Fantastic STEM PhD Fellowships and Where to Find Them (and how to win them too!)

By Sathvik Ajay Iyengar (PhD Fellow in Materials Science and NanoEngineering [MSNE])

Someone pondering how they can be more compelling!

Embarking on a Ph.D. journey is not just about academic pursuit; it's a transformative experience that often requires financial support. PhD fellowships serve as crucial lifelines for doctoral candidates, providing financial backing, networking opportunities, and professional development. In this blog, we will delve into the intricate world of PhD fellowships, exploring eligibility criteria, application processes, and shedding light on my journey as an international PhD student.

Eligibility Criteria:

PhD fellowships come with diverse eligibility criteria, ranging from academic merit to citizenship status. Some fellowships may be open to all candidates, irrespective of nationality, while others might be restricted to specific citizenships or research domains. It's crucial for applicants to carefully review and meet these eligibility requirements. Common criteria include enrollment in a Ph.D. program, academic achievements, and sometimes a demonstrated commitment to specific research areas. Many fellowships also restrict what ‘phase’ of your Ph.D. you must be in (pre-candidacy, post-candidacy, post-3 years in, pre-/post-defence, and so on). This can weave into the next critical consideration (cue drumroll):


Understanding the timelines associated with fellowship applications is paramount. Fellowships often follow specific application cycles, with deadlines varying across institutions and programs. Some fellowships even have multiple calls throughout the year! It is best to start the application process well in advance, so you have ample time to refine research proposals, secure letters of recommendation, and prepare application materials. Missing deadlines can be detrimental, as many fellowship programs operate on a competitive basis.

Fellowship Application Focus:

Different fellowships have distinct focal points in their application processes. For instance, the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship emphasizes expertise or interest in science policy, encouraging applicants with a passion for shaping policy decisions. On the other hand, the National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowships may prioritize research proposals, evaluating the scientific merit and potential impact of the proposed work. Prospective applicants should tailor their materials to align with each fellowship's specific requirements and objectives.

Writing up a Compelling Application:

Before you start writing, it is essential to understand the goals and objectives of the fellowship thoroughly. Tailor your application to align seamlessly with the mission and values of the program. Demonstrating a clear connection between your goals and those of the fellowship enhances your chances of success.

Tell a Cohesive Story: Craft a narrative that flows seamlessly from your academic background to your future aspirations. Your story should be compelling, illustrating how the fellowship fits your academic and career trajectory. Create a cohesive and engaging narrative that captivates the reader.

Highlight Your Achievements: Showcase your academic and research achievements prominently. Be specific about your contributions, publications, and any notable projects. Quantify your impact whenever possible, providing tangible evidence of your capabilities.

Connect with the Fellowship's Focus: Tailor your application to emphasize how your research interests or academic goals align with the fellowship's focus. Clearly articulate how your work contributes to the program's broader goals, showcasing your dedication and understanding of their mission.

Address Weaknesses Proactively: If there are any gaps or weaknesses in your application, address them proactively. Whether it's a lower GPA during undergrad or a brief hiatus in your research, explaining the circumstances and highlighting how you've overcome challenges can demonstrate your resilience and growth.

Demonstrate Impact: Articulate the potential impact of your work on your field or society at large. Convey a sense of purpose and commitment to making a positive difference. Whether through policy changes, scientific advancements, or societal improvements, showcase the tangible outcomes of your efforts.

Follow Application Guidelines: Adhere closely to the fellowship's application guidelines. Pay attention to word limits, required documents, and any specific instructions. A well-organized and compliant application reflects your attention to detail and professionalism.

Show Passion and Enthusiasm: Infuse your writing with a genuine passion for your field of study or policy area. Conveying enthusiasm for your research or advocacy adds a personal touch to your application, making it more memorable for the reviewers.

Edit and Revise: Editing is a crucial step in the application process. Review your materials for clarity, conciseness, and grammar. Ensure your writing is polished, error-free, and effectively communicates your message. Multiple rounds of proofreading can significantly enhance the quality of your application. And remember, grammar, grammar, GRAMMAR!

Finalization and Feedback:

Crafting a compelling fellowship application is an art, and like any art form, it benefits immensely from constructive feedback. Refining your application materials involves a critical examination of each component, ensuring that your narrative is impactful and aligns seamlessly with the fellowship's objectives. Here are some key considerations:

Peer Review: Review your application materials with your peers or colleagues. Fresh perspectives can identify areas where your narrative may need clarification or where you might be underselling your achievements. Constructive criticism is invaluable in polishing your materials to perfection.

Faculty Input: Seek input from your academic advisors or mentors. Their wealth of experience can provide insights into how well your application aligns with the expectations of the fellowship committee. They can also offer guidance on emphasizing key academic and research achievements.

Tailoring for Specific Fellowships: Not all fellowships are created equal, nor should your application materials be one-size-fits-all. Tailor your documents for each fellowship, ensuring that your experiences and aspirations resonate with the program's specific goals. Highlighting relevant achievements and aligning your narrative with the fellowship's ethos can significantly enhance your chances.

Clarity and Brevity: Conciseness is critical. Ensure your application materials are clear, focused, and free from unnecessary jargon. Fellowship committees often review numerous applications, and a well-articulated, concise narrative is more likely to capture their attention.

Seek Guidance from Fellowship Alumni: Connect with previous fellowship recipients you're applying for. Their insights into the selection process and the factors contributing to their success can be invaluable. Understanding the expectations of someone who has walked the same path can provide a unique perspective.

Professional Editing: Consider exploring professional support to refine your writing at an early stage. Whether you turn to university resources like the Center for Academic and Professional Communication (CAPC) or take advantage of the available GPS Fellowship Coaching, engaging with these services before reaching a final draft can significantly enhance your application. Don't feel the need to delay seeking assistance until your writing is complete; CAPC and GPS coaching offer comprehensive guidance beyond grammatical and sentence-level edits. Consultants and coaches can assist you in shaping core content, expressing a robust central message or theme, and weaving a compelling narrative. Seeking advice early ensures you avoid merely "polishing" statements with weak content or structure. Coaches, especially, can aid in goal setting, establishing feasible timelines, and providing accountability, thereby increasing the likelihood of actively working on and submitting a well-crafted application.

Remember, the application process is iterative. Don't hesitate to revisit and revise your materials multiple times. Each round of feedback and refinement brings you closer to an application that meets the criteria and stands out from the rest. Embrace the feedback process as a vital step toward securing the fellowship that aligns best with your academic and career aspirations.

Rice University's Online Resource:
Rice University’s Graduate and Postdoctoral Scholars Office (GPS) provides a valuable online resource for PhD candidates seeking fellowships. This comprehensive database offers a centralized platform for students to explore various fellowship opportunities, access application guidelines, and gain insights into successful application strategies. Utilizing such resources can significantly enhance the chances of securing coveted fellowships. There are also other fellowship databases (e.g., ProFellow for STEM and H-net for Humanities and Social Sciences) to search, scour, and identify fellowships that fit your needs.

Embarking on a Ph.D. journey is undoubtedly challenging, but it can be a rewarding experience with the proper support. Navigating the realm of PhD fellowships involves careful consideration of eligibility criteria, adherence to timelines, and tailoring applications to align with specific fellowship objectives. Rice University's online resource provides a valuable starting point. As an international PhD student, I hope my journey demonstrates that opportunities exist for those who seek them with determination and a strategic approach.