What Is a PhD Fellowship?

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  • Written By: Gregory Hanson
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2019
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A PhD fellowship is a grant of money to a student who is pursuing a PhD. Fellowships are granted by departments, by universities, by individuals, and by government or corporate entities. Some are simply rewards for excellent performance and are used to attract and retain highly desirable students. Other types of PhD fellowships offer money to be used for specific purposes, to students with particular characteristics, or with the stipulation that students perform some future task in exchange for funding.

Most academic programs seek to fund their students working on doctoral degrees through a mix of fellowships and employment as research or teaching assistants. A PhD fellowship is typically considered to be more desirable than academic employment, as it allow students to focus more attention on their own research and studies. All fellowships confer some degree of status, as they indicate that a department, agency, or individual thinks very highly of a student’s work and potential.

College departments and universities typically have access to funds for a number of fellowships, to be awarded at their discretion. This type of PhD fellowship can usually be given to any student. In some cases, rules stipulate that students may not receive such funding for more than a certain period of time.


Many types of PhD fellowship are funded by individuals or agencies outside of academia, in order to further some particular agenda. A family might endow a fellowship in memory of a lost loved one, and instruct those responsible for awarding it to select a candidate with characteristics that remind them of the man or woman memorialized by the fellowship. Corporations often endow fellowships to encourage skilled researchers to do work in fields of interest to those firms. Governments frequently fund research in areas thought to be of national security interest.

A PhD fellowship can also be used as a tool to offer educational opportunities to students from under-represented demographic groups. Fellowships for members of particular ethnic groups are common and are often funded by successful members of those ethnic groups. Fellowships for women or minority students exist in many schools in an effort to attract more students from these groups.

Some varieties of PhD fellowship stipulate that the funds granted are to be used for a specific purpose. The prestigious Fulbright-Hayes program was designed, for instance, to fund scholars conducting research or study abroad. Such fellowships often require a recipient to provide feedback and research that is of use to the government or agency that funded his or her travel. Fellowships in the sciences may require the production of work in a stipulated field.


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