Applying for graduate fellowships is a great use of your time as a computer science Ph.D. student, even if you do not have a strict financial need. Here are a few reasons why.
Note that this post is the second of a two-part guide on graduate fellowships for computer science Ph.D. students. In a previous post, I described fellowships and how they vary. If you want to know more about fellowships in general, I recommend starting there.
They (help) pay for your expenses
The most obvious reason for applying: Fellowships come with very significant monetary awards. The most generous fellowships pay for nearly all of your expenses, including tuition, stipend, health insurance and equipment. Other fellowships may not be as generous, but should at least partially pay for one or a few of these things.
If you are, as I am, fortunate to be in a program where your support is guaranteed, you might think that this benefit is negligible. After all, your adviser or your department should pay for all of these things anyway. However, you would probably still benefit, financially, from a fellowship.
Indeed, these fellowships usually come with a significant stipend raise. For example, the NDSEG fellowship offers a stipend of $102,000 over a 36-month tenure ($2833.33/mo, pre-tax). The Facebook fellowship offers a $37,000 yearly stipend ($3083.33/mo, pre-tax) for 2 years. This is probably several hundred dollars more than your base stipend, even if you live in an expensive city and are enrolled in a lucrative program.
In addition to the increase in your base stipend, your department might offer additional incentives for you to bring in fellowships. CMU’s School of Computer Science, for example, offers an additional 1% of the annual fellowship award, per month, on your monthly stipend for any external fellowship. Generally, the annual award for a fellowship that covers stipend and tuition will be around $75,000, so an additional 1% every month would amount to an extra $750 per month. I’m not sure how common these additional incentives are, but I imagine many major programs offer similar incentives.
Some of these fellowships also come with supplementary awards. The Hertz fellowship, for example, provides an option to simply supplement your annual stipend with an additional $6000. The Facebook fellowship used to provide $2000 specifically to help you upgrade your computer.
The point is: even if you’re covered, financially, by your department, many fellowships will provide you with significantly more money.
They can offer many non-monetary benefits
Many fellowships offer more than just money, however: they can offer networking opportunities, supercomputer access, internships, press exposure and so on.
For example, the Qualcomm Innovation Fellowship flies out its winners to San Diego for a “Winners’ Day” twice: once at the beginning of a winner’s year-long tenure and once at the end. These Winner’s days allow you to meet a number of other great researchers: both Ph.D. students from all over the country and Qualcomm Research staff. They also offer some interesting hardware prizes: I got a smartwatch and a headset from them in my two Winners’ Days. Likewise, the NSF GRFP provides both its fellows and honorable mentions access to XSEDE supercomputers for research tasks that warrant its use. The Facebook fellowship comes with an internship offer (and, as I mentioned in the previous post, most other corporate fellowship probably also come with an internship offer).
There are many other non-monetary benefits that fellowships can provide, and they’re usually all great: sometimes better than the money, even.
They afford you independence, freedom and choice
If your adviser is covering your expenses, then you’re probably going to need to work on something that is related to one of his or her grants. Sometimes, this is fine: maybe you wrote the grant with your adviser or it’s otherwise very related to what you want to do, anyway. Sometimes, however, you may not be that fortunate. If you bring in a fellowship, you’re (largely) free from those financial strings. You’ll still need to work with your adviser on selecting an adequate research topic that meets both of your interests, but your options will be more numerous and you will have more influence.
Bringing in your own money can allow you to work with the adviser you want. You might find yourself in a situation where your best-fit adviser would like to take you on, but simply does not have the funds to support you. Your only option in that situation is to get a co-adviser with money, drop the idea of working with your best-fit adviser, or getting a fellowship to cover your own costs. When you bring in your money, you may find that advisers fight over you: After all, they’ll get a free student who is likely to be really good.
Even if you are not forced to do work that does not interest you, fellowships still afford you more negotiating power for things like conference travel and equipment upgrades. If your adviser is paying for all of your expenses, it can be hard to convince them to pay for non-essential expenses. If you are bringing in your own money with a fellowship, however, you can make a stronger case for why your adviser should foot the bill for something that will help you with your research career.
They are evidence that your work is valuable
Sometimes, academic life can be brutal. As self-appointed gatekeepers of human knowledge, we’re all trained to look for the flaws in everything: As paper reviewers, we look for everything that a paper did wrong; As thesis committee members, we look for everything that a student overlooked. A consequence of this brutality is that you will probably spend a lot of your life as an academic feeling that your work is not up to snuff and that you are inadequate.
Fellowships, on the other hand, are sort of the opposite. Fellowships are optimistic awards — they are given not for perfection but for potential. You can win fellowships without having won any others before, without having won best paper awards, without being a superstar. You can win fellowships just because some group of people out there think that what you do matters. Yes, even really big fellowships. If you need proof, consider the fact that I’ve won a few fellowships, myself — and I’m certainly no superstar.
But if you don’t believe that, try looking through the winners list of the Facebook fellowship (the Facebook page for the fellowship profiles each winner). You may notice that many of them are not “stars” by strictly quantitative measures (i.e., citations, awards, publication count, etc.). But you can bet they wrote killer research statements and got really stellar recommendations. I’m sure the same is true for just about any fellowship.
They look really great on CVs
Finally, fellowships look great on your CV. I recently went to an academic job preparation workshop and am serving, as a student representative, on the faculty hiring committee for my department. As a result, I now know quite a lot about how faculty job applicants are evaluated and discussed.
One clear theme I’ve gleaned from these experiences is that hiring committees are deluged with CVs and research statements and teaching statements and cover letters and recommendation letters. Any clear, familiar evidence of success makes a big difference in getting you past their automated rejection filters. Winning fellowships with a lot of name recognition, like the NSF GRFP or the NDSEG, is one such marker of success that can make you stand out. It’s not the most important marker of success, but it is certainly one that helps.
You have little to lose
Finally, you have little to lose and a lot to gain. The biggest cost is time: You’ll need to ask for recommendation letters, write a good research statement/proposal and maybe do an interview or two. But these are things you’ll need to practice doing, anyway, if and when you apply for grants or faculty positions.
Also, even if you do not win the fellowship, you may win a consolation prize. For example, being selected as an honorable mention for the NSF GRFP is still something impressive to put on your CV, and, as I mentioned before, comes with conditional supercomputer access. Similarly, when I was selected as a finalist for the Facebook fellowship, Facebook mailed me a t-shirt along with a $500 personal check.
You’re (Probably) Not Unfairly Taking Away Money From Others
You might think that the ideal candidate for a fellowship is someone with high need. Yet, many of us currently enrolled in a computer science Ph.D. program probably do not have high need: At least in the sense that our ability to pursue a Ph.D. depends on it. It is tempting, thus, to feel morally obliged to forego applying for these fellowships because it feels like you might be taking away money from someone who needs the money more.
That might happen, but I would not worry about there not being enough money for those with high need. This is partially because the money supply going into computer science education is so high. Indeed, there is plenty of need-based money for higher education, as well, through government grants and fellowships targeted towards specific groups of people. You can make an argument that there should be more need-based fellowships, and I might agree . But, that unmet need does not preclude your taking advantage of existing offers.
Ultimately, these fellowships have been set up to be merit-based. The people who run and establish these fellowships want you to apply for them. If they did not, you would not be eligible to apply. Fellowships are rarely strictly altruistic: They are also opportunities for the providers. Indeed, many of these fellowships are specifically set up so that people with high-merit are incentivized to continue and, perhaps, ultimately end up working for government or industry. This money is there for your taking because there is a growing and critical need for important research advancements in computer science.
If you’ve read both parts of this guide, I hope I’ve convinced you that fellowships are great, what you get out of them, and why you should apply for them. One day, I hope to provide a more comprehensive guide on how I approach fellowship applications. Nevertheless, I wish you luck!
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 It’s complicated though. We are graduating more Ph.D.s than ever before, and the job market has not kept up with the growth. Simply providing fellowships based on need, absent of merit, sounds like a recipe for increasing the gap between graduated Ph.Ds and the number of appropriate jobs that are available.