Senior year of college seems to creep up on everyone. For three years, you've been living the comfortable life of a student, and your top-priority has been to learn as much as you can. Now, you're in the position where your life is on the cusp of a complete 180-degree turn. In less than a year, you'll transform from student to full-fledged adult. All of a sudden, you'll face complete financial independence, which means you'll be dealing with loans, rent, new budgets and everything else that's sat on the shelf while you were in school.

TUTORIAL: Student Loans

Still, you have bigger questions on your mind – the biggest being is probably "what in the world do I do with my life, and will I find a job that I like?" In the midst of high unemployment, competition and extremely tough economic times, many students adopt a "beggars can't be choosers" job-search attitude. In other words, students commit to taking what they can get, resorting to unpaid internships or abysmally low wages.

Realistically, it takes time to figure out your life, but you shouldn't waste time while you do it. To solve your employment quandary, you should consider a fellowship as an alternative to an entry-level job. Typically lasting for one to two years in length, these programs equip students with a balance of real world exposure and structure. Plus, these programs provide added benefits for networking opportunities and contact-building. (For related reading, see 4 Career Networking Tips That Work.)

Here are six fellowship programs that pay off in terms of entry-level salaries, classes, and networking opportunities:

Code for America
Code for America unites tech aficionados with public service. In a nutshell, the program places emerging and experienced tech professionals into roles that help make local governments more open, transparent and efficient. The 11-month program begins with a month-long orientation in San Francisco, where fellows receive an introduction to local government. Over the remaining months, they will work in teams to create open-source applications for their placement cities.

Compensation: $35,000, travel expenses, and healthcare benefits
Application Deadline: March 2012

City Hall Fellows
Established in 2007, this fellowship program matches recent graduates with local government office positions in San Francisco, Houston, and Baton Rouge, La. For 12 months of the program, fellows also participate in a leadership development workshop that teaches key topics in program evaluation and public policy.

Compensation: Living stipend that varies based on placement location and health insurance (For related reading, see Health Insurance: Paying For Pre-Existing Conditions.)
Application Deadline: March 2012

Math for America
With placement locations in Berkeley, Calif., Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington D.C. and New York City, Math for America is an organization dedicated to improving mathematics programs in the United States. The fellowship is designed to increase the number of mathematics professionals who choose to become teachers. The program lasts for five years and is available to both recent graduates and established professionals. Other types of fellowships are available for top teachers, new teachers and teachers who have moved into leadership positions.

Compensation: Full tuition scholarship, stipends of up to $100,000 over five years, a full-time salary
Application Deadline: January 2012

Teach for America
This competitive program introduces recent grads to the world of teaching. Over two to three years, fellows gain hands-on classroom experience. Currently, Teach for America corps members teach pre-kindergarteners through high school seniors in more than 10 subject areas throughout the United States.

Compensation: Salary between $30,000 and $51,000, health insurance, retirement benefits, education award, loan forbearance and paid interest, educator discounts, and exclusive scholarships to graduate school
Application Deadline: Five deadlines, with the last in February 2012

Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs
This program places fellows in locations including Cleveland, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and St. Louis, Mo. Lasting for 9 months, Coro introduces fellows to many facets of public affairs. Through field placements, classes, projects and seminars, fellows will gain hands-on career experiences. The program accommodates students and experienced professionals from a variety of backgrounds.

Compensation: Students need to pay tuition between $3,500 and $5,000, but there are living stipends available.
Application Deadline: January 2012

Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation Post-Bachelor Fellowship
Based out of the University of Washington, the Post-Bachelor Fellowship at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation enables students to gain hands-on experience in health research. The program integrates academic research, education, and mentoring, allowing students work with world-renown faculty. The program requires a minimum commitment of two years, and fellows are eligible to apply for a fully funded Master of Public Health in Global Health.

Compensation: $35,000 and insurance benefit package
Application Deadline: January 2012

The Bottom Line
Fellowship programs provide recent grads with a structured balance of academic and professional experience to facilitate a smooth transition into the real world. While competitive, they are worth exploring as an option as you pursue your first career steps. While salary numbers are less than impressive, fellowship programs provide networking opportunities and resumé boosters for the long term. (For related reading on resumes, see Top 12 Things Not To Put On Your Resume.)

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