Fellowship 101

By Vivian Chong

Graduate and postgraduate students seeking financial support for their academic pursuits can consider applying for a fellowship. Here’s what you need to know.

The two terms are often used interchangeably as they are similar in that recipients receive financial support for their academic pursuits. One immediate difference is that scholarships are usually used for covering tuition fees for at least one academic semester, and can be given out at any level of studies.

Fellowships, on the other hand, can be used to cover any costs that the students incur in their academic pursuits – including books, housing and tuition. They function as a grant to support full-time students to enhance their training, and are sponsored by associations or organisations that are interested to expand knowledge or talents in the recipients’ field of study. Given out to graduate and postgraduate students, fellowships can last anything from several weeks to a few years depending on the scope of study.

Fellowships focus on the students’ professional development, supporting advanced work as well as providing relevant training. Internships are often part of the programme, providing fellows with practical and useful experiences that give them an edge over other job seekers. Fellowship programmes may also provide opportunities to attend academic seminars, conduct in-depth research, and gain a spectrum of skills such as leadership, writing and public speaking.

The only drawback is that the stipends offered are usually not compatible with the salary that one may draw from a full-time job so recipients cannot rely fully on a fellowship to cover all their financial needs.

The process is often lengthy and intensive, requiring submission of various documents including resumes, transcripts, writing samples and letters of recommendation. It typically takes between two and four months to work on the application. Interviews are part and parcel of the procedure, and may be conducted as one-to-one sessions, by a panel or in groups.

While the exact criteria differ from programme to programme, successful applicants are expected to display strong leadership, interpersonal and communication skills, self-motivation and drive. Keep in mind that fellowships are about investing in your potential for future achievements, not compensate what you have already accomplished.

So you’ve scoured the Internet and other sources for available fellowships that are relevant to your area of study. Before you set about preparing your application, ask yourself these questions:

1. What do I really want to get out of this? While a fellowship is a great addition to any resume, don’t apply just for the sake of its glory. Be clear about your expectations and list down your reasons for wanting a fellowship, what you hope to learn and how it will benefit your career. When you’re sure about what you want, it also helps interviewers see better if you are a good fit with the programme.

2. Am I willing to take time off to work on my application? You already know that it’s no walk in the park just getting through that initial stage, but the more time you are willing to invest in the preparatory work, the better your chances of getting that fellowship. Check the deadlines for application, then prepare a checklist and fix a timeline for getting all your documentation ready. Here’s another tip: However much time you think you would need, give yourself another two to four weeks.

3. What am I good at? The application process is your first opportunity to show who you are, where your strengths lie and what you can deliver. Reflect on all your achievements and work experiences to date, and build on that to show what you are capable of innovating in the future. Have an end goal in mind, a project or outcome that will be valuable to the organisation or association offering the fellowship. Highlight that in your application. You could be up against hundreds or thousands of applicants, so you want to show that you are no cookie-cutter student.

4. Can I be honest with myself? Be clear and sincere about who you are and what you’re capable of. Don’t exaggerate, be it on paper or in person; the selection committee has seen scores of applicants and are wise to ways in which people oversell themselves. Your recommendation letter, for example, should be written by someone who is really familiar with you or your work, and can attest to your attributes. An application that shows true merit carries weight whereas a list of glorified self-trumpeting will ultimately crumble under scrutiny.

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