NSF makes its graduate fellowships more accessible


The US National Science Foundation has changed a rule for their Graduate Fellowships. As of next year, grad students can only make one attempt at landing a graduate fellowship, which is intended to increase the proportion of awards going to undergraduates.

The last time I wrote about NSF Grad Fellowships, I was critical about the fact that awarded fellowships (and presumably the applicants) are heavily skewed to students who did undergraduate work in elite private institutions and public research universities. My criticism got a lot more attention than a more constructive post, with seven ideas to help improve the situation. NSF didn’t take my recommendations, of course, but they have made a change that they claim will help fix the Diversity Problem.

I’ll let NSF speak for themselves:

GRFP continues to identify and to inspire the diverse scientists and engineers of the future, and especially encourages women, members of underrepresented minority groups, persons with disabilities, and veterans to apply. This change in eligibility should result in more individuals applying as undergraduate students who have not yet made the commitment to go to graduate school. This is a more diverse population than admitted graduate students.

Is this a Good Thing? I say yes. Is it, as NSF would say, Transformational? I say no.

Here’s my reasoning, which is just a couple-hours fresh, so comments and insights from others are quite welcome.

A lot of NSF Grad Fellowships are going to students who are already enrolled in very good PhD programs. Nearly all of these students have received reassurances from their PhD advisor and graduate program that they are going to get five years of solid support, presumably from teaching or other grants.

Grad students who get NSF fellowships are already doing okay. And nearly all of them are going to get their PhD. In this model, fellowships go to people who are already doing well, so that they can do even better. That’s not a bad thing, of course. But if NSF is pretending that their graduate fellowships are changing the ethnic and socioeconomic composition of the population of students in grad school, this old approach isn’t going to accomplish that goal.

Who is getting hurt by this rule change? PhD students.

Who is getting helped by this? Undergraduates, some of whom might not yet have been admitted to PhD programs.

The folks that I’ve seen complaining about the rule change are annoyed because their PhD students are less likely get awarded. The people who I haven’t seen rejoicing are the undergraduates that NSF is targeting with this rule change. That’s because they don’t have the megaphone and many aren’t informed about how they can land federal funding.

The way that research institutions are recruiting minority applicants right now, they actually aren’t really helping to increase diversity. How can that be?

The “diversity problem” isn’t going to get fixed by finding the most highly prepared students that have managed to persist despite the system working against them, what Yale calls “low-hanging fruit.” I guess they must not be familiar with Billie Holiday.

Minority students are experiencing a lot of disadvantages compared to students attending Primarily White Institutions. Disadvantaged students are coming from disadvantaged institutions. If we are actually going to truly diversify, and have scientists in the US represent the breadth of the American experience, that means we have to start training scientists from the institutions where the undersupported are going to school.

Why is this rule change not enough? This:

And, not only do many undergrads not know NSF Graduate Fellowships, but the undersupported minority students that NSF wants to recruit into doctoral programs don’t have the faculty and institutional support structures to help them compete against overrepresented groups.

Undergrads in Small Liberal Arts Colleges (SLACs), which are well known for making the most PhD students, will have faculty advisors spending time with them on their applications, lots of individualized research experiences, and probably a campus office to help them package together their applications.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a not-small number of exceptional undergraduates that have the potential to do very well in grad school and beyond. And they want to go to grad school. But let me tell you how hard it is to get them into a good lab. Even PIs who think highly of my own work are very reluctant to take my students into their labs, because they know that my students went to CSU Dominguez Hills instead of a more impressive institution. The fact that they go here is a black mark on their records. Seriously. You know this. Nobody comes out and speaks about this institutional bias overtly, but it’s there. And my students have experienced it time and again. These students might not have a record that is not as uniformly impressive as someone from a SLAC or an R1 lab, for the obvious socioeconomic and social capital reasons. But they have the same goddamn research potential. The people who work with my students know this.

Just imagine if these students, who aren’t getting into grad school because of all of these systemic biases, had NSF fellowships? Then a lot of labs would take them in, partly because of the money and also because of the imprimatur that comes with the award.

As commenters on my original post were wise to point out, it’s not just a selection problem, it’s a recruitment problem. Limiting graduate applicants is a small tweak to the recruitment situation, but won’t vastly change the minority composition of undergraduate applicants.

So, NSF, what’s next? How are you going to change the application and review procedure to help level the paying field for minority undergraduates who are getting less support than students at Primarily White Institutions? Making it institution-blind would be a start, so that reviewers aren’t biased by “better” undergraduate institutions. Also, NSF could make sure that students get notified about the awards before most departments make decisions about who is going to be in their programs. Which often happens in the early spring. That would help the people who get the awards the chance to land the lab that is best for them, which might be one that wouldn’t be willing to take them without an NSF fellowship.

Is there a chance that there will be more funding for outreach so that undergrads in this minority demographic that you’re targeting will be learning about how to apply and maybe even get some support in developing their applications? (Probably not, I’m guessing, since NSF is saying one reason they did this was to get fewer applications. But to increase diversity, that will probably mean trying to get more applications from the population you’re targeting, right?)

Zen Faulkes was quicker to the trigger in writing up his initial take on the rule change. One of his major recommendation was changing who the reviewers are. Yup.

If I have a massive change-of-mind in the coming weeks, I’ll be sure to update this post. In the meanwhile, I thought I’d get this viewpoint out there because some people think this is a Bad Thing and wanted to contextualize it from the perspective of a professor in a disadvantaged institution working to put minority students into grad school.

11 thoughts on “NSF makes its graduate fellowships more accessible

  1. I’ll be curious to see what happens, but I would worry that the one-chance rule will have the opposite effect: to heavily deter undergrad applicants. (To be clear, I have not read the new rules in detail). That’s what happened with NSERC postdocs here in Canada: they went to a one-chance rule, and now everyone waits until their very last eligibility to apply, because they don’t want to waste their one shot when their CV is anything less than the longest they can manage. It’s a game-theory thing: if you apply early but everyone else applies late, you lose. If you want undergrads to apply and win, you probably have to say “you have to apply before you are accepted to a grad program”. That’s a big change that one might or might not want!

    • To clarify: now you can only apply once as a grad student, but when you apply as an undergrad this doesn’t count against you.

  2. Why wouldn’t a smart student just wait until they start grad school? Then they get the benefit of the fellowship-writing “boot camps” and the grantsmanship expertise that the elite schools have in spades. Reviewers will continue to prefer those schools, and I would predict that the outcome will be greater bias, certainly not less. Students from less-advantaged schools need more time to be competitive, not less. The only part of this that rings true is that it will reduce the number of applications. I’d have a hard time advising a student outside of an elite school to even try now.

  3. Joshua, I think the changes to the program are designed for the “smart students” who are not yet in graduate school. It might be hard to imagine, but students outside of elite schools — even the really talented ones with amazing research potential — aren’t even sure they will be admitted to graduate programs.

  4. You wrote: “Just imagine if these students, who aren’t getting into grad school because of all of these systemic biases, had NSF fellowships? Then a lot of labs would take them in, partly because of the money and also because of the imprimatur that comes with the award.”

    Will the students find out in time for it to make a difference in the grad admissions process? (This question assumes that most wouldn’t apply until their senior year.) Are they also changing the time frame of when they’ll make decisions? If it continues to go on the current timeline, only students who applied in their junior year would have heard in time for it to impact grad admissions.

  5. Meghan, that’s a really important point that I buried in the latter half of the penpenpenultimate* paragraph. (Which should merit its own post, actually. Right now undergrads who land GRFPs typically use them to fund their time in labs that they’re admitted to. Or maybe ditch one lab for another at the last minute?)

    On edit: just looked it up. the proper word is preantepenultimate.

  6. Oh, whoops! I missed that you’d made that point. C- for me on reading skills yesterday.

    I think most departments are making decisions on who to invite for interviews in January and February. So, they’d need to move up the decision timeline by quite a bit for it to impact that.

  7. Terry, I genuinely thank you for making such consistent effort to raise awareness of important issues and combat institutional biases so that minority students have access to quality educational opportunities. The playing field may not be level, but people like you make it a little less bumpy.

    Some previous comments (@ Joshua) seem to think that the undergraduate application is in lieu of 1st year graduate applications. That is not the case, please see the FAQs on the NSF page (and consider the following.) Per the NSF: senior UGs as proportion of all GRFP applicants fell from 41% to 25% in 2001 when eligibility was extended to 2nd year grad students. If we look at the demographic composition of PhD vs UG students, it can be assumed that higher UG GRFP application rate will represent a higher proportion of minority students. While this isn’t a comprehensive reform of the current system, it is a step in the right direction.

    Fun anecdote time!:

    As an undergrad I was an NIH- IMSD fellow (program to increase STEM diversity). I had 2 years’ paid research under my belt and access to great mentors when I prepared my GRFP application Fall 2014 (senior UG year). Guess what? I still felt that it was an uphill battle. I didn’t have a prestigious university name attached to my application, I didn’t have a stellar GPA (getting a 3.8+ while working 3 jobs wasn’t a reality). I didn’t have access to social capital. The application doesn’t care why I didn’t have those things.

    I am of the opinion that many graduate and fellowship applications (GRFP included) do not have the resolution to evaluate the full capacity of their applicants. Furthermore, the metrics used significantly benefit my white and affluent peers. I hope one day that the NSF includes a diversity statement in the GRFP app because I want the reviewers to understand our backgrounds in context and see the massive amounts of effort it took to get to where we are.

    As scientists we should strive to discern (and value) the nuances in our peers’ narratives. To me, my lab mate’s ability to manage data is just as important as her years spent working to help her siblings move to the US. I want to work with a whole person, not a GPA.


  8. I have been following your blog for a while now and absolutely love how blunt you are about the diversity issue. I am currently in graduate school at the University of Michigan(PhD in Neuroscience) but I did my undergraduate work at Cal State San Bernardino.

    I was one of the lucky few who managed to have a professor who cared enough to tell her students about the fact that graduate school even existed. Once I discovered this, I found other faculty members who were incredibly supportive and aided me in getting into the ONE neuroscience lab we had on campus and helped me obtain an NIH fellowship so that I could even do research since I was a struggling single mother to two beautiful little girls. The population of students who were trying to go to grad school was very small BECAUSE they didn’t know. They weren’t lucky enough to sit in my particular class taught by a particular professor. Even though I was accepted into several programs, i was almost too scared to go. Why? Because during my interviews the fact that I came from Cal State San Bernardino was looked upon as a negative mark on my record. I had to defend my education. PI’s who interviewed me essentially tore apart my school to my face without knowing anything about it or me. I had one in particular tell me “well since you went to CSUSB, you are probably used to being the smartest one around but if you come to (Insert prestigious R1 university name here), you’ll have to get used to being the one who doesn’t know anything. Think you can catch up with everyone else?” I received this type of treatment by fellow recruits as well. “You really think you’ll get in? I worked really hard to get here. Can you handle the work??”

    So yes, large research Institutions turn students down because they see CSU and even if they don’t turn them down, they definitely make them feel worthless for graduating from a CSU (U of M excluded which is why I’m here) which discourages them from pursuing a graduate education.

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