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Fellowships are no longer just for graduate students or PhDs. There is a growing roster of merit-based professional fellowship opportunities that provide entry into a first job or career change, fund international work experiences, cultivate emerging leaders and changemakers, and support self-designed projects and social enterprises. Professional fellowships are funded by a wide range of organizations including foundations, non-profit organizations, government agencies, universities, media, and corporations.

So what is a professional fellowship exactly? I define it as a short-term, competitive, paid opportunity to do something exceptional.

The time commitment

The time commitment for fellowships typically ranges from a few weeks up to two years. Most professional fellowships are between three months to one year in length and are full-time gigs. There are also summer fellowships of two to three months for enrolled or graduating students seeking to gain professional skills during the summer.

The competitive application process

Application deadlines for fellowships are typically 6 months to a year before the fellowship begins, so it is good to begin your fellowship search early.

Fellowships are merit-based and have a competitive application process. Similar to a graduate school application, a fellowship application typically requires a personal essay, two to three recommendation letters, a resume, transcripts, and other items. Fellowships that fund a self-designed project also require a project proposal. Although application formats vary, they almost always require a written application and professional references. If you’re selected as a finalist, you’ll also be invited to participate in an individual or group interview (yep, it’s intense).

The funding

Most fellowships are paid, providing financial support in the form of a stipend, salary, or grant. Sometimes fellowships include other benefits like health insurance, travel or relocation grants, funding for dependents, discretionary funding for language classes, or housing.

Note that some opportunities called “fellowships” are not funded - they are either unpaid or tuition-based. The lack of funding does not mean it’s a subpar opportunity, but in these cases, you will have to make a financial investment like you would with graduate study or unpaid internships, so that is something to carefully consider.

Why fellowships are exceptional

Fellowships are an opportunity to “do something exceptional.” Fellowships often provide you the resources, support and professional networks to pursue goals that you might not otherwise be able to achieve in a typical job or internship. Because of this, certain fellowships can be more competitive than some top graduate programs. The title of “Fellow” alone indicates a position of prestige. Here are some of the major advantages of pursuing a competitive, professional fellowship.

1.Fellowships expose you to invaluable professional networks

Professional fellowships exist for the specific purpose of introducing a new generation of professionals to established leaders in their fields. Often fellowships include trainings, mentorships and other networking opportunities to connect fellows with executives, speakers, and mentors, many of whom are fellowship alumni themselves.

For example, when I was a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow in Washington, DC in 2005, I was able to have coffee with the Presidents and Executive Directors of some of the leading DC think tanks in peace and security policy. I could ask them questions about their varied career experiences in government, public policy and academia, and get insights on how to pursue a PhD or work in the foreign service. Through these important personal connections, fellows are able to cultivate relationships that can lead to a new job, graduate school reference or long-term mentor.

Also, many professional fellowship programs fund a group of fellows each year. If you are part of fellowship cohort, you’ll be engaging with other fellows through professional training, seminars, education, travel, or a group project during the fellowship period. The advantages to being in a cohort of fellows is the opportunity to build a professional network of peers and a social circle for non-work activities. This is particularly valuable if you have relocated for your fellowship and are in a new city or country with no established network.

2. Fellowships engage you in challenging, varied and interesting work

Some fellowships are structured to provide fellows exposure to a specific type of work or provide an opportunity to pursue a self-designed project. I applied to the New York City Urban Fellows Program when I was a senior in college because I was drawn to its model of placing recent college graduates in a full-time work placement in one of 20 New York City government agencies. The Urban Fellows program was not like a typical entry-level job; the placements are designed for young leaders and they challenge fellows to meet high expectations.

The expectations of participants in this fellowship were well beyond what was typically expected of a recent graduate with no prior work experience, but this was exactly what made the experience so valuable for my professional development.

I worked as an Urban Fellow for the New York City Office of Emergency Management during the 9/11 recovery operation and my responsibilities ranged from serving as City Manager for a Disaster Assistance Center, to preparing after-action reports for city-wide disaster exercises, to meeting with non-profit program managers to identify partnership opportunities. The expectations of participants in this fellowship were well beyond what was typically expected of a recent graduate with no prior work experience, but this was exactly what made the experience so valuable for my professional development.

I also had the opportunity to pursue a self-designed project as a German Chancellor Fellow in Germany. In this case, it was up to me to create my dream “job.” I pursued an independent research project comparing U.S. and German bioterrorism plans, while other fellows in my cohort pursued projects like interning at a non-profit, searching historical archives, training with a world-renowned theatre director, or teaching university courses. During my fellowship, I also studied German, something I did not have the the time or resources to do before the fellowship. These are just a few examples of the experiences you can gain on a fellowship.

3. Fellowships can fund work and travel abroad

There are many fellowships to fund a work experience in a foreign country. After an incredible study abroad experience in college, you might be itching to live abroad again as a professional. However, you’ll quickly find how difficult it can be to secure a work or volunteer position abroad, let alone the financing to support relocation, living expenses, and insurance. International fellowships typically provide all the resources you need for your experience abroad, including a professional placement, a monthly stipend, a visa, insurance, roundtrip airfare and logistical support throughout your fellowship experience. Some fellowships also support language training and in-country travel. Some examples of fully funded fellowships include the Alfa Fellowship in Russia, the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship in Germany, and the Luce Scholars program in Asia.

Ready to find your dream fellowship opportunity?

As you may have noticed, not all programs with the characteristics of a fellowship are called “fellowships”, but the opportunities mentioned are just a few examples of the hundreds of professional fellowships that are short-term, competitive and funded. It can be difficult to identify these opportunities individually, but through ProFellow’s database you can discover fellowships and filter by discipline, location and other characteristics, and bookmark opportunities of interest.

Now that you know what a professional fellowship is and fellowships’ many benefits, you can consider whether a fellowship will help you achieve your career goals. Stay tuned for next article on how to determine if a professional fellowship is right for you.

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.

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