Where to find funding for graduate school

Graduate school is a big commitment. Often times you move to a new place and begin a new program of study. You have to take a bunch of required coursework, do research, and maybe TA (or teach). On top of that, you get a pretty meager stipend in most cases and your research may or may not be funded when you arrive. This blog post aims to help you find funding sources. I will also share some of my experience with applying for and receiving (or failing to receive) grant money and fellowships.

Let’s start with the stipend. If you are a STEM graduate student (or any graduate student in a perfect world) you should be getting paid in some capacity. For many schools you teach or act as a teaching assistant (TA) or research assistant (RA) to a faculty member in order to receive your stipend. This appointment is generally considered to be half-time work (20 hours per week). The other 20 hours of your 40 hour work week (lol) are there for you to attend classes, complete coursework, and do your own research and/or lab work. Obviously many people work more than 20 hours per week as a TA/RA and many people work over 20 hours a week on research and coursework, but this is a good analog and I think it’s a healthy way to think about graduate school. The stipend for a student in this type of situation is probably somewhere around $20,000 (US) annually. This isn’t a lot, but if you don’t live in a super expensive city you can easily make it on this. There are situations where that isn’t the case and some graduate students take on a part time job or try to get additional funding. Below are some of your options for raising your stipend via external fellowships.

NSF GRFP: The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program is probably the most well known of all of the graduate fellowships offered to students in the US. It’s highly competitive and generally everyone applies for it. You can read more about it here, but basically you get 5 years to use 3 years worth of $32,000 stipend. A big advantage over what you would normally get as a stipend in your average grad program. You also get supercomputer privileges, an educational allowance (they pay your tuition), and family leave! So it’s a pretty good gig. Now, how do you get one of these fellowships?

Advice #1: Have a publication. This is the most compeetitive fellowship because everyone applies. Having a first author publication in pre-print, submitted, or published is almost a must as this point. This is not the case for every fellowship.

Advice #2: Ask/google around. Find people who have successfully gotten the NSFGRFP and ask to talk to them and/or take a look at their application materials. I’ve never been successful with the NSFGRFP, but many people have. Check out this link for more.

**Keep in mind that both 1st and 2nd year graduate students as well as undergrads applying to graduate school (or anyone who has <2 years grad experience) can apply!

EPA STAR: Another well known fellowship for the life sciences, geological sciences, coastal sciences, and some health sciences in the EPA STAR. Although it was small last year (due to government shutdown and massive/ utterly stupid budget cuts to the EPA), it is awarded to many people and looks to be established again for this year and future years. Unlike the NSF, advanced students (>2 years graduate experience) can apply! This program offers a $27,000 stipend along with tuition coverage for 3 years. This is not as good as the NSF, but still better than your average graduate student stipend. Sadly, I have never applied for this program and know little about the details. I recommend that you check out some other blogs about this here, here, and here. From the outside it looks very similar to the NSFGRFP so I would advise you to apply for both and only make minimal changes to the documents to fit criteria.

DoD NDSEG: Finally something I am an expert on! The Department of Defense offers a graduate fellowship as well. While it is mostly advertised to physical science and engineering folks, it should be noted that they actually do accept and fund applications from biological and life sciences as well. I study climate change and coral reefs and I am funded through this fellowship. I would like to share some tips from my successful application process.

First, this application is quite different from the standard NSF/EPA application. Everything you do is on an online form on the website (with character limits). Copy and past the prompts into a Word document and edit there. The site is a bit buggy and you can lose everything you type if you hit delete at the wrong time or the page times out on you.

The DoD is more interested in you than they are in a detailed and specific research proposal. They want to see your grades, your character, and your future goals and see if those goals align with their own. I’m going to reiterate that just for clarity. THEY WANT YOUR GOALS TO LINE UP WITH THEIR GOALS. So you need to do some research. Go to their website and do some serious digging. If you want to get this fellowship you need to convince them why they need you. For example, the DoD actually has a pretty detailed coral reef initiative. After all, they do have a ton of coastal and island bases throughout the world. I honed in on this document, cited it specifically and mentioned that my research would help them meet or beat their self-described goals. I also dug even deeper and found their actual coral reef protection plan which lays out their goals and programs in more specific detail. Reading through it really helped me explain to them just how my work on coral resilience and community structure changes under climate change and anthropocentric stress could help them preserve reefs on or near their bases. If you don’t study reefs you can still find something specific. The DoD isn’t just about war. They also have to deal with defense against chemical weapons, disease, natural phenomena, and climate change. They are a very organized machine and have tons of documentation on all of these different categories. Applying for this fellowship may be easier for an engineer or coder, but any life scientist or geologist should be able to do so as well. I’m happy to send my materials to you or talk to you about your ideas if you want. Just send me an email j.baumann3 at

General advice:

1.) Read the program description and website in full.

2.) Find examples of past successful applications and model yours after one of them (no reason to reinvent the wheel).

3.) Take your time and ask others to read and provide suggestions for you.

4.) Get good letter of recommendation. If you don’t know the person that well then they aren’t the right person to ask. Make sure they know your name and remember you before you ask them to write. The more detail they can provide the better. If you think there is a chance of them being negative or unsure about you then go find someone else!

In my mind, those are the big 3 fellowships. There are many other as well, some of which are linked below.

DOE CSGF: Great for computational students.

NOAA Nancy Foster: Oceanographers/ marine scientists (preference for women and minorities)

Ford Foundation Pre-doc: Diversity and achievement based

Other opportunities:

If you are a marine scientist or conservation/management student, you can also try some of these sources of funding.

Rufford Foundation: I have funding from this organization that covers field costs. You must be doing work in a developing nation and have some management or conservation goals. Awards start at $7000 (US). The accept applications on a rolling deadline (so basically there is no deadline and you can apply whenever you want).

Waitt foundation: I know very little about this program but I believe it is very conservation heavy and quite difficult to get funded. However, they seem to be supportive and awesome once you are funded.

National Geographic: Who doesn’t want to be funded by Nat Geo? Check out the link for more details.

Sea Grant: Check your state sea grant website (all states, including the land-locked ones, have a sea grant program)

Professional societies: Professional societies like AAUS, PADI, and GSA all offer small travel/gear grants. They are worth checking out if you need some conference travel money.

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