From smashing atoms together to conducting original fieldwork in the Alaskan tundra, the research of Princeton’s graduate students encompasses a broad array of topics. To support their research, from 2012 to the 2021 academic year, 350 Princeton graduate students have been part of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), earning nearly $47 million in grant money through stipend and tuition assistance.
Two years after Former U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Congress created the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950, the GRFP was created, establishing itself as the oldest fellowship program in the United States and one of the largest funders supporting domestic graduate students in STEM fields. The average value of the grant over the prior decade is $138,000, or $46,000 per year for three years. In 2021–22, 117 graduate students received GRFP funding, which made up 1.7 percent of the graduate student support budget for the 2021–22 academic year, according to the Graduate School.
The number of total grant awardees attending graduate programs at Princeton varies widely from year to year, with 24 in 2014 to 49 in 2021.
Students can apply for the GRFP before enrolling at the University or during their first two years of a Ph.D. program. Data pulled from the NSF consists of awardees who list their current institution as Princeton, indicating that they earned the grant in their first or second year as a University graduate student. In addition to those numbers, data from communication with the Graduate School also includes students who matriculated with the grant. From 2012–2021, 56 percent of students received the grant at the University while 44 percent matriculated with the grant.
University-wide benefits for grant recipients include an additional stipend increase of $4,000 for students in natural science and engineering disciplines for each year they are on tenure or receive the grant. As of 2022–2023, social sciences and humanities students have the option to take an additional $5,000 per year on GRFP support or full tuition and a standard stipend for a sixth year. Departments may provide their own benefits, such as the reduction or elimination of teaching requirements.
When describing how NSF impacted their trajectory at grad school, students who reported reduced teaching said that having more time to do their own research was the biggest benefit of the grant. Stephanie Kwan, a graduate student in the physics department, said that “having NSF was really nice, because then I could make teaching like an opt-in thing instead of another thing I need to weigh against the research that I want to do.”
Ruby An, a graduate student in the ecology and evolutionary biology department, echoed Kwan’s sentiment, describing how not having to teach freed her up to travel to the tundra for fieldwork during the busiest times of the semester.
“Because my research often takes place in the shoulder seasons, like end of spring semester or beginning of fall, it is actually a really huge bonus to not have to teach as many times,” said An.
Less time teaching also meant more flexibility for other activities. For example, Kwan enrolled in an undergrad COS class that improved her programming skills and sparked additional interests. Sydney Garcia, a graduate student in the psychology department, was looking forward to having more time for class while Casey McQuillan, an economics graduate student, wanted to work with the state of Washington.
Freedom was another big benefit of the grant. Carolina Seigler, a graduate student in the sociology department, stated, “I felt freedom to explore a lot of different interests. I didn’t feel beholden to any one particular project. And my dissertation is what it is today because of that freedom.”
Liv Mann, a graduate student in the sociology department, described the security the grant gave them. “Because I’ve been able to secure what works out to be seven years of funding, if you get it in your second year, like I did, it really frees me up to focus just on my work and making sure it’s the best it can possibly be.”
Recipients highlighted the benefits of the grant but also acknowledged the inequity within the University. Several students discussed how international students, 42 percent of the graduate student body, are prevented from applying for this grant. This created a large gap between resources available for domestic and international students within their home departments.
Recipients also reported that they were initially hesitant to apply because they already felt that they were well supported by Princeton University and their advisor. An described, “I was actually pretty conflicted once I got into Princeton on whether I should apply or not because Princeton has a pretty good stipend. Compared to some of my friends who are at different institutions, I didn’t really feel like I needed GRFP funding to pay my bills.”
Students reported various levels of departmental support for applying. Seigler, who applied to the GRFP during post-undergrad work years before coming to Princeton, said she only applied after a fortuitous encounter with a grad program administrator at another institution.
On the other end of the spectrum, Garcia reported having support and encouragement right away from her department and advisor. She attended numerous workshops and writing sessions and had the opportunity to get feedback from people in her field. Kwan, who did not receive centralized department support, spoke highly of University resources, such as the Princeton Writing Program. The Graduate School also encouraged students to visit the McGraw Center for Teaching & Learning or reach out to the external fellowship office if they have questions.
The interviewed students voiced wanting more departmental support for applying for the grant. Mann believed that a lot of people who are eligible in sociology don’t apply because of structural issues — not knowing the best time to apply, limited departmental support, and a lack of clear monetary benefit, especially for students in the social sciences.
“But I think it also disincentives a lot of students because you’re going through an extremely rigorous application process, I mean, easily one of the most [rigorous] honestly, probably more stressful than applying to grad school,” Mann said. “But you’re not actually getting anything new on top of it, which is a little disheartening to people.”
McQuillan also commented on the lack of direct monetary payoff.
“I’m a little bit torn, because it’s kind of funny to win hundreds of thousands of dollars in research money and realize at the same time that you’ll never actually see any of it.”
Turning to just the students who earned a grant at Princeton from 2012–2023, 240 Princeton graduate students received grant awards in 10 unique fields, with the largest being life Sciences with 60 students, or 25 percent of all GRFP awards received at Princeton, and the smallest being Materials Research with five students, or two percent of the awards. The grants came from over 80 distinct subfields. The top subfields were Ecology and Neurosciences with 12 students each and Astronomy and Astrophysics and Chemical Engineering with 11 students.
GRFP recipients came from 112 unique baccalaureate institutions. The majority of recipients, 61 percent, attended private undergraduate institutions. Out of the private institutions, 31 percent of recipients attended Ivy League schools excluding Princeton. Out of the public institutions, 58 percent of recipients went to a state flagship.
Current GRFP recipients encouraged all students who are eligible to apply, or apply again, and to start the application early.
“I mean, just go for it,” Kwan advised. “As an undergraduate, I was like, ‘I’ll never apply to these things because I don't think I’ll ever get accepted. But you know, what’s the worst that can happen?’”
Furthermore, recipients reported that writing down research ideas and proposals was helpful and good practice for articulating a research agenda. McQuillan said that just submitting a proposal is an accomplishment. “I think applying to a lot of things and being proud and celebrating when you submit them and then completely forgetting about them is the best way to do it.”
At the same time, current recipients acknowledged that there was a lot of luck involved in their grant recipients and that there are many deserving graduate students.
“It’s pretty hit or miss,” An said. “I’ve had incredible friends who have not gotten the GRFP. It just depends on the reviews you get and this can be super idiosyncratic.”
Seigler agreed, describing the process as “arbitrary.”
“As is the case with almost anything at this level in academia, almost everybody who applies for an NSF qualifies for an NSF. The process is a lot more arbitrary and capricious than awarded fellows are willing to admit,” Seigler told the ‘Prince.’ “So I would recommend that if somebody is considering applying, try to do your best, but then remove yourself.”
Emily Miller is a Data contributor for the ‘Prince.’ She received NSF GRFP funding in 2020.
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