NSF Graduate Fellowship changes benefit…..?

March 8, 2016

I was wondering about the impact of the recent change in NSF rules about applying for their much desired fellowship for graduate training. Two blog posts are of help.

Go read:

Small Pond Science 

Dr. Zen

12 Responses to “NSF Graduate Fellowship changes benefit…..?”

  1. Alex Says:

    Any undergraduate who is a contender for an NSF fellowship is likely to be admitted to a PhD program with or without the fellowship, as long as they applied intelligently and spread their bets (i.e. applied to more than just the top 5 programs in their field ). (Yeah, yeah, there’s This One Exception, some person with an incredibly unusual circumstance, but 99.9% of the time…) What an NSF fellowship CAN potentially do is help a person move up the ladder of PhD programs. So, arguably, if NSF were to award more fellowships to undergraduates from under-represented groups, and announce those awards early enough in the game, they could tip a few admissions committees that were on the fence about certain applicants.

    Now, reshuffling under-represented students who would have gone to grad school no matter what does not increase the raw numbers, but we all know that academic research is (however lamentably) a competitive prestige game, and moving a few people up the ladder can matter. Moving from Decent Program to Famous Program increases the odds of moving up certain ladders in subsequent career stages.


  2. Alex, the assumption “as long as they applied intelligently and spread their bets” is precisely where students from underrepresented groups in disadvantaged institutions are falling behind.

    The time, expense, and confidence required to get into an excellent program/lab just aren’t there for a lot my students (at a university that is as nonelite as possible) who have extraordinary research experience and potential. If they got a GRFP, they’d probably end up in a strong PhD lab (even if it’d take an extra year because of the timing of admissions deadlines and award notification), but they might not even get in anywhere (or even apply!) without the fellowship.

    Seriously, it is SO SO hard to get my colleagues with good programs to take any student from CSU Dominguez Hills seriously. Even those that have coauthored multiple papers, have oodles of field experience, and can express themselves really well. And these students have a very hard time applying to many grad programs because of the cultural barriers that are hard to surmount.


  3. Mikka Says:

    I served on a GRFP panel this year, and I thought that while we received clear instructions on how to assess the scientific part, with calibration sessions and everything, the diversity criteria were dreadfully vague. What should count more, socio-economic status, sex or race? Is a black boy from an upper-middle class family with educated parents less or more deserving than a shoeless white girl from the ozarks with meth-addicted parents? Would the latter even count as diversity, even though she probably had to overcome more difficulties than the former? I can see merit for both, since the criteria clearly state “increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities”, and the societal impact of pushing the rich black kid through could perhaps exceed that of giving it to the poor white girl.

    It was all very difficult to evaluate, and I had everything from the aforementioned cases to fresh-off-the-smuggler-truck-from-cartel-ravaged-Sinaloa mexicans, to Irak/Afghanistan vets with PTSD on the GI bill. Tweaking eligibility may help, but they should also do more on the reviewer side.


  4. Newbie(ish) Says:

    Because it *totally* makes sense to encourage more students to get their PhD without any plan for their long term funding! Everyone I know gets a PhD in 3 years, right? Sorry, I have a beef with the approach of piling more people into the bottom of the pyramid. This may give an edge to motivated undergrads, but I don’t see it as a real solution to pipeline issues. I agree with NeuroDojo: change the review criteria. Also, do a better job of distribute the fellowships to less glamorous labs, PIs, and institutions


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    I beg you all to follow the links and comment at their blogs. And read a few back posts. Very good stuff on both of their blogs. Let’s bring the good old days of science blogging (2008) back…..


  6. Jonathan Badger Says:

    Maybe things are different now, but at least when I was in grad school in the 1990s, when you either didn’t have a fellowship or yours ran out, you just got a TAship. And a lot of those were basically sinecures where all you had to do is spend time grading a couple of sets of midterms and the final rather than actually having to teach on a daily basis.


  7. Newbie(ish) Says:

    Jonathan, things are different now. TAships can be difficult to come by for a myriad of reasons. First, TAing is frequently an academic requirement for getting a PhD. This means that all students have to TA (and have to take an otherwise paid slot) even if they are well funded. Second, undergrads are TAing, too. Third, politics. Not all departments have TA slots available, and they don’t like to share. Some of my students have no access to TA slots – ever – because of this. It is irritating as hell, especially when the affilitated departments offer paid positions to undergrads.


  8. Craig Says:

    Having a GRFP as an undergraduate is just “the cherry on top” for an already accepted graduate student. You’re applying for schools at the same time the application goes out and should be accepted by time you hear the results. I can’t see how it would open any doors to a higher-rung institution, unless you happened to be waitlisted.

    If you have a GRFP in hand, you do have more flexibility when it comes to selecting your PI once you are in grad school. Like any situation where you bring your own money, more doors will be open.

    At least when I was in grad school, there was a real art to writing a successful application and a lot of that was driven by which PI helped you write it. Some groups had a GRFP winner each year–either someone who rotated there in the fall or was submitting an application at the start of your second year. Either these labs were consistently recruiting some stellar talent or they knew the winning formula.


  9. Newbie-Ish Says:

    Hmm. I just thought of another risk. It is so easy for a student to lose active mentorship when their project is not directly contributing to grants that your PI is writing. It’s easy for a PI to take an eager, highly motivated student that brings their own funding, but it’s much harder to keep those students at the top of the priority list when the PI’s direct interests are not exactly aligned.

    I could see students easily falling through the mentoring cracks on this one. Plus the first year is often a waste anyway, so that really only leaves them with two solid years of research time (unless the school offers a first year fellowship).


  10. JustAGrad Says:

    This is interesting. When I applied as a senior, one of the criticisms of my application is that I didn’t identify a PI to work with as a PhD student. And that wasn’t for lack of trying. But nearly every PI who responded to my emails around that time said it was far too premature to consider hiring a student when I hadn’t been admitted yet. I can imagine that many programs admit students that already have a PI on their side, but my experience was that PIs didn’t even want to communicate with applicants until they were admitted.


  11. zb Says:

    I think to answer this kind of question, you have to really talk to those who are being targeted (and their mentors). It’s taken me a long time to understand the asymmetries of information available to “disadvantaged” v other students and the impact. Examples that come to mind are the kids who get letters from Questbridge in HS and think that it’s not for real. Or the reports of the number of times that a teacher has to ask a child to apply to something real before they’re convinced that 1) they might actually be a good candidate and 2) it really is a good thing and not a scam (especially in light of all the scams).

    I think the confidence of having one’s own money, of having been selected already as a winner have a greater impact on choices for a disadvantaged student than on students who basically know the path to academia.


  12. Thank you so much zb. So so much this.


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