What Is a Graduate Fellowship? Tips for Applying

By Marcy Lovitch · January 23, 2023 · 9 minute read

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What Is a Graduate Fellowship? Tips for Applying

The high cost of graduate school can make the dream of getting a master’s or a doctorate feel like a financial impossibility for many people. One way to help with tuition is by applying for a graduate fellowship, a merit-based award given by the university you’re attending or from an outside organization.

As with other scholarships and grants, there can be steep competition for these awards. Here’s a guide to graduate fellowships and how to go about applying for one.

What Is a Graduate Fellowship?

Fellowships are awards given to qualified graduate students based on academic merit. The purpose of a graduate fellowship is to give financial support while graduate students pursue their coursework, conduct research, and do intensive study into their particular field area.

Unlike a graduate assistant, who commits to working as a teaching or a research assistant in exchange for pay, fellowships do not typically come with any associated work requirements.

Besides helping you cover the cost of tuition, a fellowship may offer an additional cost-of-living stipend and health insurance, and cover related expenses such as attending an academic conference. Fellowships are awarded for a specific amount of time, ranging from a few months to several years.

Perhaps the biggest benefit is, unlike a student loan, you don’t have to pay any money back.

Internal vs External Graduate School Fellowships

There are two main sources of fellowships that can fund your tuition: internal and external. The latter is sometimes referred to as a portable fellowship. Internal funding comes from the university, while external financial support is provided by non-university outlets. (Of course, there are other ways to pay for grad school too.)

Here’s a breakdown on how they differ:

Internal Fellowship

External Fellowship

Sponsored and awarded by the college or university. Awarded by organizations outside the school, such as government agencies, corporations, nonprofits, and private foundations.
Less competitive. There’s a smaller pool of applicants who are applying to that specific school only. More competitive because you’re applying along with people from other colleges and universities.
Stipend may be lower. Stipend amount often meets or exceeds those issued by a university.
Funding is specifically for study at one college or university. Funding is less likely to be dependent on affiliation with a particular college or university. Recipients generally have the flexibility to choose their school and programs of study.

Types of Graduate School Fellowships

Graduate fellowships vary in duration and purpose, and whether you’re a graduate, doctorate, or postdoctoral student. Here are the two main kinds of fellowships:

•   Graduate or Predoctoral Fellowship. This is for students who are pursuing a master’s or doctorate degree. Funding can come from the institution the student plans to attend or from an external source such as a philanthropic foundation or nonprofit organization.

•   Postdoctoral Fellowship. After a student completes their doctorate program, they can apply for a postdoctoral fellowship. These awards are geared toward people who want additional time to devote to study and research.

Applying for a Graduate Fellowship Program

Expect a long to-do list when applying for a graduate fellowship program. These tips can help you prepare your application:

•   Identify fellowships that are the right fit. There are a lot of fellowships out there, so do your due diligence to see which one might best meet your goals. Will this opportunity enhance you both personally and professionally? Because the application process can be intense and time-consuming, be sure you’re pursuing just the right opportunity.

•   Check eligibility requirements. Research the different internal and external fellowship opportunities to see what each requires. Some fellowships may be for U.S. citizens only, have an upper age limit, want students who intend to be or are enrolled in a graduate program, or have never accepted a graduate fellowship before. If you’ve been awarded grad school scholarships, make sure your fellowship is aware of them too.

•   Start early. An application may call for prerequisite paperwork, personal statements, project or research proposals, transcripts, and letters of recommendation, so you’ll want to give yourself enough time to gather these materials. You don’t want to be scrambling to get everything together at the last minute.

•   Proofread your application carefully. You’ve got one shot to impress people, so don’t submit an application that hasn’t been reviewed and re-reviewed. Be sure to check for spelling and grammar mistakes, and ask a trusted advisor or friend to read it as well. Applications that are polished and absent mistakes can create a more favorable impression.

What You Need To Know About Fellowships for Graduate Students

If you’re thinking about going for a graduate fellowship, you’ll want to be aware of how they work. Read on for all the ins and outs:

Applying for a Graduate Fellowship Program

There are lots of moving parts when it comes to applying for a graduate fellowship. And because these awards are in high demand, you’ll want to get ahead of the crowd of other applicants by submitting your paperwork as soon as possible.

Early Deadlines

Internal and external graduate fellowship deadlines typically fall between the months of October and February. Funds are designated for the next academic year. This means you need to apply to them at the same time you’re also applying to grad school.

If you make the mistake of looking into funding opportunities after you’ve sent out your graduate school applications, it’s too late. Begin your research and applications for graduate school fellowships early so you don’t miss these important deadlines.

Funding Duration

As mentioned earlier, funding for graduate fellowships comes from either the university you’re attending (internal) or from outside organizations (external). When searching for graduate fellowships, keep duration in mind. Financial support varies depending on the fellowship: Some can fund you for a year while others might cover as many as three years.

If you’re in a two-year master’s program and the fellowship only covers a year, you could find yourself worrying about how to pay for that additional year. Working toward a PhD can take up to 8 years, so if you’re pursuing a doctorate, you’ll definitely want to aim for a multi-year fellowship.


When it comes to easing the burden of graduate school costs, fellowships are a popular option — which means they can be highly competitive. Fellowship programs look for highly qualified people who are also high achievers.

External graduate fellowship opportunities cast a wider net, so you have more options. But if you’re applying for an external fellowship, you’re up against a bigger pool of applicants from all over the country and even internationally. With an internal fellowship, you’ll find yourself competing with far fewer candidates.

Reserved Assistantships

Graduate assistantships are very much like work-study programs. However, instead of getting paid to do something totally unrelated to your field, like washing dishes in the cafeteria, these part-time teaching, research, and service administrative positions within the university exist to give you more focus in your chosen field.

Teaching and research positions are typically geared toward a student’s area of study, while an administrative position can be in any university department, such as the library service, residence hall, or university office.

Compensation can be in the form of hourly pay, a monthly stipend, or a tuition waiver. You may even be able to find an assistantship that pays your tuition and gives a stipend. Some schools also offer their assistants student health insurance.

These positions not only offer financial support, but are often highly convenient for students who already spend the majority of their time on campus. In one central location, you can attend classes, study your discipline, network, and earn money.

As with other internal graduate fellowships, application procedures vary by school. Check with the specific institution for deadline and application information.

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Part-Time and Online Graduate Programs

Not all graduate students can attend school full-time or be onsite. Though many fellowships (internal and external) do require a student to be full-time, some accept part-time students. Fellowships for online students exist as well, but might also be more geared to full-time students. You will probably have the most options for part-time or online degree programs with externally funded fellowships.

By the way, if you’re counting on student loan deferment for graduate students, make sure that part-time and online students are eligible.

Internal Funding Sources

Colleges and universities that award graduate fellowships get the money to fund them from several sources. Where a school gets its money can depend on whether it’s a private or public college, for-profit or non-profit. Funding for fellowships can come from student tuition and fees, federal and state governments, and endowments, which are funds donated by individuals or an organization.

Postdoc Fellowships

These fellowships are awarded to people who have earned their doctorate degree. A postdoc fellowship allows the PhD holder to acquire additional academic knowledge and research training. Areas a postdoc fellow might undertake include teaching, grant writing, presenting findings to others, and leading projects and other team members.

Postdoctoral fellows are typically paid in the form of a stipend. Both internal and external sources can fund a postdoc fellowship.

Long-term Career Prospects

Fellowships can bolster your resume and get the attention of prospective employers. As a graduate fellow, you’ve shown you’re motivated, disciplined, and serious about your focus of study. You’ve also shown you’re highly qualified and stood out from a pool of other candidates.

Education pays off when it comes to employment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with higher levels of education and advanced degrees typically earn more money and have lower rates of unemployment compared with people who have less education and lesser degrees.

Graduate and postdoctoral fellows can go on to have long-lasting careers as researchers, university professors, expert scholars, writers, and authors. They can also work in their specialty for a corporation, government agency, or at a nonprofit organization.

Recommended: The 14 Best Jobs for MBA Graduates

The Takeaway

A graduate fellowship can help fund your postsecondary education, easing stress and averting debt. You can find fellowship opportunities through your college or university of choice, or through external sources such as foundations and non-profit organizations. The competition for fellowships is steep, but applying early on can increase the chances you’ll be rewarded with one.

3 Student Loan Tips

  1. Can’t cover your school bills? If you’ve exhausted all federal aid options, private student loans for graduate students can fill gaps in need, up to the school’s cost of attendance, which includes tuition, books, housing, meals, transportation, and personal expenses.
  2. Even if you don’t think you qualify for financial aid, you should fill out the FAFSA form. Many schools require it for merit-based scholarships, too. You can submit it as early as Oct. 1.
  3. Master’s degree or graduate certificate? Private or federal student loans can smooth the path to either goal.
Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.


Can I have more than one fellowship?

Yes you can, but it may not always be beneficial. Before applying to any external opportunities, check your school’s policy regarding additional fellowships. Some colleges will allow you to have more than one, but they will also look at your whole financial package as well. Schools have the ability to decrease your fellowship amount if you’ve also been awarded another one.

Is a fellowship prestigious?

Quite. Fellowships are merit-based academic awards given to outstanding students that fellowship committees believe will make an important and long-lasting contribution to their field of study. Since there is a lot of competition for these awards, recipients have submitted applications with impressive faculty recommendations, a project or research proposal, and well-written personal statement.

How do you find fellowships for graduate school?

First, check with your specific school to see what fellowships they offer. You can find external fellowships on websites of professional organizations related to your discipline and through databases on sites such as Profellow.com and Bigfuture.collegeboard.org.

Photo credit: iStock/AntonioSolano

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