How to Finance Your Graduate Education

There are several forms of financial support available to students pursuing doctoral study or a thesis masters degree in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The three most common forms of graduate student support in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics are teaching assistantships (TA's), research assistantships (RA's), and fellowships.

TA and RA positions are normally available for doctoral students but may also be offered to thesis master's students at some academic institutions. Teaching assistantships are teaching positions usually available during the academic year that cover tuition and provide a stipend in exchange for the graduate student's leading one or more discussion/recitation sections for a course and/or one or more laboratory sections of a course. Generally, beginning graduate students provide recitation and/or laboratory coverage for introductory courses in their discipline. Advanced graduate students may teach and/or assist in more advanced undergraduate classes and/or laboratories.

Research assistantships are research positions usually available for the full calendar year that cover tuition and provide a stipend in exchange for the graduate student's full-time efforts on a grant-funded research project. RA's are usually tied to a specific faculty member and research project. Their availability is dependent on a faculty member's funding level, your research background and interests. Continued support on an RA is normally dependent on a student's making satisfactory progress on the research project as determined by the faculty advisor and/or funding agency. Most first year Ph.D. students are supported on teaching assistantships. Once students have identified a research advisor, many students become research assistants in their advisor's research groups.

A third method of support for graduate education is through scholarships and/or fellowships. Generally, these are highly competitive and often provide support for one year or more of advanced study. Examples of fellowship programs in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematical disciplines include the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program, the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG) program, and the Environmental Protection Agency's Science To Achieve Results (STAR) and Graduate Research Opportunity (GRO) programs. You can find links to more fellowship opportunities under the Programs Section on this website. The advantage of obtaining fellowship support is that as a graduate student this will provide you with greater flexibility and freedom in selecting both a faculty research advisor and a research project.

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship

STEM undergraduate seniors and first and second year graduate students who meet the NSF citizenship requirements and are pursuing doctoral study in a STEM discipline are eligible to apply for receipt of a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRF). Note that these fellowships cannot be used for medical school or law school and this includes combined degree programs such as the MD/PhD and JD/PhD programs.
NSF GRF awards provide the successful applicant with $34k annual stipend and tuition waiver for up to three years. This level of funding may be slightly higher than the stipend for a teaching or research assistantship at your chosen university. Bringing your own funding to the graduate school of your choice may give you added leverage when selecting your research group and research advisor. These awards are prestigious and come with some unique opportunities that you might not enjoy otherwise. For example, after successfully completing one year of NSF Graduate research Fellowship support, fellowship recipients become eligible to apply for international research support through the Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) Program. GROW Fellows receive an additional travel allowance of $5,000 per year through their home U.S. institution to cover travel and research costs associated with international research collaboration and they can reapply the following year as long as they are NSF Graduate Research Fellows.
The core components of the NSF GRF application include:

The Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement
The goal of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program is to identify future STEM leaders. So your personal, relevant background and future goals statement needs to convince the reviewers that you have the potential “to advance knowledge” (intellectual merit) and to “benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes” (broader impacts). Your statement should tell the reviewers where you want to go and how you have prepared yourself at this point in order to successfully undertake this next step in your education.
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Graduate Research Statement
The purpose of the Graduate Research statement is to determine whether you can identify an original research problem which you would like to carry out in graduate school. Since the statement can be at most 2-pages in length, you will be wise to first flesh out your idea and then worry about shortening your description to meet the two-page limit.
The statement should read like a mini-proposal. It needs to outline the proposed project, identify the related peer-reviewed literature, provide a methodologically sound experimental plan including analysis and next steps including dissemination of your research findings. Your plan needs to convey that you have the technical background and resources to carry out this work (is this work within the technical scope of the mentor’s expertise?) and that you understand the potential pitfalls and will be able to successfully deal with any challenges you may meet along the way. Lastly, since your Graduate Research Statement will be evaluated according to the intellectual merit and broader impacts criteria, your statement should explicitly address both criteria.
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Reference Letters
You may request up to five but a minimum of three reference letters are required. While you can select anyone outside of your immediate family to write a reference letter on your behalf, it is important that your letter writers can write persuasively about your potential “to advance knowledge” (intellectual merit) and to “benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes” (broader impacts), the NSF review criteria. Faculty who know you well and who can speak strongly concerning your academic abilities and potential for a successful STEM career are your best bet. If you have conducted research as an undergraduate, you should ask your research advisor to write one of the three letters. If you ask your research advisor to write a letter, you should ask him/her to explicitly comment on your past research accomplishments and your potential for success in graduate school and beyond in STEM.
You will help yourself by providing your reviewers with all the information they need to write a strong letter on your behalf. Call or email prospective faculty and set up a meeting to discuss your application. Come to the meeting prepared to provide them with:

  • a draft of your Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement (3 pages long)
  • a draft of your Graduate Research Plan Statement (2 pages long)
  • academic transcripts for every institution attended
  • a copy of the NSF review criteria, in case they are unfamiliar with them
  • a sheet outlining requirements for the reference letter and deadline

Reference letters must be 2-standard (8.5" x 11") pages or less in length, should be prepared on letterhead, and be signed. The writer should use 12-point Times Roman or Arial font and standard 1”-margins. All letters must be submitted electronically by the published deadline (November 5, 2015) and no late letters will be accepted for any reason so follow up with your reference writers to make sure that they meet the deadline.
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  • Start your application early. This application is not something that you can start at the last minute and expect to complete and complete well.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Solicit from your references and your university or college’s grants office critical feedback on drafts of your statements. Take to heart any critical feedback you receive on your two statements. Take with a grain of salt any advice proffered by students who have applied for and received an NSF GRF as they may not have the full picture.
  • Follow up with your references and make sure that they submit their letters on line to meet the published deadline. Incomplete applications will not be reviewed. It is your responsibility as the applicant to make sure that your application is complete.
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    Fellowship Application Evaluation
    Reviewers will evaluate your statements according to the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria. These criteria are used to evaluate all NSF grants and awards so it is worth your time and energy to familiarize yourself with these criteria. I especially encourage you to think long and hard about the broader impacts criterion. All STEM applicants tend to have the intellectual merit criterion nailed but where many fall down is in addressing the broader impacts criterion. Have you considered how you and your work might integrate teaching and research in a new and meaningful way? Will your participation impact diversity in STEM? How will funding your graduate study impact and benefit society?
    Reviewers evaluate applications using the standard “language” of the National Science Foundation. Proposals are rated by each panelist as poor, fair, good, very good or excellent. At NSF, no effort is made to reach a consensus regarding proposal rating. Each panelist provides his/her own evaluation. One panelist will capture the panel’s discussion of the proposal and the panel’s overall recommendation in the proposal summary.
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    Who are the Reviewers?
    Proposals may be reviewed by ad hoc reviewers, panelists, and/or NSF Program Officers. Ad hoc reviewers are generally selected because of their technical expertise in the academic discipline you have identified as your area of study. Likely they have themselves received NSF funding. Small groups of 3-5 reviewers referred to as panelists meet together online to discuss sets of applications that they have been assigned to review.
    If you are not Successful…
    Remember that this is a very selective and prestigious fellowship. Only 2,000 or so STEM students will receive an award and over 14,000 apply. This is a VERY small number if you consider the number of students applying to graduate school or in their first or second year of graduate study in all STEM disciplines.
    If you have not yet completed 12-months of graduate study and you were not selected, consider applying again especially if you received honorable mention. While it may sting, you are experiencing something every scientist experiences every day when they submit papers for consideration of publication or when they submit grant applications to NSF or other agencies for consideration of funding. Analyze the feedback you have received and then determine whether it makes sense to try again this time addressing all of the issues raised by the reviewers.
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    Applying for the NSF GRFP 2016: Workshops, Resources, and More! This Drexel University webpage (July 29, 2015) contains useful information and links to videos and tutorials.
    National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship Program.
    National Science Foundation Grant Proposal Guide. This document outlines the general guidelines and requirements for all National Science Program applications.
    Jennifer Wang, PhD. NSF Graduate Fellowship Advice (Last Updated 9/26/14). This page includes links to many resources offering advice on the NSF GRF application and process.
    University of Cincinnati. The Graduate School. This webpage includes recent (2011-2012) applications.
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