What Is A Fellowship?

By Jamie Cattanach · June 03, 2021 · 6 minute read

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What Is A Fellowship?

This just in (not really): paying for education is expensive—especially if you’re planning to pursue additional studies after undergrad.

A fellowship can help you make your career dreams come true while also footing at least a few of the bills. However, unlike a scholarship, you may be expected to work in return for the dough.

Read on to learn all about fellowship programs and how they might help bring your total educational costs down.

What Exactly Is A Fellowship?

In short, think of a fellowship as a scholarship, but one you have to work for—aside from the work of filling out the application for the program in the first place!

Broadly speaking, a fellowship is a program that allows students—usually graduate students—to continue their education while earning money at the same time, most often in exchange for doing work in their field of study.

A fellowship might be as short as a few months or as long as several years; it might be funded for a few thousand dollars or cover the entire cost of your graduate education, including living expenses.

The work involved might be field research, local community work, or teaching undergraduates in your discipline while you pursue higher studies. There’s a lot of variety out there depending on the program.

Fellowships are competitive prizes, and successfully securing one often requires a history of high academic merit and also writing a killer application essay (or several). The idea is that those awarded fellowships show potential in their field and have the capacity to become successful professionals later on.

While fellowship monies don’t need to be repaid after you graduate from the program (so long as you adhere to the parameters set out by the organization offering the fellowship), you may be doing some work or service in exchange for the funding.

Types Of Fellowship Programs

Although there are a large variety of individual fellowships programs, there are three common types you’re apt to run into.

1. Graduate Fellowships

Graduate fellowships help graduate students pursue their education by subsidizing some or all of the costs in exchange for work on-campus.

For instance, a graduate fellowship for a master’s degree in creative writing might come with a tuition waiver as well as a monthly stipend to cover living expenses, an option to purchase affordable healthcare through the school, monies to cover certain educationally related travels, etc. In exchange, the student is generally expected to teach a certain number of beginner-level courses in their field to undergraduate students.

Recommended: How to Pay for Grad School

2. Postdoctoral Fellowships

For students who’ve already earned their doctorate degrees, postdoctoral fellowships can open the door to even more education, which can help these scholars become hyperspecialized in a very, very specific aspect of their field.

In exchange, a postdoctoral fellow might be expected to complete a certain amount of research or, again, teach courses while they continue their studies. In exchange, they might receive funding for their coursework as well as extracurricular activities like relevant travel.

3. Medical Fellowships

For physicians and dentists who’ve already completed medical school, a medical fellowship can help them continue their training and gain more competency in a specific area of medicine.

Medical fellowships generally come after a doctor has already completed their residency, and while they provide an excellent learning experience and often better pay than a residency does, they still pay less than a third of the average full-fledged physician’s salary. That means careful budgeting is likely to be required while you complete your medical fellowship—and, honestly, any kind of academic or research fellowship.

Even with the most generous programs, you won’t be living like royalty!

Recommended: Budgeting on a Fellowship Doctor Salary

What Is A Fellowship Like?

As mentioned above, fellowships don’t generally provide tons of money for living expenses—your room and board may or may not be included, or you may be offered a flat stipend with which to cover your own cost of living.

Graduate students may be expected to do a lot of work for what feels like a minimal paycheck, although having one’s tuition waived is a big deal that can lead to substantial savings—especially in the long term when you consider the interest that student might otherwise have paid on their graduate school loans.

Graduate students may already have undergraduate loans to worry about as well, and depending on the cost of their studies so far might even have to worry about running into federal student aid limits.

And, for certain disciplines that don’t have a great track record for securing graduates stable, well-paid jobs, a graduate fellowship may be the only way to make the studies make financial sense.

However, if you’re considering applying for a fellowship, prepare yourself for a busy schedule and some financial scrappiness. In an academic fellowship, for example, you may be taking a full load of challenging, graduate-level courses and also teaching several courses at the same time.

In other words, a fellowship is definitely not free money. But it can be a great step toward pursuing the career of your dreams without the additional burden of more student debt.

Is Applying For A Fellowship Worth It?

Given the amount of work they involve and the relatively low paycheck, is applying for a fellowship worth it in the first place? In the end, only you can make that decision for your own educational and financial future—but here are some pros and cons to consider.


•   Fellowships offer you the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in your field, which can help you hone your skills and also learn more about whether or not you like the work in the first place.
•   Fellowships can help keep you from racking up student debt, which is particularly attractive if you already have loans to repay from undergrad.
•   Fellowships last only for a short amount of time, but the experience you get by taking one on can help you create a long-lasting and stable career.


•   While completing a fellowship, you’re likely to work very hard for what feels like not very much of a paycheck.
•   Even the application process isn’t very straightforward and will require some dedication and work—and even with great credentials, you may not get the fellowship.
•   Fellowships may have very specific requirements, such as GPA or work hour minimums, and your fellowship may be revoked if you don’t complete the project or adhere to the guidelines.

The Takeaway

Whether or not you pursue a fellowship, one thing’s for sure: educational expenses can really add up, especially for highly-trained specialists like dentists and doctors.

In fact, according to recent data, the average American doctor has a whopping $241,600 in student loans—which can add up to tens and thousands of dollars in interest paid on top of the principal debt.

SoFi offers a range of student loan refinancing options, including a new Medical Resident Refinance program offering lower rates for physicians and dentists. Know that refinancing any federal loans will effectively eliminate them from any federal programs or benefits, so it may not make sense for every borrower.

Find out how much you could be paying each month on your student debt with a SoFi refinance.

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SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are looking to refinance federal student loans, please be aware that the White House has announced up to $20,000 of student loan forgiveness for Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for qualifying borrowers whose student loans are federally held. Additionally, the federal student loan payment pause and interest holiday has been extended beyond December 31, 2022. Please carefully consider these changes before refinancing federally held loans with SoFi, since the amount or portion of your federal student debt that you refinance will no longer qualify for the federal loan payment suspension, interest waiver, or any other current or future benefits applicable to federal loans. If you qualify for federal student loan forgiveness and still wish to refinance, leave unrefinanced the amount you expect to be forgiven to receive your federal benefit.

CLICK HERE for more information.

Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income-Driven Repayment plans, including Income-Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.

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