By Mary Kombolias
Many people believe fellowships are completely inaccessible and out of their league. I used to be one of them. I never actively pursued fellowships when I was an undergraduate or graduate student. In fact, I never would have believed that I would one day be the recipient of one, much less multiple fellowships without a PhD or an Ivy League diploma behind my name. Yet here I am, and I’d like to provide some tips on how you can pursue mid-career fellowships to advance your career.
If you’re a mid-career professional reading this and wondering how much further ahead you could have been in your career if you had pursued fellowships as a student or recent graduate – just stop. The time to apply for fellowships is now! Based on my personal experience, anybody with a non-traditional origin story and circuitous career path who has nevertheless established a track record of success is an ideal candidate for a mid-career fellowship.
I know because I’ve been there myself. I’m a professional chemist who worked as a middle school science teacher before shifting to a 13-year scientific career with the US federal government. After over a decade of experience, I decided that fellowships would be an excellent way to contribute and develop my existing skills. My first success was being added to the Fulbright Specialist Roster, a highly-competitive opportunity for professionals to complete short-term projects abroad. I watched a ProFellow how-to video, followed all of their helpful tips, and eventually earned my spot. I’m now a muti-fellowship recipient who has been awarded the Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) Fellowship, the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, and the Aspen Tech Policy Hub’s inaugural Climate Policy Fellowship — most of which I found through the free ProFellow Database.
In my experience, mid-career fellowships are geared towards people who have the courage to venture out and try new things with minimal supervision. If you’re ready to experiment with disciplines outside of your primary domain, or build on the expertise you’ve developed throughout your professional career, there’s a fellowship out there for you. Here’s why mid-career fellowships are worthwhile.
Benefits of mid-career fellowships
Expanding your professional network
Although the organization and format of specific programs vary, fellowships are generally structured in one of two ways. One is a cohort model where multiple applicants are selected regionally, nationally, or internationally. The other is to be assigned individually to a project or program office. Either way, you can exponentially expand your network of contacts and with that, your exposure to new ideas, collaborators, programs, and even job opportunities.
The ability to change fields
Mid-career fellowships are great for meeting people who have successfully exited one career and entered another. If you don’t know where to start, you’re likely to meet an advisor or colleague who has made the leap or might know someone who could advise you on how to best structure your transition.
ProFellow Tip: If you’re interested in changing fields, check out 8 Fellowships to Change Careers
The opportunity to travel
While COVID has changed the fellowship landscape in that some programs which required significant travel can now be completed 100% remotely or in a hybrid format, other fellowship programs still allow for international travel and relocation. Opportunities in any given field abound, and there is a fellowship out there that can accommodate your travel preferences.
Access to graduate school-like experiences without returning to student life
One huge benefit from my mid-career fellowship experiences has been the ability to access what I’d like to call “graduate student experiences” while still maintaining the lifestyle and salary of a working professional. Quite a number of mid-career fellowships are part-time, allowing the recipient to maintain their job with little interruption to their personal life. I have been able to meet and learn directly from prominent academics, researchers, politicians, and industry leaders and ask very specific questions in a way I could not simply by researching on my own and in a much more direct and personal way than cold calling people.
Meeting like-minded, dynamic people
Life is more than a series of achievements and LinkedIn connections. I have met some incredibly warm and vivacious people through my mid-career fellowships whom I am proud to call my friends even long after the fellowship has ended.
If these are the kinds of things you’re looking for, let’s get to work on how to make them yours. Here’s a ten-step breakdown of my process for fellowship application success.
Ten Simple Steps to Win Mid-Career Fellowships
Step 1: Choose joy
It is important to do a self-inventory before you seriously begin investigating any of the thousands of mid-career fellowship opportunities out there. I would suggest making a simple timeline of the major events in your career, including any volunteer and community activities, and between each step, jot down a few words about the circumstances that led you to that choice and whether it was a net positive or net negative shift. Humans are creatures of habit, and we all have a pattern to our choices. Understanding (1) what kinds of experiences you do not want to return to and (2) what excites you are crucial in selecting the right opportunities to pursue. If, within your self-audit, you realize that the career activities that gave you the most joy were those that leaned on your leadership skills, but somehow you kept hitting the ceiling trying to secure a leadership position in your field, perhaps explore leadership fellowships that can unlock your potential.
Throughout my own career, the assignments and projects I was most passionate about were always related to environmental sustainability. This was no surprise; I had, after all, started my career as a solid-state inorganic chemist working on lithium rechargeable battery cathodes. As a climate victim in a destroyed city, I had nonetheless managed to complete my laboratory research and successfully defend my MS thesis, from which two papers were later published. Yet, somehow, for many years I felt I could not pivot myself toward a career in environmental sustainability! Today, I am concurrently a fellow for two programs that are specifically devoted to climate policy and sustainability issues.
ProFellow Tip: Learn how to create a winning application for the Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) Fellowship.
Step 2: Start searching
Once you understand your motivations and your passions, the next step is to begin a search in earnest. Of course, by reading this on ProFellow you’re already ahead of the game. Creating an account is simple and fast, and accessing the free ProFellow Database is way more efficient than conducting a blind internet search. Joining ProFellow’s newsletter email list is also a great time saver because, without any effort, you will automatically receive a list of upcoming fellowship deadlines that have applications due within 2-3 months. While you can conduct a targeted search in the database using keywords, I also enjoy learning about opportunities that may not align with my specific goals and interests per se, but which I could recommend to someone else in my network or even unexpectedly be a good fit for myself.
Step 3: Utilize your network
Closed mouths don’t get fed. Once you’ve identified a suitable program, it is possible that there is already a previous awardee among your personal and professional contacts. When I started my journey, I didn’t know any fellowship awardees personally, but the people in whom I confided my ambitions had known former fellows who better understood how fellowship programs operated in general. These connections allowed me to receive advice that helped me immensely in the preparation for my personal statements and, eventually, interviews. I also must admit that although I was on LinkedIn, I was much too shy to leverage the tool properly in order to connect with second and third-degree contacts with direct proximity to the world of fellowships. I know better now!
Step 4: Speak to potential references well in advance
Fellowships are jobs, and like applying to any job, you will need to provide references, or in this case, letters of recommendation. I would say that well in advance of applying for a specific opportunity, it’s important to reach out to people in your professional life to let them know you plan to apply for fellowship opportunities. 99% of the time, people will be on board and willing to support your candidacy if you approach them with enough time to prepare. Another great reason to speak to your potential references about your fellowship ambitions in advance is that they might be familiar with another opportunity that aligns with your interests, circumstances, and goals.
Step 5: Reach out to previous years’ winners
Winners want to see other people win. Nearly every program will list its current and past recipients on its website and social media pages. Oftentimes, fellowship recipients will also be asked to supply a short bio for publication by the program’s PR office. More often than not you will find an alumnus whose background resonates with you or with whom you share something in common professionally: the kind of person who will make you say, “Wow, if she could do it, so can I!”
Leverage LinkedIn. It costs no money and only a little of your time to send a short and respectful note to someone who has already lived your dream. Considering how competitive fellowship selection processes are, nearly all fellowship winners are stunned to hear they were chosen, and people relish recalling positive experiences.
Step 6: Improve your application prep skills
Oftentimes, fellowship programs will host free webinars for prospective applicants where the program directors themselves essentially tell you exactly what they’re looking for in a successful application package. Any time a webinar was announced for a program I had interest in, I always signed up, attended live, and watched the replay made available afterward. What’s really cool is that ProFellow often teams up with programs to host free online application workshops. I attended two of these workshops, and incredibly enough, I was awarded both of those fellowships! One thing to note is that past fellows of a particular program are usually part of these calls to answer questions about their experiences, and there is nothing stopping you from reaching out to them afterward.
Additionally, I have invested in myself by taking paid courses through ProFellow to become better at resume writing, using LinkedIn, drafting a personal statement, drafting a research proposal, and preparing for interviews – all skills that are transferable beyond the domain of fellowship competitions.
Step 7: Budget your time
An application can take anywhere from a few hours to several weeks to complete, depending on the requirements of the program and your level of preparation. Essentially, every application is going to require you to provide references, document your career history, and answer essay questions related to your motivations and what value you can bring to the program. Very often, you will also have to submit a research or project proposal or some kind of statement of work. You will never regret the time and effort you have invested in submitting a well-structured and polished application package submitted ahead of the due date. That’s right – ahead of time. Let me explain.
When I’m planning to apply for a particular fellowship, I open my calendar to one week or at least a few days before the application deadline and work backward to schedule time for all the components I am required to submit. I generally recommend getting permission from references or requesting letters of recommendation ASAP while building upon the other elements of the application. Again, if you are competing for an opportunity that requires a research proposal but you’ve never written one before, you will need to find time and identify the resources to learn how to do just that (ProFellow Founder Dr. Vicki Johnson often hosts interactive workshops on the topic!). If you need to submit a short video statement or organize a portfolio of your work, that will take time, too.
I generally don’t recommend submitting an application on the due date. In many cases, the sheer volume of applicants to a program may cause a website to crash. There may also be submission cut-off times that are particular to a specific time zone in which you may not live. Not paying attention to this detail once cost me both the opportunity to compete and all the time I had put into drafting my application package. Your own life and plain bad luck may also get in the way of timely submission. By giving yourself a few days to a week’s worth of grace, you can save yourself a lot of agony knowing you did your very best work and not a sloppy, rushed job.
Step 8: Prepare thoroughly for interviews
Even if you naturally perform well in interviews, it is imperative to seriously prepare, scheduling your preparations backward from your interview date. If you are told in advance of the composition of your interview panel, do some research on them on LinkedIn to understand their background and what they may be looking for. Understand the goals and requirements of the program thoroughly, and remember that the panel has already studied your resume and read your essays. Be prepared with anecdata that does not repeat things the panel already knows about you, and ask questions that demonstrate genuine interest. Make sure your tech is working and that the image of yourself on the screen is both professional and flattering.
Step 9: Remain cautiously optimistic
There are a variety of reasons why one applicant may get selected over another. Rejection is inevitable and normal in the fellowship application world, and should never be taken personally. It’s not uncommon for fellowship winners to be selected for an opportunity only after reapplying for a second or even third time. If you can demonstrate growth between application cycles, re-application is actually viewed as a sign of persistence and resilience, not desperation, by selection committees.
Step 10: Celebrate!
Eventually, all of your diligence, preparation, and hard work will pay off. Congratulations! Always be a gracious winner. Read your contractual materials carefully, respect PR embargos, and if for some reason you are no longer able to take advantage of an opportunity, let the program know as soon as possible so an alternate candidate can be selected to take your place.
If you needed permission to try, you have mine
No one I’ve met, including myself, who has received a fellowship ever said they regretted the experience. If you are a mid-career professional and want to make a job pivot, leap, or transformation without returning to graduate school, there is a fellowship program out there for you to help you access your potential.
However, if you never submit an application to a program, the answer will always be “no.” With all the boldness and confidence you can muster, say “yes” to yourself today! Best of luck to everyone as you embark on your fellowship journey!
Mary Kombolias is an award-winning chemist, patented inventor, and international standardization expert whose work advances environmentally sustainable manufacturing. Previously, she worked as a scientist for the US Federal Government and was an eighth-grade science teacher. Mary is the recipient of th Aspen Institute Tech Hub Climate Fellowship, the Environmental Entrepreneurs Fellowship, the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, and has also earned a spot on the Fulbright Specialist Roster.
Fellowships can be the perfect way to fund your sabbatical. Find out how in 20 Paid Fellowships for Your Mid-Career Sabbatical.
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