NSF Graduate Fellowship timing doesn’t help the undergrads who need the help


NSF just announced their Graduate Fellowship (GRFP) awardees. Here’s where you can download the excel file that lists all 2000 awardees by name, undergrad institution, graduate institution, and field.

Last year, I griped that NSF fellowships aren’t effectively changing the face of science as (I believe) they’re intended to, and that the talented students who most need this kind of support aren’t getting it. No surprise, but that’s still true this year. Of course, the people who can diversify science aren’t getting funded at the rate we need them to be, and most of them aren’t getting support from their own institutions and don’t even know these fellowships exist.

You can apply for a NSF Graduate Fellowship as an undergrad before you graduate, or as a grad student before the end of your 2nd year of grad school. NSF just tweaked the rules to tip awards more towards undergraduate applicants: grad students can only apply once, and they anticipate giving more awards to undergraduates — which is a more diverse pool of applicants. I imagine this is their way of trying to increase the number of URM awardees without getting in legal trouble of introducing quotas.

I would hope that NSF wants these fellowships to support talented students who are having trouble getting admitted into high quality labs for grad school because they come from a marginalized background. You might find it hard to believe that highly qualified undergraduates with oodles of demonstrated research success have trouble getting into good labs, but I see it all the time. A lot of PIs are not willing to take the leap to take a student from a university like CSU Dominguez Hills. And our students typically don’t have the savvy and polish that come with students who come with more social capital.

Here is one thing that I think NSF will really need to change if their graduate fellowship are going to help the undergraduates who can benefit most from this help: The date awards are made.

Awards just got announced near the end of March. At this point, nearly all PIs know who they’re taking into their lab, and nearly all of the students know which lab they’re going into.

How often is it that an undergrad finds their way into a lab because they got the GRFP? Because I have some students that are totally GRFP-worthy, and if they got funded, they’d be getting into way better labs (using the measuring stick of your choice) than if they didn’t get funded.

Getting awards out at the start of April seems to only fund the undergraduates that are already in the lab of their choice, or in the lab of not-their-choice.

Can this be fixed? I’m not sure how, but I think it’s important to find a way. I understand that having people apply before their last year of college is not the best, and it takes a lot of work to do reviews both fairly and promptly. But if applications are due in, say, mid-October, would it be possible for people to find out in mid-January, at a time when these decisions could affect the outcome of graduate school applications? That gives students at least a month in college to do their apps, and gives NSF a few months to run the reviews.

What do you think? As NSF is now focusing more on their undergraduate pool in future competitions, then getting awards out before grad school decisions are made would help everybody out, wouldn’t it?

5 thoughts on “NSF Graduate Fellowship timing doesn’t help the undergrads who need the help

  1. Not that it’s directly comparable (or maybe it is? I haven’t really thought about it in this context), but Canada’s NSERC postgraduate scholarship results also get announced in late March for start dates beginning in May.

    • I don’t know enough about the Canadian system when decisions get made. But in the US, undergrads get invited to interview with grad programs in January-March, before the fellowships get announced.

  2. Terry, I wasn’t sure if you had done the analysis on this year’s data, but here is the story on awards for CA universities.

    2016 NSF GRFP awards by UG institution (UG enrollment)
    164 All UCs (188k)
    65 UCB (27k)
    35 All CSUs (393k)
    30 Stanford (7k)
    19 CalTech (1k)

    2016 NSF GRFP awards by current institution (total enrollment)
    270 All UCs (239k)
    124 UCB (38k)
    88 Stanford (16k)
    11 All CSUs (460k)

  3. I’ve always thought that the award notifications were late on purpose, so that student admissions were not biased by whether students did or did not have a GRFP. If students applied to grad programs with award in hand, how would you prevent the Harvards, Stanfords, Yales of this world to vacuum up the majority of the awards by making admission contingent on the student having a prestigious award.

    I see how your proposal would help individual students, but I think it would create terrible bias in where students with GRFPs end up. I’m not sure how to balance these conflicting constraints. However, in principle I do like the idea that universities need to commit to students before they know whether the students have funding.

  4. Despite the late notification, I don’t think it is at all uncommon for admissions committees to make (very) late offers to students who did not get in initially after they receive a GRFP. I know this happened at least 3-4 times in my small grad program just in the 6 years that I was there. Typically those were students who were on the ‘long list’, but didn’t make the interview weekend although in at least one case a late offer was made to a student who was not on the long list initially. I was at a highly ranked, but financially strapped, UC campus so maybe this scenario wouldn’t be as common at a well funded private R1.

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