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University Funding

Assistantships and Fellowships - Application Process

British student at a US university

After assessing your personal and family savings, your best resource for funding will likely be the US university. In fact, two thirds of students in the sciences and engineering and half of students in the humanities report receiving significant funding from their university. How do you become one of them? Read on for an overview of assistantships and fellowships, as well as information on the application process and additional tips for securing funding.

Assistantships and Fellowships

"I'll be paying for my studies through a fellowship awarded by the department I will be attending. The fellowship covers my tuition and provides a stipend for living. In exchange, I will be teaching undergraduates and assisting with research over the summers."
Marc, University of Pennsylvania

There are generally two types of university-based funding available: fellowships and assistantships. Usually both types of funding are renewable from year-to-year, if the student maintains specified academic standards (such as a minimum 3.0 GPA).

Fellowships can be thought of as an outright grant, while assistantships are funding offered in return for services provided to the university - either teaching, research, lab supervision or working in a campus office for approximately 15-20 hours per week. Assistantships are therefore not only an excellent way to fund your studies, but can also be a way to network and gain valuable experience in your field.

The terms of assistantship packages will vary between universities and departments, as they often depend on available grants for research in the department, the field and number of undergraduate classes in the field needing graduate-level instructors, etc. As a general rule, funding is more readily available for PhD students and students in a research-focused master’s degree. (Assistantships are rare for students in professional degrees - JD, MBA, MD). Further, the number and amount of awards varies by subject area with programmes in the sciences receiving more funding to pass on to students than programmes in the humanities. This is why two thirds of students in the sciences and engineering and half of students in the humanities report receiving significant funding from their university.

Sound too good to be true? Funding is used in two ways by universities. First, it provides much-needed teaching and research assistance at a lower cost than they would regularly pay professors. Second, universities use funding as a recruitment tool. This is why you should take competitiveness of admission and funding into account when choosing degree programmes.

Application Process

Often the process for applying is straightforward and integrated into the admissions application. In fact, it may be as simple as submitting your admissions application by an earlier date, ticking extra boxes on the application and/or submitting a CV and covering letter.

For more information on university funding, you will want to check with multiple offices about funding opportunities for in-coming students and how you might go about applying for these: the department, the graduate school (if applicable) and the financial aid office. Your job is to be proactive and find out the information you need. Additionally, you may wish to use the scholarship searches on the EducationUSA, Hotcourses Abroad and IIE's Funding US Study websites.

Fellowships and assistantships are generally awarded based on academic merit and potential as assessed from your university admissions application. Some fellowships may have niche criteria, based on the donor or department’s wishes.

Keep in mind the key to getting university funding is starting early and being flexible in choosing universities at which you will be competitive for funding opportunities.