Internships vs. Fellowships: What’s the Difference?

Dec 07, 2017

What's the difference between an internship and a fellowship

By Brittany Mihalec-Adkins

Internships and fellowships alike can hold immeasurable value for your career trajectory – both at the early- and mid-career levels. While the terms “internship” and “fellowship” are often used interchangeably, the two actually differ in a few key ways, including: the application process, the target applicant, the experience itself, and – yes – the money.

Fellowships usually focus on professional development and/or academic research, rather than professional experience.

An internship can basically be thought of as an opportunity to gain experience working for a company or organization that otherwise only hires more advanced professionals. Sometimes internships are “trial periods” for students seeking jobs in the company after college, and sometimes they are completed as part of a degree or training program requirement. Fellowships, on the other hand, carry a more academic or scholarly undertone. Fellowships typically involve less day-to-day structure and emphasize the completion of some sort of project that will help participants succeed in their respective fields.

Fellowships are typically for those at the graduate and post-graduate levels.

While this certainly does not apply to all fellowships, many fellowships require at least a bachelor’s degree, and some even require a master’s or doctoral degree. Full-time professional fellowships are for those who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree. There are also many academic fellowships that are for graduate students and post-graduates. Some are only for graduate students working toward a Ph.D., such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which are called “pre-doctoral fellowships.” Fellowships for those who have already completed a Ph.D. are referred to as “post-doctoral fellowships.” Internships, on the other hand, are more often open to undergraduate or even high school students.

Fellowships applications typically require applicants to propose a specific project to complete during the fellowship period.

Internship applications are often quite similar to entry-level job applications – you have to submit your resume, answer a few brief questions or submit a cover letter about why you want the position and why you are qualified for it, and you may have to provide contact information for professional references. For many fellowships, because of the nature of the experience, applicants must write at length about specific research or projects that they will use the fellowship time and funding to complete.

Fellowships typically carry a set stipend, while many internships offer hourly wages – more like a typical job.

In most cases, fellowships carry fixed-amount stipends, rather than hourly wages. This is partially due to the decreased day-to-day structure of most fellowships – many fellowships do not require fellows to log a certain number of hours or clock in or out when they are working on their projects. Fellows are typically more independent and working on projects at an advanced level; whereas interns are typically assisting with entry-level operational and administrative tasks.

Internships are more likely to be unpaid or provide college credits in lieu of monetary compensation.

This key difference is likely related to the fact that many fellowships are reserved for post-college students or professionals, but nonetheless: fellowships are a lot less likely to come with course credit payments or no payments at all. This is important to keep in mind when choosing internships; while the experience may very well be worth working for free all summer, doing so is not feasible for everyone. On the other hand, working for credit may be appealing to students who are hoping to graduate early.

Knowing the difference between internships and fellowships can not only help you to craft a more thoughtful, targeted application to either, but can also help you make important decisions about which experiences will benefit you most.

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Brittany Mihalec-Adkins is a first-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and second-year Ph.D. student in Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University. 

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