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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Land a Fellowship at Any Stage in Your Career

I receive a lot of questions about how to apply for competitive scholarships and fellowships, and I often share my tips for applying to fellowship programs and finding organizations that are a fit for your goals.

But where do you begin to find—and sort through—all the programs and opportunities that are out there?

I caught up with Vicki Johnson, one of the founders of ProFellow, an online resource for finding fellowships that’s also packed with tips on how to apply and insider perspectives from fellows themselves.

Johnson has an impressive track record, earning four competitive fellowships since her graduation from Cornell University in 2001, including the New York City Urban Fellows program, the German Chancellor Fellowship, the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship, and the Ian Axford Fellowship in Public Policy. Because of that experience, at the age of 30, she became policy director for the National Commission on Children and Disasters, an expert body instituted by Congress.

Today, Johnson shares some insight about her career and answers some of the most commonly asked questions about fellowships.

What was your first fellowship, and how did it shape your career?

I first discovered fellowships when I was a senior at Cornell University searching for my first real post-graduate job. In the career office, I came across a brochure for the New York City Urban Fellows Program, which provides 25 recent graduates the opportunity to work in full-time positions in New York City government agencies.

Thrilled to be accepted after the intensive individual and group interviews, I moved to New York City on September 1, 2001. What happened next changed my life.

Our cohort was dubbed the “9/11 class.” The 24 other fellows and I from all over the U.S. were only halfway through our two-week orientation when, on the morning of September 11, 2001, we witnessed the Word Trade Center attacks from the steps of the Municipal Building, just five blocks from the towers.

When the program resumed after a short period of uncertainty, we were asked to choose our full-time work placements immediately. Without hesitation, my first choice was a position at the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM). I had no idea what emergency management entailed or what my specific work responsibilities might be, but I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of a large-scale disaster response and recovery operation.

Being a fellow completely changed my imagined career path. From that year forward, I have worked in emergency management and public policy. That first fellowship crystallized my professional and academic interests.

What’s the difference between a fellowship and scholarship? Why should people consider applying for fellowship programs?

The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but scholarships generally provide funding to students for tuition and other study-related expenses. Fellowships supply funding for professional training, independent projects in unique settings, or graduate or doctoral study.

More importantly, fellowships provide unique opportunities that you wouldn’t typically get in a normal job, like the opportunity to live and work abroad, work on a self-proposed project, or meet and network with influential people in your field.

Are fellowships just for students, or should professionals consider them, too?

Fellowships are not just for students, and in fact, many of the fellowships listed on ProFellow are for professionals, from recent graduates to executive-level professionals with more than 10 years of work experience.

For example, the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship provides recent graduates who have an interest in peace and international security policy with a six- to nine-month full-time position in one of more than two dozen think tanks in Washington, DC. Or, the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship gives professionals with five to 10 years of work experience the opportunity to live and work in Germany for one year.

Why did you start ProFellow? What sets it apart from other sites that offer resources for fellowships?

My husband Ryan and I started ProFellow in 2011 while we were living in New Zealand, where I was on an Ian Axford Fellowship in public policy. I had earned four fellowships over the past 10 years, and in my experience, fellowships were very difficult to learn about online. It took a lot of time and research to find these opportunities, many of which were buried on obscure websites.

When Ryan saw me speak at a women’s leadership conference about the challenge of finding fellowships, he proposed the idea that we build a website that would serve as the go-to source of information on fellowships. The project started as a simple blog. Today, we have a powerful fellowships database, hundreds of articles on fellowship application tips, interviews with former fellows, a step-by-step guide to creating a competitive application, and a popular monthly newsletter.

What sets ProFellow apart from university-based fellowship resources is that our products are created by former fellows for aspiring fellows. Our application tips and insights are based on the experiences of hundreds of fellowship alumni. We’re not just a repository of information; there’s a huge community of supporters contributing to ProFellow.

There is a tremendous amount of competition for fellowships. How can someone stand out from the crowd?

Although we provide a step-by-step guide for creating a strong fellowship application and tons of tips, there is really no formula to creating a compelling personal essay or project proposal—which are the two most important elements of a fellowship application.

These two components take a lot of time, thought, and creativity, which is why we recommend you start on them as soon as possible.

To get an edge on the competition, we suggest adding urgency to your project proposal by including something that will only occur during the fellowship period, such as attending a conference in the fellowship location or proposing to study a one-time phenomenon like a community’s recovery from a disaster. When choosing between two strong candidates, the fellowship committee may lean toward a proposed project that can’t be done at a later date.

Also, provide stories from your background that are memorable and telling. For example, don’t say you want to change the world; give an example of what you have done already to do work toward that.

For more insight, speaking with a current or former fellow is one of the best ways to get application advice. Try to find fellows in your LinkedIn network, reach out to the fellowship organization, or check with your university’s fellowship office to get in touch with someone who participated in the fellowship. They will likely be able to provide even more valuable insight.

Related: 6 Keys to Applying to a Fellowship

I’ve heard of people “gaming” the system (“After Fulbright, I’m going to do a Boren, then a CLS…”) Can completing too many fellowships put you at a disadvantage?

I know many people who have won several fellowships (and I’m one of them!). Earning a fellowship does tend to make you a stronger applicant for future fellowships.

I have not heard of organizations turning down applicants because they had too many fellowships on their resume. And you can’t really “game” the system, because there is no system! Each fellowship program has its own unique mission, goals, and eligibility requirements—so having one (or a few) fellowship under your belt doesn’t necessarily make you the right candidate for another opportunity.

You do, however, have to consider the financial and professional disadvantages to continuously pursuing short-term opportunities. Fellowships usually do not provide enough funding to save for retirement or pay down student loans. They also do not provide you a permanent job when you finish. While I always encourage people to pursue fellowships for the numerous benefits they provide, in some cases, it may be best for you to gain a few more years of work experience or complete graduate school before pursuing another fellowship.

A fellowship is an opportunity that can transform your perspective, open new networks, and shape your career for the long term. If you are interested in learning more about competitive fellowships, check out ProFellow.

Photo courtesy of Laura Crowhurst.