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NSF Fellowships for Graduate Study: A Guide

05 Mar Posted by in Uncategorized | Comments

The National Science Foundation, or NSF, is an independent U.S. federal government agency founded by Congress in 1950 to promote scientific research and inquiry among U.S. researchers and research institutions.  By funding scientific and academic research, NSF seeks to maintain the United States’ position at the forefront of global scientific progress and discovery and to support research that contributes to the health, welfare, and prosperity of the nation.

NSF funds research and educational initiatives in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and Social Sciences.  With an annual budget of about $7 billion, NSF is one of the largest sources of funding for academic research in the United States – serving as the primary funding sources for approximately 20% of federally supported research at U.S. colleges and universities.  In some fields, including the social sciences, mathematics, and computer science, NSF is the largest source of federal backing.

Although most graduate students have heard of NSF, trying to figure out what kinds of NSF funding are available to graduate students, who qualifies for them, and how to apply can be confusing.  This post provides a brief overview of these opportunities.

First, let’s review a few general facts about NSF grants, and clear up some common misconceptions:

  • NSF funds research in the social / behavioral / economic sciences and engineering as well as the traditional disciplines of the natural and physical sciences.  Some interdisciplinary fields are also supported.  Practice-oriented fields (such as Nursing, Medicine, and Public Health) are generally not supported.  Available opportunities vary by field.  Students should take the time early in their graduate career to familiarize themselves with NSF funding opportunities for their discipline and field of study.
  • U.S. citizenship is not a requirement.  Most NSF graduate-level funding opportunities are open to permanent residents as well as U.S. citizens, and some are open to international students as well.
  • Graduate students may apply directly to the NSF awards described below.  Many graduate students mistakenly believe that they cannot apply to NSF for individual funding, and that instead their faculty mentor must apply, receive the grant, and then hire them using the grant funds.  While NSF does offer some grants that work in this way, they also offer awards directly to graduate student applicants.
  • NSF graduate fellowship awards are not limited by age, ethnicity, or any other demographic/identity factor.  Members of underrepresented groups (which in some fields may include women) are encouraged to apply, but the deciding factors for these awards will be (1) the intellectual merit of the proposal; and (2) the potential of the research for a broader social impact and/or plans to share research outcomes with the wider community.

The following four types of NSF grants are offered directly to graduate students to support research and study:

  • NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP)
  • NSF Directorate of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grants (SBE DDRIG)
  • NSF Directorate of Biological Sciences Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIG)
  • NSF East Asia / Pacific Summer Institutes (EAPSI)

Each award provides a different type and level of support – for varying stages of graduate study and varying types of research / training activity.  Let’s look at the basic facts for each of these competitions:

NSF GRFP:  For New Graduate Students in STEM and Social Science Fields

  • Open to ALL NSF-supported fields.  See a full list here (PDF).
  • Open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents studying in the U.S.
  • Supports research-oriented master’s or Ph.D. study during the first years of graduate school.  You must apply either at the time you apply to graduate school (i.e. to take the fellowship with you to graduate school) or during your first three semesters in graduate school.  You must be working on your first graduate degree; candidates who have completed a master’s and are starting a Ph.D. program are ineligible.
  • Provides up to three years of funding, including stipend ($32,000), tuition support (up to $10,000), and access to other research and professional development resources.
  • Deadline falls annually in November.
  • Ready to learn more?  Here is the NSF GRFP web site.

NSF SBE DDRIG:  For Dissertation Research in Social/Behavioral/Economic Sciences

  • Open to NSF-supported fields in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences division, including some interdisciplinary categories.  See a full list here.
  • Open to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and international students studying in the U.S.
  • Proves up to $14,000 to support dissertation research.  Applicant must be advanced to doctoral candidacy and dissertation topic approved at the time of application.
  • Application deadlines vary by field.  Most fields run two or more funding cycles per year (i.e. you have two chances to apply each year.)
  • Ready to learn more?  Here is the DDRIG program site.

NSF DDIG:  For Dissertation Research in Biological Sciences

  • Supports dissertation research in two areas of the Biological Sciences:  (1) Environmental Biology; and (2) Behavioral Systems, which is a subdivision of the NSF Division of Integrative Organismal Systems.
  • Open to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and international students studying in the U.S.
  • Provides up to $13,000 to support dissertation research in the fields described above.  Applicant must be advanced to doctoral candidacy and dissertation topic approved at the time of application.
  • Application is due annually in November.
  • Ready to learn more?  Here is the DDIG program site.

NSF EAPSI:  For Collaborative Summer Research in East Asian / Pacific Countries

  • Open to ALL NSF-supported fields.  See full list here (PDF).
  • Open to master’s and Ph.D. level researchers in the U.S. who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
  • Supports summer research in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore.  The applicant must propose an independent program of research to be undertaken in collaboration / cooperation with an institution in the host country.  Only one application (to one host country) per cycle is permitted.
  • Application is due annually in November.
  • Ready to learn more?  Here is the NSF EAPSI program site.

The Office of Graduate Fellowships provides support to Mason graduate students applying to all these awards.  (Support is also available for undergraduate seniors/recent alumni applying to the GRFP.)  Application processes for NSF awards can be involved, and require scrupulous attention to detail on a variety of fronts, from eligibility requirements to the formatting of the application.  Prospective applicants are urged to work closely with their academic mentors and make use of the support services of the Office of Graduate Fellowships to ensure the greatest chances of a successful submission.

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