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Professional Fellowships & Launching a Social Impact Career

Craig Zelizer

October 2, 2017

This blog is part of PCDNetwork’s career in change 2017 series. Click here for information on all the activities, webinars, blogs and ways to participate. This month’s career series is sponsored by Rotary’s Peace Fellowship program

By Vicki Johnson, Founder and Director of ProFellow.com (bio below)

As someone who has participated in several professional fellowships over the course of my career in public health, I am often asked about the path to pursuing a competitive fellowship, whether to enter the social impact field or to advance within it.

First, what is a professional fellowship exactly? I define it as a short-term, funded opportunity to do something exceptional. Fellowships are like individual grant opportunities, with a competitive application process. The opportunity may be a professional full-time role or funding to pursue a self-designed research, advocacy or creative project. Often fellowships are in the social impact sector, offering opportunities to work in non-profits or government agencies, teach, advocate for social change or pursue impactful research. Some examples of some well-known professional fellowships include Teach For America, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and White House Fellows. These are just a few - there are many more fellowship that provide unique, paid professional development opportunities in social impact.

If you are interested in entering the social impact field, either as a recent graduate or someone who has worked in the private sector, a professional fellowship can be an excellent opportunity to make this transition. However, there are a few important differences between applying to a fellowship and applying to a job. First, fellowships have an application process similar to applying to graduate school. They typically require essays, recommendation letters and in some cases, project proposals. Second, application deadlines for fellowships are usually 6-12 months before the fellowship begins, meaning they require some forethought and planning.

Here are my top tips for applying to professional fellowships:

1. Plan early

Because fellowships have a time-consuming application process, it’s important to identify fellowships of interest now so you have time to plan and prepare your application. Some fellowship applications may take you as long as 6 months’ preparation, including researching the opportunity, writing and polishing essays, securing recommendations and in some cases, preparing a project proposal. Also, there are few fellowships that begin immediately after the application process. Sometimes it can take 3-8 months to receive news of your application results. Many fellowships have Fall deadlines for a position that begins the following summer or Fall. So don’t wait until Spring to begin your fellowship research! Even if you find the perfect opportunity, try to identify a few alternatives that could help you achieve your goals.


2.Speak to former fellows

Fellowships are highly competitive; some have acceptance rates of less than 10%. It’s important to do your background research on the opportunity to determine what the fellowship organization is looking for in candidates and determine if you have the right skills and background to be a competitive applicant. Fellowship organizations have varying levels of information about the fellowship opportunity on their website. Some fellowships offer events and webinars where you can learn more, but many do not. Therefore, to get insights on the opportunity and application process, it’s beneficial to speak to people who have been there before – current and former fellows. You can be introduced to a former fellow through the fellowship organization or by seeking an introduction through someone in your professional network. Contact your university or alma mater’s Fellowships office to request introductions to former fellows, or use LinkedIn or your university alumni database to see if you have a connection to a current or former fellow. Before contacting a former fellow, be sure to have some specific questions prepared.


3.Propose a highly-focused project

Some fellowships require you to propose a self-designed project. In this case, you will want to put a lot of thought and planning into develop a feasible and interesting project proposal. I have found that projects that are highly-focused on a discrete issue or research question are more compelling and feasible that projects focused on answering broad questions. For example, instead of proposing to do a comparative study of how signatory countries will address the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, propose to study how one country plans to specifically address emissions reductions and go in-depth on this specific subject. Also, be sure to link your proposed project to the goals of the fellowship organization. For example, if the fellowship aims to support people who are addressing the impacts of climate change, be sure your project is directly advancing those goals.


4.Practice your pitch

Many fellowships require an individual and/or group interview. During the interviews, you’ll be asked by everyone why you are interested in the fellowship. It’s helpful to practice your response, particularly if you find it difficult to answer this question in just a few words. Work with a friend or colleague and have them give you a mock interview using some predictable questions about you, your interest in the fellowship, and your goals. This practice will help tighten up your responses and help you stay on point.


5.Make sure the fellowship is the right one for you

Each fellowship offers unique opportunities for professional growth and networking, but not every opportunity will be right for you. Pursuing a fellowship simply because you need a job or think the fellowship will look great on your resume is not an effective approach to long-term career advancement. The fellowship should help you gain specific skills or experiences that are needed for your career goals. For example, if you are interested in working in education policy or research, Teach for America, which is a 2-year teacher training fellowship in K-12 schools, may not be the best fellowship opportunity for you. While it can help you enter the education field, you will spend those 2 years teaching, not writing and conducting research. A better option could be the Strategic Data Project Fellowship at Harvard. It’s a good exercise to write out the skills and experiences you need to achieve your long-term goals, then seek fellowships that allow you to gain those competencies.

Need more tips for applying to professional fellowships? Check out ProFellow.com, which also has a free, searchable database of more than 900 fellowship opportunities.



Vicki Johnson is Founder and Director of ProFellow.com, the leading online resource for information on professional and academic fellowships. Vicki is an alumna of 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 administered by Fulbright New Zealand. Before becoming a social entrepreneur, Vicki worked for 15 years in public policy, focused on emergency management and public health. She has a BA in Government from Cornell University, a MSc in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a PhD in Emergency Management from Massey University (Wellington, New Zealand). Vicki is a member of the PCDN Career Advisory Board and pleased answer questions on professional and academic fellowships.


The fully funded Rotary Peace Fellowship increases the capacity of current and emerging peace leaders through academic training, field experience, and professional networking. Up to 100 leaders are selected globally every year to earn either a master’s degree or a professional development certificate in peace and conflict studies at one of six Rotary Peace Centers at leading universities around the world. Applications go live in early February and the application deadline is 31 May. Learn more today by visiting www.rotary.org/peace-fellowships


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