Demystifying the Public Health Fellowship

Published on: May 30, 2024

“Have you considered a fellowship?” 

That was the one phrase I heard most frequently as the first year of my public health graduate program came to a close.  I, like thousands of other graduate students around the country, needed to find an opportunity that would allow me to put my public health knowledge to work before officially launching my career.  

Mentors would throw that flashy “fellowship” phrase around with abandon, but candidly, I never really knew what it meant.  I’d had internships in the field, but a fellowship felt bigger and in the ever-expanding world of public health careers, it also felt overwhelming.    

If you, too, are at the point in your career or educational journey where everyone is telling you to find a fellowship, this is the article for you.  Together, we’ll demystify the fellowship, covering everything from what it is to some resources to find opportunities.  Come along, fellow public health practitioner, and let’s find the fellowship for you.

Understanding Public Health Fellowships

Public health fellowships are a unique component of the public health field, mainly because they give early career practitioners applied practice experience in a controlled environment.  As a fellow, you’re there to see what you learn in a lecture hall come to life in the real world, preparing you to step into the field with applied practice experience.    

Unlike an internship where you shadow a current professional for a summer, fellows are afforded more independence in their daily work.  A public health fellow might be asked to contribute to the daily activities of their team or even conduct their own project, all while building relationships with colleagues.  At the same time, a fellow is ultimately there to learn.  Fellowship mentors guide and answer questions the whole way through, making sure their fellow feels supported as they enter the professional world. 

There are dozens of options for the kind of fellowship you might want.  For those more interested in policy, government agencies at the federal, state and local levels all provide fellowship opportunities.  Academic institutions, like your university, frequently offer fellowships with faculty, giving students the opportunity for hands-on public health research experience.  Non-governmental organizations, ranging from global institutions like the World Health Organization to your favorite local non-profit, are also excellent options to consider in your search for a fellowship.

Components of Public Health Fellowships

Duration and structure

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of fellowships: those for current students and those for recent graduates.  

Fellowships for current students are designed to align with school schedules. Many graduate schools encourage fellowships for students between the first and second year of study. During that summer, fellows often work a full-time 40-hour-a-week schedule. Other fellowships might run for a semester or the entire school year, with mentors collaborating with students to balance work and class schedules.   

Post-grad fellowships are more similar to full-time jobs. Typically, these fellowships last an entire year, and fellows work a full-time schedule like employees.  

Common focus areas and specializations

Whatever your specific interest in public health may be, there is a fellowship designed to meet your needs.  

Government organizations, like the CDC and USDA, have well-established programs that focus on epidemiology, environmental health, and even rural health.  If you’re more interested in state or city policy, local health departments also offer excellent programs in the field.  The California Department of Public Health, for example, offers a range of fellowship opportunities for people of all experience levels.  If you’re passionate about applying public health tools in policy, government positions might be the choice for you.    

Non-governmental organizations, like the World Health Organization or USAID’s Global Health Fellows, have similar programs available for global health-centric practitioners. These options can also provide fellows with experience abroad, adding another layer of immersion to the applied practice experience.   

Non-profit organizations are yet another fantastic option for fellowships.  While likely smaller in scale, these organizations can give you more one-on-one time with mentors.  If you’re particularly mission driven on a certain topic, such as women’s health or vaccine awareness, foundations advocating for these issues will frequently take on public health fellows.    

Sometimes, narrowing down your search can be the biggest barrier to getting started.  Starting at your university’s career center can be an excellent place to start.  Many career offices keep running lists of fellowships that take the guesswork out of the process.    

Expectations and deliverables for fellows

While a fellowship is a learning opportunity for early career professionals, it’s also a chance for you, the fellow, to start establishing a professional reputation.  Throughout the course of a fellowship, you’ll be expected to listen, learn, and conduct yourself in a professional environment.  As time goes on, a mentor might give you more solo responsibility, giving you the chance to represent the organization and make connections in the field.   

A thorough fellowship program is also a collaborative process where mentors and fellows work together to understand each other’s goals.  While fellows will frequently contribute to daily work, many mentors will also help you carry out your own project that adds value to the organization while giving you a professional work product to show for your time.

Who Are Public Health Fellowships For?

The short answer is that public health fellowships are for everybody!  Whether you’re fresh out of school or looking to transition into the public health field, there’s a fellowship opportunity designed for you that will put your public health expertise to work.  

Whichever program you’re interested in, make sure to read their eligibility requirements carefully to see if you qualify. Some typical qualifications can include:

  • Pursuing a degree, generally within one semester of graduation

  • Recent graduate of a master’s or PhD program in a public health field

  • Advanced degree in another field with demonstrated work interest in public health.  For example, health policy fellowships are often designed for people with both a public health and legal education.

Navigating the Application Process

As we’ve established, the world of the public health fellowship is vast.  While navigating the application process, you want to allow yourself enough time to read the requirements and pull together your application components carefully.  Every fellowship application will differ slightly, but you should be prepared to provide: 

  • A Resume or CV

  • 2-3 Letters of Recommendation

  • Transcripts 

  • Essays and personal statements

Like applying to graduate school, your main goal with your application is to show your motivation for applying.  As a mentor once told me, you need to “find your why”.  The review board should be left with a clear idea of who you are when they close your application file.  We all come to the table with valuable lived experience that will drive any public health initiative forward.  Your story is important, so spend the time to tell it well.      

Remember: the point of a fellowship is to learn and grow.  Reviewers are looking for people who want to be there beyond ticking a box off their graduation requirement to-do list.  Finding your why will set you up for success as a fellow and ultimately, as a public health practitioner.

Financing your Fellowship

As a recent graduate myself, I’d be remiss to leave out a topic we’re all concerned about: money.  Since a fellowship is essentially a trainee program, the pay is not high and with the cost of education and living on the rise, finances have to be a consideration.  

Most fellowships will pay fellows in the form of a stipend, which is essentially a lump sum of money that the recipient lives on for the duration of the program.  While the organization supplying the funding does not withhold taxes, stipends are considered taxable income, further cutting into an already tight budget.  

To put it plainly, a fellowship can be financially difficult.  

That being said, there are options to finance your time.  Check-in with your university to see what kinds of scholarships they can recommend.  Again, if you leave yourself enough time to plan for your fellowship, you can research resources to help you through your tenure.

Securing a Fellowship: Dos and Don'ts


  1. Ask for help! The application process can be long and confusing.  Ask a favorite professor or a friend for advice.  Search the organization hosting the fellowship on LinkedIn to see if anyone in your network currently works there and ask them to chat.  Asking for help can be intimidating, but people are happy to share their knowledge more often than not.  

  2. Act professional.  This is a professional opportunity.  Think of the impression you want to give.  Act with confidence, but also remain humble and willing to learn.  

  3. Advocate for yourself.  Do you need to work remotely 2 days a week?  Do you need a work laptop?  How about funding?  Know your own worth and negotiate the terms of your fellowship.


  1. Procrastinate.  Pace yourself with your applications.  There’s nothing more stressful than writing three fellowship essays during finals week two days before a deadline (ask me how I know…). 

  2. Apply to everything.  Treat this process like applying to college.  It’s best to find a handful of opportunities to focus on rather than applying to everything out of fear of getting nothing.  

  3. Be unreasonable.  I know I said to negotiate above, but do so responsibly.  Ask for what’s reasonable given the context of the organization.  A small non-profit probably can’t meet your stipend expectations, but it’s still worthy of your consideration.

Case Studies: Successful Fellowship Experiences

My own fellowship experience was one of the highlights of my time in graduate school because it allowed me to start doing work I’m passionate about while still a student.  After weighing my options and considering the time and financial commitment that worked for me, I looked for fellowships with small non-profit organizations.  

Once I narrowed down the kind of organization I wanted to spend time with, I looked for fellowships in my public health area of interest.  At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court had just overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that protected the right to an abortion nationwide.  Before graduate school, I was involved in abortion access advocacy, and with the impending policy crisis caused by the SCOTUS ruling hanging over the public health community, I needed to get involved again.  As I continued my fellowship search, I knew I wanted a position that would directly put me in the fight for reproductive rights nationally.  

After asking around, I came across a position for a Graduate Policy Fellow at a non-profit called National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).  Established over 100 years ago, the NCJW fights for women’s rights and gender equity nationwide.  While their issue portfolio typically focuses on voter mobilization and gender equity initiatives, the organization pivoted its resources after the ruling to strategize around securing abortion rights and developing a mutual aid fund for those seeking care in hostile states.  

While I sat in on staff meetings and was even entrusted with representing the organization alone at numerous coalition meetings, my mentor also helped me design my own project during my tenure.  My area of expertise lies at the intersection of women’s health and data science.  As NCJW tried to craft future legislative action, they needed insight into abortion statistics and their intersection with religious beliefs. Still, they didn’t have anyone on staff who could manipulate large data sets that way.  For my final project, I crafted that analysis for them, using publicly available data to summarize strategy options for mobilizing their vast network of political action coalitions.


Like all things public health, fellowships offer boundless opportunity.  Whether you’re interested in writing public health policy or conducting research overseas, a public health fellowship offers applied practice experience to early career professionals.  My own fellowship experience showed me how to apply what I learned in school to a real world problem, all while building relationships with colleagues in my field.  If you, too, are ready for more experience, considering a public health fellowship is an excellent option.


  1. What is a Fellowship? | Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. Accessed May 26, 2024.

  2. Ibid. 

  3.  CDC. Fellowships and Training Opportunities. Fellowships and Training Opportunities. Published April 1, 2024. Accessed May 26, 2024.

  4.  Fellowships & Exchanges | USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. Published June 7, 2021. Accessed May 26, 2024.

  5.  California Pathways into Public Health. Accessed May 26, 2024.

  6.  WHO EMRO | Fellowships | Health workforce. World Health Organization - Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean. Accessed May 26, 2024.

  7.  USAID Global Health Fellows Program II. Public Health Institute. Accessed May 26, 2024.

  8.  What is a Fellowship? | Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. Accessed May 26, 2024.

  9.  Taxation of Scholarships, Fellowships & Stipends | Tax Department | Finance Division | The George Washington University. Tax Department | Finance Division. Accessed May 26, 2024.

About the Authors

Written by:

Emma Warshaw, MPH

Emma Warshaw, MPH, is a data analyst at a healthcare technology company.  She attended Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health for her graduate education, completing a dual specialty in Population and Family Health and Applied Biostatistics and Public Health Data Science.  In her current role, Emma is responsible for weekly and monthly deliverables that evaluate the effectiveness of pharmaceutical marketing campaigns. 

Prior to her current professional role, Emma worked in a variety of public health related positions.  As an undergraduate, she co-founded and served as Vice President of Students for Reproductive Freedom at UC Davis, a Planned Parenthood Generation Action organization that helped to pass the College Student Right to Access Act in the state of California.  During graduate school, she worked as a Graduate Policy Fellow for the National Council of Jewish Women and spent a semester as a researcher and fact checker on for The Desperate Hours, a book by acclaimed Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner that detailed the inside story of the New York Presbyterian hospital system in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.      

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Emma Warshaw headshot

Emma Warshaw, MPH

Contributing Author

Education: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Knowledge: Population and Family Health, Public Health Data Science, Applied Biostatistics

Reviewed by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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