How the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is slowly turning into a dissertation grant

Terry McGlynn is a faculty member at California State University, Dominguez Hills, a teaching-intensive undergraduate institution. In his role mentoring undergraduates in ecology and evolutionary biology, he has helped many to prepare applications to the NSF for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). After the notifications about this year’s fellowships came out this week, McGlynn looked into the numbers, and was surprised at what he found: “NSF Graduate Fellowships are a part of the problem”.

Undergrads from all Cal State campuses had a combined total of 37 awards. Harvard undergrads had 37 awards.
According to Wikipedia, the undergraduate enrollment of the CSU campuses is 392,951. Whereas the undergraduate enrollment at Harvard is 6,700.
Considering that I spend so much of my professional life preparing my undergraduates for career in science, this makes me realize that I’m pushing up against a goddamn unmoveable object. The tremendous success I had this year — with one student getting a GRFP! — would simply be the notch on the belt of PIs who are working at institutions with so much more support at every level.

I want to expand on McGlynn’s analysis, because I think there is another problem with the GRFP: a good fraction of GRFP fellowships today go to students who are already enrolled in graduate programs, not undergraduates. Providing funds for students already doing graduate work can help support talented people “with the potential to be high achieving scientists”. But the current program vastly advantages those students who are already working closely with scientific mentors within large, well-funded graduate programs.

Of course, this helps to explain why Harvard has as many GRFP recipients as the entire Cal State system. More than half the Harvard recipients are already graduate students. Many are working intensively with faculty advisors on graduate-level projects that will become the basis of their dissertations.

Last year, the NSF commissioned a report on the GRFP, which is available online “Evaluation of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program”. In their sample of fellows from previous years, 57.7 percent had received the award while enrolled in a graduate program. I wanted to look more deeply into this statistic, because my perception has been that these fellowships are becoming more and more directed toward graduate students in biological anthropology and archaeology. The information from NSF does not make it easy to see how many of the fellowships within a particular field are awarded to those already attending graduate programs, or among those how many are relatively advanced in their degree progress. The list of awarded fellowships this year is online, and a first guess is that students who are already in graduate programs will have a different “present institution” from their “baccalaureate institution”. I make that assumption only tentatively, since the criteria for listing current institution are not explicit, and a few students may attend graduate school at their undergraduate institution. Also, some students may presently be enrolled in terminal masters programs, or may be looking to change institutions with the portable NSF fellowship award.

A look at the new GRFP recipients in biological anthropology and archaeology shows that only a very small fraction of them (7 out of 27) are still at their baccalaureate institution. An additional four list no present institution, which may mean that they are in a gap year or returning to graduate work after some time in another career. The strong majority of NSF graduate fellowships in biological anthropology and archaeology this year appear to be going to students already enrolled in a graduate program. I haven’t tabulated any other numbers for this year, but that puts these fields far above the average in funding current graduate students above undergraduate seniors. That’s no criticism of these fellowship awardees, all of whom must be excellent students. But it does indicate that in biological anthropology and archaeology, the GRFP mostly funds students who have already begun their graduate course of study.

Giving GRFP fellowships to first- or second-year graduate students in a small set of elite graduate programs is intellectual canalization. Most of these students have already chosen a faculty advisor and those advisors provide extensive guidance on projects and proposals. Some programs treat these fellowship proposals as an opportunity to score “bonus” support for their existing students, freeing university funds to expand their graduate student cohort. There is no question that the fellowships are good for most of their recipients, and support their training as scientists. But the stage of career makes a difference. A fellowship given to a graduating senior at the time she chooses her graduate program enables her to choose the best faculty mentor from across the U.S., with much less regard to institutional funding and guaranteed support for the first three years of training. A fellowship given during the second year of graduate training will tie the recipient more deeply to the mentor who helped her develop the successful proposal, which will thereby support three years of dissertation work. The more we expect applications to look like research proposals, the more the GRFP looks like a mega-version of the Dissertation Improvement Grant (DIG) program.

I think that’s bad for science.

I think that NSF would be wiser to tie their fellowship funding to undergraduate accomplishment. When awarded to seniors, the fellowships can enable independence at the time of graduate program decisions, and they have some chance to actually draw students into STEM from other fields.

I write from some experience. As a college senior, I was still deciding my career path, and I chose biological anthropology at the last minute. I was not an NSF fellow; I had a different fellowship. But it had the same effect: As a student, the availability of funding for science can be a major influence on the decision to enter a scientific field, and can enable the student to choose an institution without regard to funding status at that institution.