellows. If their backgrounds match yours, you’ll likely be a competitive candidate. However, don’t be discouraged if the current fellows are of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic upbringing. Often fellowships are seeking a more diverse pool of candidates and strongly encourage people from underrepresented groups to apply.

6. What will you do with the time in between your acceptance and start?

Unlike jobs, fellowships typically do not begin until 6 to 12 months beyond the application deadline. In many cases, there will be several months between the time you are selected and when you begin. If you are currently working, you may need to be discreet about your plans to apply for a fellowship that would ultimately result in your resignation. However, in many cases employers are pleased to support an employee’s plans to pursue a competitive fellowship that would be a step up in their career or an opportunity to pursue a passion. Consider whether your employer would be supportive or apprehensive before sharing your application plans.

You will also need to consider how you will transition to the fellowship from your current job or activities. It is always good practice to resign from a job on a good note, and to do this, you should offer help with the transition of your responsibilities to other employees. Although it is typical to give an employer two weeks notice of a resignation, you may want to give your employer notice of your impending resignation as soon as you have been selected for the fellowship. An employer will be much more appreciative of the advance notice than a sudden resignation, especially if they discover that you have known of your impending fellowship for months. Sometimes employees fear they will be asked to resign immediately if they give notice too soon, but this is uncommon for respected employees who are giving notice in good faith and offer to assist with the transition.

About the author| Vicki Johnson is a four-time fellow and the Founder of, the leading online platform for information on professional and academic fellowships. At ProFellow, you can search more than 800 funded fellowship opportunities and bookmark fellowships to your profile.