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samman1994

Basics of Fellowships, Assistantships, Grants, and Stipends

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Hello everyone,

So I am quite unfamiliar with the whole funding process regarding graduate schools, so I was hoping someone could just give me a basic run down. For example:

What is the difference between a fellowship and a scholarship? I know a few scholarship programs for undergraduate programs that gave money based on a variety of things (sometimes grades, others because you were a certain minority group, etc.), but how is this different from a fellowship? 

I know a Grant is similar in a scholarship, except it is not based on merit, but instead based on financial situations. For example, you are eligible for grants if you are low income, but it doesn't matter if you are a 4.0 student, or a 2.5 student (at least from my knowledge). A stipend is like a grant, but it is for grad school, and is given to all students despite their financial situation, and is also not merit based either (I think it's different for different fields, my knowledge is only for STEM fields). 

Assistantships is a bit confusing. From what I've read, I don't know if this is part of the stipend money, or this is extra to that. There appears to be a couple kinds (Teaching, Research, and in some cases Graduate Research). For example, a Teaching Assitantship seems to be money given for teaching, research assistant ship is money given for research that is not related to your dissertation/thesis, and a graduate research is money given directly for working towards your dissertation (don't know how this is any different than a stipend). Now some schools mandate you teach a certain amount of classes as part of their program, but I believe the funding for you teaching is part of your stipend, so I don't think you get anything extra. 

So outside of loans, there appears to be plenty of different fellowships, grants, stipends, and assistantships that help fund your graduate program. Many of these can stack as well (i.e. you receive a stipend and a fellowship), but how do these work? What is the difference between them? And how does on find/go after them? Stipends seem to be automatic/implied, but each school has their own fellowship, and then you have external fellowships such as the NIH, so how do these work? I'm primarily looking for just basic explanations. Any help would greatly be appreciated. Thank you!

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You're overcomplicating things. The vast majority of the time in STEM fields, you have a single funding source at a time, and they don't usually "stack". If you get a fellowship, you give up your TA/RA support. There are some small fellowships (usually recruiting funds from a school) that can be used to increase the stipend, but it's not frequently by much. Most of this is also not something you really need to have any idea of when applying, or even during graduate school.

Fellowship, Scholarship and Grant can be used relatively interchangeably when the grant is to the student. There is no simple dividing line on how any of these are awarded (need vs. scholarship vs. research proposal). Generally, fellowships are awards at the post-graduate level and scholarships are awards to undergraduates, but that's not always the case.

Grant funding also appears as an RAship, where the student hasn't received a grant but the advisor has, and uses grant funds to pay students for research. 

The other thing to keep in mind is that it's usually a semester-by-semester thing. You may TA for one semester, have a fellowship another, and work as an RA over the summer paid from grants. 

Fellowships such as the NSF-GRFP are flexible in how you take the funding, but it has to be in year chunks. So if your program requires teaching, you might TA for the first year and delay the fellowship until later. 

The main takeaway is that in STEM fields, you will always be funded (if you're not, you shouldn't go) but that you can apply for external sources of funding. These frequently don't supplement your income (and in some cases discussed here can result in a stipend decrease) but they allow freedom and prestige that TA/RAships don't. 

You also asked about what a "stipend" is- in general, any portion of funding not given to the institution (tuition, benefits, etc.) but paid to you is a stipend. All sources of funding have stipends.

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Thank you! So just to make sure I understand, stipends are funding directly from the school, and can come from a variety of sources (teaching, the PIs grant, etc.). Fellowships are external funding sources, however they usually replace your stipend (meaning you don't have to do the teaching, or get money from your PIs grant). And scholarships are at an undergraduate level, and fellowships at a graduate level. 

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15 minutes ago, samman1994 said:

Thank you! So just to make sure I understand, stipends are funding directly from the school, and can come from a variety of sources (teaching, the PIs grant, etc.). Fellowships are external funding sources, however they usually replace your stipend (meaning you don't have to do the teaching, or get money from your PIs grant). And scholarships are at an undergraduate level, and fellowships at a graduate level. 

not necessarily...think about the prestigious Canada Graduate Scholarships...

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2 hours ago, PsychBoy said:

not necessarily...think about the prestigious Canada Graduate Scholarships...

Just because there are exceptions doesn't mean it's not a general statement. 

There are scholarships for graduate students, but in general scholarship is more commonly used for undergraduates, and fellowship for graduate students. That said, they're pretty synonymous, and sometimes used interchangeably with grants. Wording isn't something to get hung up on.

2 hours ago, samman1994 said:

Thank you! So just to make sure I understand, stipends are funding directly from the school, and can come from a variety of sources (teaching, the PIs grant, etc.). Fellowships are external funding sources, however they usually replace your stipend (meaning you don't have to do the teaching, or get money from your PIs grant). And scholarships are at an undergraduate level, and fellowships at a graduate level. 

Kinda, but you're still thinking that "stipend" mean's something. A stipend is just an amount (from any source) that doesn't go to tuition and benefits.

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Getting hung up on wording isn't all that important, and there's also some variation in how these words are defined and used across schools and fields. 

Scholarships and fellowships are often (but definitely not always!) institution-internal funding sources for supporting students. They usually don't come with any strings attached in the form of service -- that is, you're not required to complete a certain project in exchange for the money. You have flexibility in the research you want to do. They  can be merit-based or need-based. Graduate fellowships are not usually need-based, that's something that's a lot more common for undergraduates. Grants are also funds that are used to support student research, but they are often (a) institution-external (e.g. come from the NSF or NIH), and (b) are there to support a particular project with an already determined outline of predicted deliverables. Fellowships can sometimes (in some fields, very often) simply support the student regardless of the particular project they choose to work on. A stipend is what we call that part of the funding that actually goes to the student, as opposed to parts of the money that might go toward tuition/insurance/overhead... 

Assistantships are money you get for work, either an RAship or a TAship. When you TA, you are responsible for some combination of sitting in the lecture, giving office hours, grading, and leading one or more lab or discussion section. Responsibilities vary. RAships would usually entail doing work on a project for a professor, where they have money that's been earmarked for paying students to do work related to their (already approved) project. Their money might come from external grant or an institution-internal pot. It shouldn't really matter for you, with two exceptions: (a) some grant money is designated as for use only for US citizens or permanent residents, so if you're international you might not be able to get it; and (b) again if you're international, you aren't allowed to work more than 20 hours a week, so the official designation of the source of the money might matter so you don't exceed this requirement. 

Now, to make life even more confusing, sometimes the official designation of where the money comes from could be different from the actual work you're required to do. For example, in my PhD department, money from all funding sources was pooled into a large pot, and everyone was payed the same amount every semester. There was some amount of money whose source was fellowships and some whose source was earmarked for TAships, but where your money actually came from was independent of whether you happened to TA a certain semester or not. (Everyone had to TA some number of semesters, and you could choose which ones to do it in.) This had tax implications for some (international) students, but otherwise was basically invisible to the students. But as an international student I always made sure I would be on fellowship money*, because that would allow me to work for extra pay (as opposed to TAship money, which automatically assumes I'm working 20 hours a week and can't work any more), and for tax reasons that matters because of a treaty my country has with the US, where fellowship money got a larger exemption than TA money. 

* And so this is yet another reason why being good friends with your grad secretary is a good idea.. 

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I see thank you guys for the clarification. So I guess to extend the question then, why are fellowships so highly sought after? Is it because other departments (outside of STEM) are not fully funded, and thus people outside those majors want full funding? Is it for the title and prestige? Is it because you don't have to TA or anything like that?

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2 minutes ago, samman1994 said:

I see thank you guys for the clarification. So I guess to extend the question then, why are fellowships so highly sought after? Is it because other departments (outside of STEM) are not fully funded, and thus people outside those majors want full funding? Is it for the title and prestige? Is it because you don't have to TA or anything like that?

Two reasons: 

- If it's external funding, then showing that you have fundable ideas that you can articulate in a way that gets you money is very valuable, regardless of whether or not your institution would have fully funded you anyway. Sometimes you'll also get a higher stipend than you would from your institution, but not always. 

- Usually fellowships don't require the extra TA/RA work of assistantships, and that means more time to do research and less time spent on other things. That is usually conducive to doing more (and better) research. 

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You received great answers already from @Eigen and @fuzzylogician but I'll add my own spin on the answer as well.

The way that universities and students refer to funding does vary, so once you're attending one university you might have to adjust to their own particular meanings of stipend vs. fellowship vs. scholarship vs. grant.

Your stipend is simply your salary - the money that you take home for your living expenses (and that you pay in income tax).

At the graduate student level, a fellowship refers to an award that the student won based on merit that funds his stipend or augments his stipend. It could be internal or external. The fellowship might also pay some or all of the student's tuition and fees. In my observation, scholarships are not much in play for graduate students. If you win a fellowship (or scholarship), it usually replaces the funding that you would have received through some other mechanism, i.e., you're not going to receive a full stipend for being a research assistant plus a full stipend for winning a fellowship. Some students are unpleasantly surprised to find that winning an outside award did not affect their own personal bottom line at all because the department simply reduced its support by the equivalent amount. In a few places, if you win a large outside fellowship, your department may pay you a bonus or an even higher stipend than the one specified by the fellowship. Or you might receive a stipend through an assistantship, but receive a small additional internal fellowship on top of the stipend.

Assistantships are part-time jobs. A half-time (0.5) assistantship equates to "20 hours/week" of work - and that is what most assistantships are and that will pay a full stipend (set by the department/university). Sometimes a student might be given a 0.25 assistantship, "10 hours/week" of work, for half-pay plus benefits (more or less). A teaching assistantship is for teaching/grading, a research assistantship is for research, and a graduate assistantship is for some other type of job around the university, like administrative work.

Research assistantships come in two flavors as well: research that is part of your dissertation and research that is not part of your dissertation.

In terms of having maximum time to work on your research, a fellowship or RA-for-your-dissertation is best. If you have a TA, GA, or RA-not-for-your-dissertation, that's 20 hours/week of work that's not directly furthering your goal of finishing your dissertation, so all your dissertation research has to be done in the other 20+ work hours per week.

When graduate students talk about grants, generally they are talking about grants that their PI won, and the grant is paying their stipend (RA) and the cost of doing the research. I think there are some grants available for upper-level PhD students, but they also would be funding projects, not individuals (the way a fellowship does). Another variant is a training grant, which is awarded to a department and pays for the training of students in a specific area of research.

As @Eigen said, in STEM fields these designations are not something to super concern yourself with. You should receive some kind of assurance that you will be paid a full stipend throughout your PhD (or at least 5 years), whether that is an official guarantee or simply based on a longstanding pattern. Again in STEM fields it's most typical that RA positions allow you to do research toward your own dissertation (of course, your dissertation topic is guided by the PI's projects that have received grant funding).

A great point that @fuzzylogician made is that these distinctions can become muddied/confusing on the ground. For example, I was required to TA for two semesters (10 hrs/week), but that was not tied to my pay at all. During one of the semesters I had a fellowship and during one I was an RA. Students on training grants function like RAs but they are paid like they are on fellowship (i.e., non-compensatory pay).

Edited by GradStudentFinances

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These fundable ideas, do they have to, and can they be based off your dissertation? I have plenty of ideas from various papers I've read that I think could be fundable, but they'd probably be somewhat different than my dissertation (seeing as how I'm not even enrolled in a school yet). Also how detailed and long do they have to be? Are they basically like grant proposals? Because those are usually very long and detailed. And are they just paying you because you wrote a nice grant proposal, or are they paying you to actually pursue the idea you presented to them? If so, are they looking for results for it?

From the gist of it, from the STEM field, it seems like the main thing for a fellowship is just prestige, and the ease to work on your own project without having to do work on anything else in the lab or teach. I have been super focused on my SOPs, choosing schools, and applying recently, so I now just started looking at this. I am assured full funding (around 30K) at every school I'm looking at. As someone who isn't even in grad school yet, is this something I should be concerning myself with? Or should I wait till I get situated, decide my dissertation, and then start to look for fellowships targeting my dissertation. 

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There may be some exceptions to this rule, but I would say that a fellowship funds an individual while grants fund projects. Institutions that award fellowships to rising PhD students know that they are fairly unlikely to be able to follow through on their proposed research because they don't even have an advisor yet. That said, aside from the prestige of winning an outside fellowship, sometimes it does confer a degree of independence, i.e., you won money so you get to direct your own research a bit.

Definitely don't discount the power of prestige when it comes to a well-known external fellowship. Winning outside funding early on can start of a pattern of winning other awards and grants later. Yes, the student/postdoc/PI who wins is excellent, but they also have a real leg up by having been previously judged worthy by another funding agency.

My advice is to apply for the NSF GRFP and the NDSEG at a minimum. I recently compiled a list of portable fellowships that pay full stipends that are available to prospective PhD students, which you can sign up here to receive.

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8 minutes ago, samman1994 said:

These fundable ideas, do they have to, and can they be based off your dissertation? I have plenty of ideas from various papers I've read that I think could be fundable, but they'd probably be somewhat different than my dissertation (seeing as how I'm not even enrolled in a school yet). Also how detailed and long do they have to be? Are they basically like grant proposals? Because those are usually very long and detailed. And are they just paying you because you wrote a nice grant proposal, or are they paying you to actually pursue the idea you presented to them? If so, are they looking for results for it?

The answer to all of your questions is "it depends!". Some fellowships require a longer proposal (10-15 pages) which is essentially the same as a grant proposal, some require a much shorter proposal (my postdoc proposal was exactly 1 page long, including everything from project description to fit with the institution and sponsor). Some require you to show results directly tied to the project you proposed, some are more flexible. Some are specifically to support dissertation research, others are not. This is something to discuss with advisors, and is highly (sub)field dependent. It's always worth applying for prestigious grants and awards, even if you already have guaranteed funding from your department. It will make you more hirable and might give you extra independence. It might allow you to stay in your program for another year or two if you can arrange it, it might allow you to travel more; there are really not many downsides to having external money. 

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8 minutes ago, fuzzylogician said:

The answer to all of your questions is "it depends!". Some fellowships require a longer proposal (10-15 pages) which is essentially the same as a grant proposal, some require a much shorter proposal (my postdoc proposal was exactly 1 page long, including everything from project description to fit with the institution and sponsor). Some require you to show results directly tied to the project you proposed, some are more flexible. Some are specifically to support dissertation research, others are not. This is something to discuss with advisors, and is highly (sub)field dependent. It's always worth applying for prestigious grants and awards, even if you already have guaranteed funding from your department. It will make you more hirable and might give you extra independence. It might allow you to stay in your program for another year or two if you can arrange it, it might allow you to travel more; there are really not many downsides to having external money. 

But should I look at this once I have an adviser and a dissertation picked? Or is it better to start as early as possible and for me to start trying to apply for fellowships before I even apply to the schools themselves?

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At my PhD university, I receive a scholarship, in addition to other funding (i.e. stipend, waiver of tuition, insurance and monies for conferences). I think the others have covered the basics pretty well. While we receive a contract for the entire year, it's based on good reviews at the end of each semester. I also do not receive funding for summers, so will need to teach as an adjunct at least one summer session to cover my cost of living. Every university is different. The fellowships I've seen at various schools work in different ways. Nothing about funding is uniform among universities, or even between departments. Your funding will be spelled out in the official offer letter you receive. Do not think there will be additional monies in any form coming other than what is listed. Fellowships will stretch the monies you receive in most places. For instance, if you have guaranteed funding for 5 years and then receive a fellowship for two years, you will have funding for 7 years. Although I have an MA and expect to finish my PhD in 4-4.5 years, I do have 5 years of funding. I was recently told that some PhD students who don't complete their programs in 5 years, apply for a fellowship in a particular scholars program at this university, then teach in that program until they finish their dissertation.

I am attending a conference next summer in Paris. All graduate students accepted for presentations will be considered for travel funds by the society. Sometimes you receive additional funding in that manner. I expect the cost to attend to be in the $5,000 range. My department will contribute a sum, with a contribution from A&S. Then the grad school will provide matching funds. As a result, the majority of my trip will be paid for, as this sort of thing lends prestige to the university in addition to the student or faculty.

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5 minutes ago, samman1994 said:

But should I look at this once I have an adviser and a dissertation picked? Or is it better to start as early as possible and for me to start trying to apply for fellowships before I even apply to the schools themselves?

It depends on the fellowship. Obviously it would be premature to apply for dissertation-related funding before you're even admitted, have an advisor and/or topic. The NSF GRFP, on the other hand, does allow you to apply early, I believe. (As a non-citizen, I never worried about these details, but you might want to look them up.) The Canadian equivalents (SSRHC/NSERC) do, too. I would say it's important to make sure you're spending enough time on your applications first, but you might also want to talk to someone at your current department about whether there is anything you should be applying to this fall.  

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1 minute ago, fuzzylogician said:

It depends on the fellowship. Obviously it would be premature to apply for dissertation-related funding before you're even admitted, have an advisor and/or topic. The NSF GRFP, on the other hand, does allow you to apply early, I believe. (As a non-citizen, I never worried about these details, but you might want to look them up.) I would say it's important to make sure you're spending enough time on your applications first, but you might also want to talk to someone at your current department about whether there is anything you should be applying to this fall.  

Well I've picked my schools, found the professors I want to work with, and even started the applications halfway. Now I've started to work on my SOP, but have a lot of time between editing. So wanted to start looking into fellowships and maybe apply with the deadlines coming up soon. Thank you all for your help and advise!!

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