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Assistantships vs. Fellowships: What’s the Difference?

Congratulations on your journey toward continuing your education! As you embark on this new adventure into graduate school, you might’ve heard about postgraduate fellowships and assistantships as options to make school affordable. However, you might be confused about the differences between them. Fortunately, this guide walks you through assistantships vs. fellowships, and by the end of it, you’ll be able to decide which one fits you best!

What’s an assistantship?

As a graduate assistant, students are employed by their collegiate institutions to work with faculty often within their major. Colleges pay their assistants for their work directly, and they are often allowed to use the money as they see fit. It’s most similar to having a work-study job

What’s a fellowship?

A fellowship is an award given to postgraduate students to continue the pursuit of an academic focus or interest. They don’t necessarily have to be offered by a school, so students can gain fellowships from outside organizations. Don’t think of a fellowship as a job but rather as a type of research grant. 

What’s the difference between an assistantship and a fellowship?

Grant vs. Job

A fellowship is merit-based funding offered to graduate students, which is why they’re extremely similar to research grants. Fellows aren’t considered to be employees of the organization they receive their fellowship from. 

An assistantship is a job that students work with specific responsibilities or tasks that they’re obligated to complete to maintain employment. Their salaries are also considered as taxable income.

Concentrated interest vs. Generic positioning

While assistants can work across departments and intermingle several different skills and interests, the same can’t necessarily be said for fellowships. Fellows are restricted to their particular interest, though there are a wide variety of options of what that interest could be. Assistants can jump from project to project depending on the faculty they work under, while fellows focus entirely on their research. 

Restricted use of funding vs. personal pay

Fellowship funding covers the cost of research and professional development, but can also be used to cover the cost of tuition, books, and possibly even living expenses. On the other hand, assistantships give their students paychecks, and they choose what to spend the money on. In addition, assistantships can include tuition discounts along with the work stipend. 

See also: How to make money in college

Graduate school only vs. undergraduate offerings

While fellowships are only offered to postgraduate students or students that have graduated, assistantships can be gained before that! You can even be a teaching assistant as an undergraduate student, though you might have to take the course first. However, graduate assistantships, of course, are offered only to graduate students. 

Think of fellows as students that are recipients of scholarships from organizations while assistants are employees to their school. 

What are the similarities between an assistantship and a fellowship?

Offered to students

One of the major benefits of these opportunities is that they are offered to students who need them. Taking part as an assistant or fellow means you can help ensure your educational future, and set yourself up for success. Fellows don’t necessarily have to be currently enrolled, but their previous or current interest in schooling allows them to gain positions.

Research component

Becoming a fellow automatically assumes there will be a research component to their work. On the other hand, only research assistants are specifically expected to play a role in research. Though a major difference is that the research for fellows is their own while assistants help professors with their research by gathering information or writing papers.  

How do I apply for assistantships and fellowships?


Oftentimes, students have to apply for assistantships through their college job portal or reach out to the faculty member they would like to work under. If you’re interested in an assistantship, you’ll have to work on your resume to showcase that you’re an ideal candidate. 

Also, colleges and universities sometimes consider students for assistantships upon application to their school. This is a lot more common for graduate students since their merits from their undergraduate career should be showcased throughout their applications.


Fellowships can be found directly through the college you attend, but they can also be offered by outside organizations. Usually, students will have to complete applications to win a fellowship, and these coveted positions can be quite competitive. These applications can include personal essays, previous papers or work samples, letters of recommendation, and more. 

Related: How to write an essay about yourself

Which one is right for me?

Both assistantships and fellowships are fantastic opportunities, and you should take advantage of them while you can. Typically, you won’t be offered an assistant position and a fellowship at the same time, but it can happen and you might be struggling to choose.

It’s a lot to think about, especially since they can be great additions to your resume. First and foremost, you should follow the path that makes the most sense for your future. 

If you’re mainly staying on or near campus, it’s probably best to opt for an assistantship. On the other hand, if you finished your undergraduate program, then it’s probably more ideal to pursue a fellowship. 

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • An assistantship is employment offered by a collegiate institution for students to work with faculty on campus
  • A fellowship is similar to a grant that’s usually given to postgraduate students in order to continue specializing in a particular academic interest
  • There are several differences between assistantships and fellowships, such as the position classifications and responsibilities and regulations on funding
  • Both assistantships and fellowships are offered to students, and these positions can entail a certain level of research 
  • In order to get an assistant position, students must apply with their resume or they can qualify upon acceptance into their school of choice
  • You can become a fellow by filling out applications to schools and other organizations. These applications usually require documents like essays and work samples 
  • You should decide between an assistantship and a fellowship by what works best for you and your desired future 
Key Takeaways