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What is a Senior Fellow?

By P.S. Jones
Updated May 16, 2024
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A senior fellow is the most experienced, or most successful of an elite group of people who work together as peers in an academic setting or institution. Although the word fellow has traditionally referred to males, women can also be considered a senior fellow under this definition of the word. The duties and responsibilities of a senior fellow differ according to the organization that the fellow is working with.

To become a senior fellow, there are normally several requirements that must be completed. First, the candidate must be a regular fellow for a qualifying amount of time. Then he or she will probably also need a nomination from two other senior fellows. He may also be asked to pass a series of proficiency exams, provide evidence of substantial achievement, and provide evidence of extended training or education. There are usually very few senior fellowships awarded each year, and the competition for them is intense.

In some organizations, there are no senior fellowship options, and a regular fellowship is used in its place. In those cases, a fellow is an elevated level of membership, as opposed to members or associates, both of which refer to lower grades of membership. Depending on the organization, a senior fellow may also be an integral part of the governing body of that organization. Using a democratic system, senior fellows may vote on procedure, financial decisions, or even settling disputes.

In some organizations, like the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, a prestigious learned society, fellows are the term for all members. Sometimes honorary fellowships are given out. Some organizations, or societies, bestow this title on a professional peer as an honor for performing some exceptional service, or completing some special achievement. Depending on the organization, an honorary fellow may not be a member of the actual organization. This type of fellowship often has no real responsibilities or duties, but comes with all the privileges that membership would offer.

In the business world, there are corporate fellows. Larger corporations that operate in industries that require intense research and development to be competitive, often use the fellowship program, too. These corporations appoint a small number of experienced scientists and engineers as fellows. Among the companies that use the fellowship program are IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems. In these companies, awarding an employee a fellowship is the highest honor to be received, and fellows are given extensive independence over their research.

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Discussion Comments

By miriam98 — On May 18, 2011

@NathanG - Sometimes schools will offer junior fellows internship programs too for outstanding students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These students can work as research assistants (not fellows) for a think tank when they graduate.

By NathanG — On May 16, 2011

You’ll often hear of senior fellows mentioned as posts in what are called “think tanks.” These are institutions whose sole purpose is to examine public policy, and then conduct research and write reports that become the basis of possible future legislation.

Someone working for such an organization might become a research fellow for example. A research fellow is usually of higher grade than a research assistant, since a research fellow usually must have a doctorate to be in the position for which they are performing their duties.

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