The Idiot’s Guide to Funding Your Graduate Education and The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program

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When one applies to graduate school, they may have found the perfect professor that they would ideally like to work with. Sometimes the two of you hit it off great and they would love to have you in their lab, but there is one thing that stands in the way: funding. It is relatively uncommon that a professor takes on a graduate student in their lab if they cannot provide funds for them through the college or through private funds. There is one way to get past this, however, without having to work and go to school part time or going into debt – find your own funding.

Typically professors fund students through one of two ways, a teaching assistantship (TA) or a research assistantship (RA). The responsibilities of these two jobs vary from institution to institution and even from department to department. Each has their own perks, but simply from what I have seen, an RA is certainly preferable to a TA. Sometimes departments even help each other out if a graduate student is qualified to TA a certain course even if it is not directly in their specified field. At my undergraduate institution for example, students in the Plant Biology department were able to TA the intro courses in the Biology department because they are qualified to assist with teaching that class and the associated lab.

While TAs are very useful in that they allow you to get paid while being a graduate student, they often require a lot of time grading for the class they are assigned. In the sciences, the graduate students with TAs usually help with grading homeworks, tests, quizzes, and oftentimes they teach labs associated with the class they are assigned. TAs, however, can sometimes only last a certain time period. My friend had been supported through a TA and though it provided her with enough money during the school year, she had zero forms of income throughout the summer because only a handful of graduate students were needed to assist with the smaller class. Additionally, TAs may only last a semester.

RAs can be just as time intensive as TAs and bring about many of the same uncertainties. While no teaching is involved with most RAs, you are still working. Just instead of being involved with the teaching side of academia, you are involved with the research side as a laboratory technician of sorts. Some professors allow your work for the RA to be directly related to your thesis while others require that they be completely separate.

It is important to ask professors that you are applying to what type of funding they have to support you. And if it is a TA, do not be afraid to ask details regarding how many sections of a class you will be assisting with per semester and how much funding you receive for it. This may seem like an awkward thing to bring up, but the questions are reasonable and the professors have been in your shoes before as well. Also if they are supporting you through an RA, ask if the work you will be doing can be applied to your thesis. These questions are ones that are important to ask so that you make an informed decision regarding your graduate school career.

Finding your own funding is something that is not exactly easy. Fellowships are very selective, but I strongly believe that they are worth applying for simply because of the doors that they may open for you. Sometimes a professor may not be able to accept you into their lab because they do not have the funding available, but if you have your own funding; it may very well land you an acceptance to that university. One professor even wrote on his website that if you are able to land one of these awards, you may as well write your own admissions ticket.

A very common form of funding that spans across many science disciplines is the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). I was awarded this last year and thus I am most familiar with it and I will only be writing about it. There are, however, other forms of funding that are available such as the EPA STAR that are worth applying for as well.

The application process for the NSF GRFP requires four pivotal parts. The first is your letters of recommendation. Applicants are required to submit three letters of recommendation and they must rank them in order of importance. You may indicate five people to write these letters for you just in case one happens to forget, you have two alternates. Then you have to prepare three written parts of equal value: a proposed plan of research, a personal statement, and a previous research statement. These three essays are of equally weighted value so it is imperative that you spend sufficient time on each. You are graded on these three essays based on two things, Broader Impacts and Intellectual Merit. When you write these essays, be sure that they reek of Broader Impacts and Intellectual Merit. You want to be sure that the reviewers notice these in your essays that way they can grade you appropriately.

Another thing that was stressed highly to me is formatting. It is important that your objectives are clearly stated so know that it is acceptable to bold or separate things like your hypotheses into different lines. Remember that these reviewers are reading a ton of these essays so the easier it is for them to identify your main points and go back to them if they need to, the more likely they are to view your essays favorably.

The NSF fellowship (last year) is such that you are given a $30,000 per year stipend for 3 years that is to be used as you the fellow see fit. While you are an active fellow you also do not have to pay any required tuition or fees and you are actually eligible to receive travel funds for your research. Your university is allowed awarded a cost of education allowance to help mitigate the costs of having you as a student due to the fact that they cannot charge you tuition. There are several myths regarding the NSF GRFP and things that have change that I will debunk below as I had personal experience finding these things out myself.

1) You can defer your NSF Fellowship.
False. While it may have been the case in the past that someone can defer the use of the fellowship that is not the case now. A student must be enrolled in a graduate program the fall of the following year or else they forfeit all awarded funding. That being said, a student who is already enrolled and is a fellow may use a “Reserve” year during which they are still enrolled in their program, but they are not receiving any form of funding from the National Science Foundation. They are, however, still considered fellows. This may not seem useful, but examples of where it is useful will be provided.

2) All PhD students can apply for the NSF GRFP.
False. In order to qualify for the NSF GRFP, one cannot have attended any graduate program for more than two years. Therefore, students who have already gotten their Masters degrees are not eligible to apply for the NSF GRFP. Therefore those eligible to apply are students who are preparing to enter graduate school (senior year if they are currently enrolled undergraduates or other prospective graduates applying to graduate school), first year graduate students, and most second year graduate students. I cannot exactly remember the reason but starting a program in the summer as opposed to the fall makes you ineligible to apply that third time.

3) Masters students can receive the NSF GRFP.
True. Students at an institution that only offers a Masters degree still qualify for the NSF GRFP. If they are lucky and graduate in two years from their program, they are able to take the third year of funding with them to their new institution for PhD. If they take a break between their Masters and PhD, however, they must forfeit the last year of funding.

4) There is no point in using a reserve year.
False. If you are in a Masters program and you are not finishing directly at the end of an academic year, it may be in your interest to use a reserve year so you do not use up a year of funding when you only need it for half the year. Perhaps your professor can put you on a grant for that half of the year that way when you apply to a PhD program you can have either one or two years of funding (depending on how quickly you graduate) at your disposal. Also I have heard that some PhD programs will match the funding a graduate student gets on their own year for year. With the economy, however, some of these policies may change so using a reserve year would be beneficial so that you get the years of matched funds first before the opportunity goes away.

5) The Cost of Education allowance is to be used solely to help cover the cost of your tuition.
False. The actual use of the Cost of Education allowance is up to the discretion of the university. That means that they can put it towards deferring the cost of your tuition, but if they choose to, they can actually use it to fund your research, but this is the university’s decision. Therefore it may be a good idea to plant this idea in your professor’s head. It may certainly benefit you.

I hope all of this insight helps. Graduate school is a very complicated thing so hopefully this will help sort out some questions you or friends may have had regarding funding and finding some of your own should you choose to do that.

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