You Got NSF, Now What?

How NSF can change grad school selection
APR 2019
Mark
G.
Chemical Engineering

It's early April. You wake up and refresh the emails on your phone. There is an email from your professor congratulating you on getting the NSF, a colloquial expression for getting into the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. You excitingly text your friends and call your family. After a later-than-expected breakfast, you rush to your morning class. Barely able to remain seated, you find yourself overwhelmed with senioritis. Your mind drifts to the impending decision of choosing a graduate school. How will getting the NSF impact where I choose to go? Which schools will give me a higher stipend? Will I have a better choice of advisor? You had already been stressed about the decision, and the whole new set of parameters makes it almost impossible to pay attention in class.

Maybe the day you found out you got the NSF was similar to the one I just described. Maybe it wasn't. Either way, getting the NSF gives you a lot of leverage and can shake up which school gives you the most opportunities. However, the benefits from having an NSF will differ by school, so evaluating department-specific policies and funding structures can help you make the best choice of grad school. Here some specific benefits to keep in mind:

Getting accepted. You might be admitted to a program where you were previously rejected from. In the most prominent example, one of my friends got rejected from all the schools she applied to, but upon getting the NSF, she contacted the department and got into her first choice program. While NSF has the power to rescind rejections, these new acceptance emails from the various universities can overwhelm an already difficult decision.

Stipend increases. Some departments might increase your stipend because you got the NSF. Many departments and universities attempt to entice you with the allure of a few hundred dollars. While this might be tempting, and could be important if you have extra expenses like taking care of family member, getting a slightly higher stipend will likely not improve your quality of life as much as some of the other perks.

Academic freedom. The NSF provides whatever program you choose with $34,000 for your stipend and $12,000 for tuition per year. While this might cover the entire cost of education at some universities, most schools must scrounge together the funds to cover extra tuition and/or stipend costs. These funds might come from central university funds, department discretionary funds, or your advisor’s research grants. If these extra funds are not tied to specific research projects (just like the NSF), your ability to work on what you want exponentially increases. You may also have the chance to take more classes outside required courses or do other activities, due to not having commitments such as being a teaching assistant (TA) to pay for a part of your tuition. If schools do not disclose the source of the remaining funding, I would recommend calling them up to ask, since this this would clarify what the expectations are from you and your potential advisor.

Advisor selection. In programs where advisors are expected to support graduate students with research grants, students with external funding are able to join groups where funding is limited and the amount of new students is capped. Thus, having the NSF when picking your research group gives you a competitive edge in choosing who you work with. During my first semester at MIT, I found that students with NSF had a much easier time finding and securing their preferred advisor and project. This benefit also extends to situations where one needs to switch labs – NSF can provide a much needed leverage for joining another group without financial or logistical limitations.

These benefits may intersect in complicated ways. One of my classmates with NSF was looking to switch labs this semester but had trouble since NSF only covers half the cost of grad students at MIT, and in my department, professors are expected to pay the difference. The lab he wants to join recently got funding, and he is able to switch. However, there would have been a six month delay for the change if the rest of the funding came from central university or departmental funds.

Experimental costs further complicate the situation since NSF does not pay for lab supplies. One of my classmates, who had NSF and wanted to work on problems that required expensive gene-modified test animals, was rejected from a lab since the experimental costs vastly outweighed the monetary compensation from NSF. While this is a fringe case, experimental costs can definitely eat into the research freedom and advisor selection benefits. Choosing a project with low experimental costs, like computational research, may appear more advantageous for those with NSF.

The NSF also has other perks, like increased access to internships, computational resources, and international experiences, which you should take advantage of, but these likely will factor less into choosing a school.

If you didn’t get NSF the same year you apply to grad school, you can still apply in the next year. While this won’t affect your choice of grad school and likely will come after you select an advisor, you will still be able to potentially take advantage of stipend increases, academic freedom, access to internships, and other auxiliary benefits. When applying a second time, you will also have the ability to incorporate feedback from your previous application. If you start a research project early in grad school, you’ll have more experience articulating your research proposal the next time around.

When deciding on a school, I mostly considered stipend increases and better selection of advisors, since my program at MIT used advisor funds to cover the funding gap from NSF. Looking back on the decision, I wonder how my life would be different if I went with a program that prioritized research independence instead. Unfortunately, I’ll never know. Indeed – regardless of the program you end up choosing, you won’t be able to compare it with a control.

What you can do is consider how NSF will likely alter your opportunities at each program. Accounting for the benefits of the NSF when deciding on a school may help you join a great research group and expand your horizons regardless of funding availability. As the deadline to decide on a program approaches, I wish you the best of luck deciding where to spend the next stage of your life.