How to keep a fellowship

Many students don’t realize that receiving a fellowship acceptance letter doesn’t mean your work is over. Receiving a fellowship from an external source means that you are often asked to enter into a contract. You should be sure to read over all the documentation of your fellowship very carefully. Failure to abide by the terms of your fellowship may lead to the termination of your award or perhaps may even require you to pay back what the fellowship has already provided. Not knowing about something is not an excuse that many fellowships will accept. Granting organizations go to great lengths to provide their fellows with clear information through various avenues of delivery. You are then asked to sign documentation that states you understand this documentation and will abide by the terms of the award. This leaves little room for mistakes.

There may be certain things that the fellowship requires from you to maintain your fellowship. Some fellowships may even require a service commitment (example: the Science, Mathematics, And Research for Transformation [SMART] fellowship). Some fellowships may require that you conduct an internship with the granting organization or an external lab or company (examples: GEM, Intel, DOE CSGF). If this is the case, you should also check with your department/ advisors to be sure you will be allowed to fulfill this commitment. Many fellowships require that students report on their annual activities and accomplishments or verify that they are making acceptable progress towards their degree (examples: NSF GRFP, DOE CSGF, NDESG). Some fellowships require that students renew their fellowship each year (example: Liebmann Fund). If this were the case for your fellowship, you would need to be aware of what is required (are the materials the same or different as their initial application) as well as the deadline for submission. Some fellowships may also require the signing of forms by your advisor or the fellowship administrator. You should be well aware of the deadlines for these forms and give the signees plenty of time to sign them. It is not the signee’s responsibility to be available at midnight on the night of the deadline to sign the form.
There are also certain obligations you may have for department administrators when it comes to fellowships. Firstly, make sure you let your department know you are receiving a fellowship. There are quite a few external fellowships that pay awards directly to the student without any part of the award passing through MIT. MIT generally frowns upon “double-dipping”, in other words receiving two full fellowships at once or receiving a stipend above the institute maximum stipend rate. External fellowships paid outside of MIT can still be supplemented to standard rates, but this requires working with the administrators to let them know the details of your external fellowship.

Secondly, although fellowships allow greater flexibility, your fellowship may not cover the full cost of your education. It is often a stated term on external fellowships that students will not be asked to pay tuition. As MIT does not allow the waiving of tuition, often times these fellowships will need to be supplemented through an RA, TA or another fellowship. We allow graduate students on external fellowships to undertake a reasonable amount of teaching or similar activity (research) as part of a fellow’s educational program. Numerous departments have teaching requirements for their graduate students and research and teaching assistantships are consistent with and an integral part of a graduate students’ educational goals, integration within their laboratory group, and enhances their educational experience. Hence, supplemental RA and TAs are allowed and can be utilized to cover tuition shortfall. In order to comply with reasonable compensation tax laws, stipends are supplemented (including grossing up to account for taxes) above the standard MIT stipend amount and this amount corresponding to the remaining tuition shortfall is returned to MIT by the fellows. Hence, fellows do not pay for tuition from their allocated fellowship stipend and therefore abide by the terms of the fellowship. As this is not necessarily a typical practice at other universities, you may not be aware that you will be required to work as an RA or TA to supplement your fellowship. Making sure you know our policy and ways of doing things can greatly reduce surprises down the road. As MIT is very decentralized, with each individual department/program having their own way of doing things, be sure to consult your graduate administrator on your department’s practices.

Lastly, as of 2011, students can only be on one government-sponsored fellowship at a time. For example, if you applied and were accepted by both the NSF GRFP and the NDSEG, you will have to choose between the two. They cannot be combined or deferred to accept another federal fellowship. This does not apply to students who are receiving a supplemental RA where funds are coming from a federally sponsored research grant. As different fellowships notify their successful recipients at different times, a common question is if a student receives the NSF GRFP and must notify the NSF of their acceptance/ declination before hearing from the NDSEG, students should first accept the NSF GRFP. When they are notified of their acceptance by the NDSEG and choose to be on the NDSEG instead of the NSF GRFP, they can always terminate their NSF GRFP before the start of the fellowship.