Your go-to resource for advising students and alumni on how to apply for nationally competitive, merit-based scholarships

Dr. Michael T. Westrate, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships at Villanova University, recently participated in a Q&A session to help STEM recruiters gain insight into the role fellowships advisors play in the recruiting lifecycle and how best to work with them. Westrate previously directed the Office of Grants and Fellowships in the Graduate School at the University of Notre Dame.

Q: Who are Fellowships Advisors?

A: We are administrators and faculty in higher education who assist undergraduate and graduate students with applications for an array of nationally competitive, merit-based awards, often including research opportunities such as Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). We are not always called “fellowships advisors,” but that is the most common title. 

In well-resourced schools, we often have our own “centers” or “offices.” In other places, we work in career centers or college deans’ offices.

Many fellowships advisors came to their positions through careers in administration and work 12-month schedules. Some have a master’s degree; many do not have a Ph.D. However, many fellowships advisors are teaching professors, have little to no experience with administration, and go on break for big chunks of time, including summer.

Both types of advisors have a high turnover rate. Whatever our experience, virtually all of us are members of the National Association of Fellowships Advisors (NAFA). Yes, we do have a vibrant professional association, with workshops, seminars and national conferences! See the National Association of Fellowships Advisors (NAFA).

Q: What do fellowships advisors do?

A: We recruit and advise students and alumni on applications for externally-funded awards—everything from summer REUs to research internships to language programs to national fellowships to multiyear graduate fellowships. 

We are the people who go into classrooms to recruit for awards. We advise students from first year through graduation and beyond. We assist undergraduates and graduates alike. We meet with students and help them match opportunities to their career goals then provide unlimited draft review and assistance on their applications.

We administer the application processes for the national fellowships, and we write the press releases about positive results for our schools. We report student success up the chain of command within our institutions, and argue for more resources to support student applicants.

In other words, for the purposes of getting more and better applicants for externally-funded opportunities, we are the most important people at any college or university.

Q: How do I find fellowships advisors and others who do similar work?

A: Have your organization pay for you to join NAFA, use their resources, and reach out to advisors through NAFA’s channels—especially workshops and conferences, if you want to make a lasting impression.

Always contact all the fellowships advisors you can find listed on a school’s website. However, since the turnover rate is high, also email multiple people at each college or university, including: assistant and associate provosts, college and graduate school deans, appropriate department chairs, and everyone’s executive or departmental assistant. Also, don’t forget the students themselves. Many institutions have both profession-specific and identity-specific student groups—(e.g., the Association for Women in Science and an African American Students Group).

Q: What “killer mistakes” can I avoid?

A: Overall, try to put yourselves in our shoes. We work on long cycles (e.g., we try to have deadlines graphed out a year in advance), and we must work efficiently. You will get more and better applications if you make it easy and efficient for us to help students apply to your opportunity. Frankly speaking, we have more than enough opportunities for our students. We are therefore not going to waste time recruiting for opportunities that have difficult application processes or opaque instructions.

Since some fellowships advisors are staff and others are professors, do not treat us all the same, especially in personal communications (look at our email signatures, at least!).

Fix your web presence or make one if you do not have one! Many, many webpages for student opportunities are out of date, incomplete, lame or some combination of the above.

Do you want to save yourself from answering a bunch of repetitive emails? Come up with some solid and comprehensive FAQs, post them on your webpage, and make sure that we advisors know about them. Include application and acceptance statistics as well as tips for a good application. Keep both your webpage and your application instructions up to date.

Give us your deadlines far, far in advance. Ideally, I like to know the deadline for the upcoming year immediately after the deadline passes for the current year. This avoids confusion and gives me the maximum amount of planning and recruitment time.

Have some post-award communication with us! If we have winners, give us a boilerplate press release to help us build value in your opportunity. If we did not have winners, give us some advice for future years, or at least a “well done, better luck next time” email.

In general, we fellowships advisors are similar to you program managers. We are largely overworked and under-resourced, but we like our jobs anyway. However, our motivations are sometimes a bit different. Although we care about our institutions, helping students is generally our top priority. If you make it easier for us to help students find and successfully apply to your opportunity, that will always be a win-win. Good luck, and feel free to contact me if you have any questions.