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Are Public-Service Fellowships for You?

An ever increasing number of fellowships are available to aspiring public service professionals, beyond those providing financial aid for graduate studies. Let's take a deeper dive and explore what fellowships are all about, and where to find (and how to apply for) a fellowship.

What are fellowships?

Often funded by foundations or private donors, fellowships are designed to provide incentives and support to the new generation of nonprofit leaders.

These fellowships are formal programs lasting anywhere from three months to two years. They often include:

  • Stipends 
  • Challenging work experience
  • Well-structured plans for training and professional development
  • Access to seasoned professionals as mentors

In addition to well-established programs, universities and privately-funded nonprofits like Greenpeace are now setting up fellowships to attract emerging leaders, so opportunities are expanding.

Although this section describes public policy-oriented fellowships, there are many other fellowships available in the arts, education, and other areas of the nonprofit community.

Working as a fellow

Fellowships are structured to provide significant experience working in the field and fellows are expected to take on a great deal of responsibility quickly. They are provided with unique experiences that are not typically available to someone just starting out with only a bachelor's degree.

This experiential learning component varies depending upon the fellowship program. It could be:

  • An apprenticeship with a senior-level nonprofit professional
  • A research project designed and implemented by the fellow
  • A part-time or full-time internship in an organization chosen by the fellow
  • Short-term field placements in various segments of the public affairs arena: nonprofits, labor, the media, the private sector, and government entities
  • A team project developed by the group of current fellows
  • An independent project proposed by a social entrepreneur and funded by the fellowship program

Training and professional development

Although much can be learned from jumping into an entry-level nonprofit job, fellowship programs are known for their commitment to the professional development of individual fellows and have designed accelerated training programs as part of this commitment. Key elements of the training might include:

  • Academic seminars to develop frameworks and apply theory
  • In-depth research and analysis of a particular issue area
  • Attendance at professional conferences and meetings
  • Leadership development
  • Public relations, in which current fellows are spokespersons for the program and are involved in the outreach and recruitment process for the next group of fellows


Fellowships are designed to provide access to well-established nonprofit professionals who have a real interest in the fellow's professional growth and development. Mentors often are the "movers and shakers" in the field who are typically very busy and normally very difficult to meet, especially for those who are just starting out.


This is often considered the biggest drawback of a fellowship. Although fellowship programs do provide a living allowance or stipend it is not usually comparable to the salary of a full-time job. The financial commitment varies greatly. Stipends range from $10,000 up to $25,000 for a 9-12 month program. Most post-doctorate fellowships would surpass this salary range. Other incentives are often provided to fellows such as:

  • Healthcare coverage and other employment benefits 
  • Student loan repayment programs 
  • Academic graduate school credits
  • Housing stipends
  • Paid travel or relocation expenses
  • An alumni network of former fellows providing valuable networking contacts

The application process

The fellowship selection process is very competitive and deadlines are often over a year before the fellowship begins. The application can be quite extensive and includes a resume, academic transcript and letters of recommendation from faculty. Most programs will also require some kind of writing sample, essay or written proposal. There may be additional application materials required if the fellowship includes a university nomination process, such as the Junior Fellow Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In whatever form, applications need to show evidence of:

  • Academic achievement
  • An extensive record of commitment to community service
  • Motivation, self-direction and integrity of character
  • Highly developed interpersonal and writing skills 
  • Demonstrated leadership and potential for continued leadership
  • Knowledge of and commitment to a particular public affairs issue

The interview process may be a panel interview or series of oral interviews and could also include situational group interviews where candidates work together to devise solutions to a public policy issue.

Ways to find fellowships

  • See a list of public service fellowships in the United States and internationally.
  • Include the word "fellowships" when searching on Idealist. Look closely at internship listings as well. There may be post-BA internships that are essentially fellowships.
  • If you're in school, check in with your campus scholarships office. This department may be the point of contact for fellowship programs rather than career services. There also may be special fellowship programs established by an alumnus and available only to graduates from your institution.
  • Network in your field of interest. The nonprofit community is very collaborative and can provide good word-of-mouth information.
  • Talk to current fellows for the inside story. They are expecting to hear from prospective fellows. Most fellowship Web sites profile current and former fellows. There may be an alumnus from your campus who has been a recent fellow.
  • Find out about professional associations and utilize those formal networks. Some issue-oriented associations, like the Environmental Leadership Program maintain an online clearinghouse of fellowships.


  • Plan ahead. All fellowship programs are looking for highly motivated students with records of academic excellence, a commitment to community service, and demonstrated leadership. Understand the profile of the competitive candidate and plan your academic curriculum and extracurricular activities accordingly.
  • Remind yourself of why you are interested in a career in public service. What issues truly motivate you? Figure out where you want to contribute and volunteer in those areas you are concerned about.
  • Research fellowship programs. What kind of fellowship are you most interested in? All are structured a bit differently, addressing certain professional development areas and providing differing kinds of work experiences.
  • Contact current fellows or fellowship coordinators to get their advice. It's nice to have these conversations early on before you in the midst of the application process.

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