For graduate students, the first years of the Ph.D. are packed with an array of hurdles, and it is easy to end up feeling overwhelmed. Once you have passed your qualifying exams, chosen a thesis laboratory, finished the majority of your coursework and have a good general direction for your thesis project — roughly mid-second year of your Ph.D. — it is a great time to begin to apply for fellowships. However daunting it may seem, this is the next step in setting yourself apart on future job applications and gives you vital practice communicating your science.

Why Fellowships?

Fellowships are a source of outside funding from different corporations, institutions or foundations to financially support a student during their Ph.D. Fellowships are very competitive and are usually awarded on merit, with specific guidelines from the funding organization. For example, the Ford Foundation’s goal is to increase diversity in academia by funding students from a minority background who aim to become professors in academic institutions.

One important reason many students apply for fellowships is because they want to take the pressure off their laboratory to fund their stipend, ultimately giving more funds for their thesis project. Funding durations can range from one to three years. There are fellowships that will supplement educational expenses for you to buy a laptop or go to a conference. There are even fellowships that will specifically fund your last year or last two years, so it is never too late to apply for a fellowship at any point during your Ph.D.

My friend and colleague, Ashley Stewart, received the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship in 2017, and I received the same fellowship this year. Here, we share our knowledge on the general fellowship application process, from finding the right one to apply for, to putting yourself in the best position to receive a fellowship.

How do I find a fellowship to apply for?

  1. A good place to start is to browse for fellowships that may fit your needs. Also, Googling fellowships specific to your field of research is a valid place to start. There is not a wrong way to search for fellowships, just be sure to start earlier rather than later.
  1. Or, you can always start by simply asking around. Ashley learned about all the fellowships [she] applied for through word of mouth from friends and mentors. I followed the same route, and was able to expand my network by finding individuals who had received the fellowship in years prior. Ashley had her thesis mentor reach out to other professors who had students with successful applications. She adds, “I attended workshops held by the PDCO (Professional Development and Career Office), the BSA (Biomedical Scholars Association) or other organizations to get more information.”

Most fellowship applications are oriented to fit your long-term goals. Personally, I am interested in the academic profession, and I specifically applied for fellowships that are geared toward my end goals. Although, “if you do not know yet what career you wish to pursue, you should apply for grants regardless,” Ashley affirms, “[because] in any career path, it will only help you [to] communicate your science.” I would advise to cast a wide net in your initial search, and narrow it down based on your personal preferences and your mentor’s guidance.

Before you start the application…

  • Narrow down your initial search to two to three applications to focus on. Too many may overwhelm you, yet you want to apply for more than one to increase your chances.
  • Find someone at Johns Hopkins or within your network who has received the fellowship. Make sure to ask if they are willing to share their past materials with you, because it is extremely helpful to have a copy of a successful application.
  • Map out deadlines and give yourself at least one month to finish the application. Keep in mind that once you have written your original materials you can often tweak them and repurpose the information for other applications.
  • Set up meeting times with your thesis adviser to discuss your thesis project and develop your research statement. Around this time, Ashley suggests to begin thinking about what [your] personal story is and how that fits into [your] scientific story.
  • Have a few back-up fellowship applications that you can apply for in the future.

Now that you know what a fellowship is, and you have the tools to go find one, nothing is standing in your way of trying to get your own source of funding for your Ph.D. Just remember that this will take a chunk of your time to complete and do well, so plan ahead. Mark your calendar and find fellowships that will help transition you to the next part of your career. After you have run through your checklist, you can go off and begin the application! Check back soon for a complementary blog post that has more information about things you gain from applying and the two big components of the application: research proposal and personal statement. Good luck!

You're ready for part two!


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