What Is A Fellowship?

By Jamie Cattanach · July 11, 2023 · 6 minute read

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What Is A Fellowship?

If you’re planning to pursue additional studies after you get your undergraduate degree, a fellowship could help you make your career dreams come true while also footing some of the bills. However, unlike a scholarship, you may be expected to work in return.

What is a fellowship? And how does it work? Read on to find out 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.

The fellowship definition, broadly speaking, is this: 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. It can help cover at least some of the cost of college.

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 students who are 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.

Recommended: How to Pay for Grad School

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 educational related travels, and so on. In exchange, the student is generally expected to teach a certain number of beginner-level courses in their field to undergraduate students.

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 specialized in a very, very specific aspect of their field.

What is the fellowship definition in this instance, and how does the fellowship work? 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

If you’re pursuing a career in the medical field, you may be wondering, what is a fellowship in medicine? 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. While fellowships 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. To put it in perspective: Medical fellowships pay approximately $60,000 to $70,000 a year on average, while a primary care physician averages about $260,000 annually.

That means careful budgeting is likely to be required while you complete your medical fellowship — and, honestly, with any kind of academic or research fellowship.

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. But having one’s tuition waived is a big deal that can lead to substantial savings. This is especially true in the long term, when you consider the interest on graduate school loans.

Not only that, graduate students may already have undergraduate loans to worry about as well. And, since one of the basics of student loans is repaying them, that is likely to be top of mind. A fellowship may be a great step toward pursuing the career of your dreams without the additional burden of even more student debt.

One option for grad students to look into regarding their undergraduate loans is deferring them until after school. However, even with deferment, you might want to put some money toward student loans while still in school, to help reduce your payments later on.

Another possible alternative to consider is refinancing student loans, particularly if you could qualify for lower rates or better terms that might help reduce your monthly payments. (Be aware that you may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you lower your payment by extending your loan term.) Refinancing federal loans does mean giving up access to federal programs and protections. But if you don’t need those benefits, refinancing might be an option for you.

Recommended: Private Student Loans Guide

Is Applying For A Fellowship Worth It?

Given the amount of work involved 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.

•   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

Now that you know the fellowship definition and all it entails, you need to decide whether to apply. Either way, 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 $250,990 in student loans — which can add up to tens of thousands of dollars in interest paid on top of the principal debt.

One of the advantages of refinancing student loans is that you might qualify for more favorable terms. SoFi offers a range of options for refinancing student loans, including a Medical Resident Refinance program offering lower rates for physicians and dentists. Just remember that refinancing any federal loans will effectively eliminate them from any federal programs or benefits, so it may not make sense for every borrower.

Check your rate for refinancing your student loan debt with SoFi.

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