Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, writing from Evanston, Illinois in the USA
“What is a fellowship?” This question opened more conversations than I can count over the last four and a half years of my professional life, and it lacks a straightforward answer. Some ‘fellowships’ are in fact scholarships (Rhodes to study at Oxford; Gates to study at Cambridge). Others are grants (Fulbrights for independent projects) or funded internships (Junior Fellows at the Carnegie Foundation; Urban Fellows in New York City). All three categories and a multitude of additional permutations share a fundamental commitment to mentorship. As we women of UVenus know, we need all the mentors we can find, and thus, I encourage young women to pursue such opportunities with alacrity.
I remain amazed at how reluctant some students seem to throw their hats into the admittedly three-ring circus of applications, nominations, and interviews required to reach the goal.If doctoral candidates in this country receive payment from their institutions, why should someone – particularly a young woman listening to her biological clock – veer off track for monetary support she does not need?
Because fellowships are not about financial capital. They are about cultural capital.
When I address young women, I make an unorthodox argument for fellowships. The simple argument highlights the people you meet from outside your immediate institution and field of study, who will expand your ideas and ease your access to the halls of power. Moreover, money can make certain types of dreams come true. However, my gratitude for the fellowships I held stems not from my non-existent rise to power or my spare change but from the flexibility it gave me to follow my own eccentric path.
We all strive for work life balance, and we all know how ephemeral it seems. A good friend who walked away from her own expensive education and high-profile career to raise her children says, “We can have it all. We just can’t have it all at once.” During my years ‘at home’ with my sons, my fellowships facilitated my peculiar professional juggling act. They served to certify my status as a scholar when I had no institutional affiliation to follow my name. Folks I knew from various fellowships still invited me to write reviews and attend conferences. When I collected the courage to put together conference panels, my former fellow fellows would accept my invitations to apply with me. I know that the fellowships on my CV caught the eyes of senior scholars who might easily have skimmed past the proposal of an ‘independent scholar.’
When I was ready to rejoin the formal work force, my experience with fellowships saved me again. My alma mater offered to pay me for the advice I had previously dispensed for free. I remain in a non-traditional role for a scholar. As I have written here before, no one really cares if their fellowship advisers have an active scholarly agenda (although I think they should). My current job carries no truck with editors or selectors. My certification as someone in whom other foundations invested continues to carry some weight. My choices may seem weird, but others are less likely to see me as intellectually unworthy.
Fair? No. True? So far as I can tell, yes. Do I have a significant statistical sample? Absolutely not. Do I know other women from the rolls of British Scholarship recipients who have profited from their fellowships as they carved peculiar individual paths through their professional and parenting lives? Absolutely. Perhaps we find the courage to constantly recreate ourselves, because we won the fellowship lottery once and think lightening might strike twice. Perhaps the fellowship safety net gives us the sense of security we need to strike out on a tightrope over the professional abyss. No matter what motivates us – and yes, of course, each makes her own decisions for her own reasons – fellowships play a part.
Every woman (and man) should have the freedom and the courage to find her or his own way through the treacherous terrain of personal and professional goals. As yet, the constraints seem too many and the solutions too few. Fellowships broaden horizons and help fellows find their footing on slippery slopes.
In an ideal future, I would like everyone to have all these advantages, but as a first step, I want more women to be fellows.
Evanston, Illinois in the USAElizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an associate director of the office of fellowships and teaches history and American studies at Northwestern University, from which she earned her B.A. (1992). She earned M.Litt. (1994) and M.Phil. (1995) degrees in European History as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University before completing her Ph.D. at Princeton University (2000)For more, visit
or find Elizabeth on Twitter@ejlp and LinkedIn.