08 March 2016

Fewer shots, more diversity?

The National Science Foundation just announced changes to its Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) that limits the number of applications for grad students to one. The NSF lists several reasons for this:

1) result in a higher success rate for GRFP applicants

You know how else you could increase success rate? Give more awards. But the political reality is that the NSF budget is stagnant, so the best they can do is increase in success rate at the cost of limiting chances to apply.

2) increase the diversity of the total pool of individuals and of institutions from which applications may come through an increase in the number of individuals applying before they are admitted into graduate programs,

You know what else could increase the diversity of applicants? Instead of changing the applicants, change the reviewers. Change the criterion those new reviewers are judging the awards by. Let’s not forget that in the past, GRFPs have been criticized for giving awards to doctoral students in a limited number of institutions. If the review process is biased, tweaks to the applicant pool won’t create more diversity, because they’ll be going through the same filter.

And just because I run a master’s program, let me call out that in the past, only 3.5% of awards went to students in master’s programs (page 3, footnote 3 in this report). Why do you hate master’s students, NSF?!

Terry McGlynn notes, however:

Shifting the emphasis of @NSF GRFPs to undergrads will increase representation because it will recruit people. If you give a GRFP to someone already in grad school, odds are they would be successful anyway. GRFPs can get undergrads into good labs.

This is a good point, but if undergraduates are still competing against graduates, and there’s still a bias towards the advanced doctoral students as the “safer bet,” the change in the applicant pool might not achieve the desired result in diversity. This might be an argument for splitting the program: one for undergraduates transitioning to graduate programs, one for graduate students in programs.

Finally, NSF’s last reason for the change.

3) ease the workload burden for applicants, reference writers, and reviewers.

I am glad to see this listed as a reason, because it is honest. It’s a lot of hard work to review applications, and you have to keep it to a reasonable level. I think it might be even more honest if it was listed as reason #1 instead of reason #3.

External links

NSF Graduate Fellowships are a part of the problem
How the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is slowly turning into a dissertation grant
Evaluation of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program final report
NSF makes its graduate fellowships more accessible

Picture from here.

1 comment:

  1. Re: "Safer bet". AFAIK undergrad applicants (level 1) are evaluated separately from those already in a PhD program (levels 2, 3 and 4). They get ranked separately, and I assume (but don't know) that they have an apportioned share of awards.


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