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Winter 2009


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Financial Assistance

Winnie Ennenga, Ramona Mellott, Melissa Hatfield Riggs

Fellowships and Scholarships: Coming Out a Winner

Funding Sources and the National Scene
Creating Competitive Applications
Helpful Hints on Standing Out from the Crowd
Additional Resources

Funding Sources and the National Scene

Making the decision to attend graduate school is often fraught with anxiety. Besides choosing the right program, mentor, and area of emphasis, individuals must often figure out ways to finance this education. Financial aid for graduate students includes all types of aid: loans, work-study programs, benefits associated with graduate assistantships, scholarships, traineeships, and fellowships which are used to offset the cost of tuition, fees, and living expenses. While loans are available to all qualified degree-seeking U.S. resident students, funding that does not need to be paid back is available to full-time graduate students seeking more traditional research-based programs to help finance their education. These opportunities should be researched fully when choosing to apply to a graduate school. This article will discuss the process of applying for graduate assistantships and scholarships. Additionally, we will provide you with some tips on submitting a competitive application for scholarships and fellowships.

The most common source of funding for many graduate students is through employment as a graduate assistant. Most programs and universities offer graduate assistantships. Graduate assistants are usually employed by the university, generally through their home department, as a teaching, research, or service assistant and receive compensation for the service they provide. They are generally limited to working 20 hours a week and the job often comes with benefits in terms of assistance with tuition costs and health insurance benefits. A teaching assistant is expected to provide assistance in the classroom or lab or serve as an instructor. A research assistant provides assistance with research. A service assistant provides administrative service in various units across campus including residence halls, advising centers, multicultural offices, and so forth. It is important to be aware of deadlines for these applications. Many of the strategies for applying for these graduate assistant positions are similar to applying for a job. Preparing a good resume and highlighting your skills and abilities in relation to the job that is open goes a long way toward securing that position. 

A study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (July 2002) on student financing of graduate and professional education in 1999-2000 indicates that approximately 81 percent of Ph.D. students in the life and physical sciences and engineering, math, and computer sciences hold assistantship appointments whereas about 56.1 percent of Ph.D. students in the humanities and social sciences serve as graduate assistants. The percentage of master’s students in similar disciplines with assistantships goes down to 53 percent and 26 percent respectively. Fewer students in professional programs hold assistantships (e.g., medicine, MBA). This information is important when planning to use assistantships as a method of funding your graduate education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 2008) recently published an article on the average stipend level and benefits for graduate assistants for six specific disciplines (English, biological sciences, history, economics, mechanical engineering, and sociology) for 111 universities. The article provides a snapshot of what these institutions offer to their graduate assistants.

A second category of assistance includes scholarships, traineeships, and fellowships. The U.S. Department of Education regularly gathers information from graduate students to ascertain the number of students supported and the amount of aid received. The National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) is the largest survey the department conducts. In 2003-04, 11,000 graduate and professional students were surveyed. An article in Fin Aid summarizes the NPSAS study, listing the amount of private aid received by students in regards to scholarships from the private sector such as industries. Approximately 5.5 percent of graduate students surveyed received an average of $3,557 scholarship dollars each annually, totaling $548 million. 

The National Science Foundation funds a large number of fellowships in support of outstanding graduate students in disciplines related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees in the U.S. and abroad. To date, they have funded 43,000 graduate research fellowships out of more than 500,000 applications. In 2008, they funded 913 students, approximately 11% of the applicants from 252 different baccalaureate institutions who were planning to attend graduate programs at 335 different universities and colleges (see statistics_and_past_recipients). Applicants were from a diverse range of fields which included chemistry, computer and information science, engineering, geosciences, life sciences, mathematical sciences, physics and astronomy, psychology, and social sciences.

Privately funded scholarships vary in amount and provide funding for educational costs or books or other specific areas as designated by the donor. Applications for general scholarships are usually made directly through the university or the department offering them.  Fellowships are a form of scholarship usually awarded to graduate students. Normally, no service is required of the student in return. A traineeship is a form of fellowship that may have certain expectations of the recipient. Both traineeships and fellowships generally provide assistance that covers reasonable living expenses and an educational allowance that will cover all or a portion of tuition, fees, and health insurance premium costs. Many universities will provide for the remainder of the educational costs not covered by the fellowship. Some funding also may be set aside for travel to professional conferences and/or research activities.

To be successful in obtaining a scholarship or fellowship, it is very important to submit a competitive application. Recently the Graduate College and the Office of the Vice President for Research at Northern Arizona University co-hosted a workshop on how to apply for this funding. More information on the workshop is available online. Tips for successful applications from this workshop will be summarized below.


Creating Competitive Applications

Read and review. Review funding organizations and opportunities and determine which best fit your interests, expertise, and eligibility. Read the fine print on a scholarship’s eligibility and criteria for selection. In fact, devour the entire website for clues.  Read everything you can find about the scholarship and biographies of previous award-winners; talk to anyone you know who has applied for or received that scholarship. Find the right scholarship for you and concentrate your efforts there.

Develop a timeline of these most likely scholarship/fellowship deadlines and your academic deadlines. Make a plan: determine how many applications you can submit, and schedule your work accordingly.

Beware of multiple deadlines: some scholarships will have an internal deadline to apply to a nominating institution as well as an external deadline for the funding organization, and you have to meet both.

Examine the way information for similar topical areas is requested by each funding organization. Your goal is to get a better understanding of the critical issues for each sponsor that will enable you to:

  • Determine whether you will be competitive.
  • Formulate approaches for questions where the guidance and language from one sponsor isn’t particularly clear and the guidance/language from another gives helpful insights.
  • Develop responses for one application that can be modified to fit the requirements of another: summaries of volunteer work, publications, laboratory experience, etc.

Reflecting on these similarities and differences will give you a stronger basis from which to develop your statement of purpose, which usually requires you to discuss your educational objectives (what problem drives you?) and long-range professional goals.

Gather all information on your awards, memberships, etc. Prepare common application components, such as the autobiography, statement of purpose, and statement of work. You can modify these pieces as needed to more completely fit the requirements and/or emphases of each sponsor/organization.

Don’t quit halfway. If you have read everything you can get your hands on about this scholarship, and you truly believe you are the kind of person they’re wanting to fund, don’t get busy and decide the pressures of the moment are more important than your future, and don’t second guess the selection committee and decide for them that you’ll never get it.

Police yourself. Do what is asked of you exactly and completely, and follow up to make sure materials are not just requested but received. If your application is not complete, you won’t make it past the first gatekeeper, and the selection committee will never see it. The easiest way to start narrowing candidates is to toss out incomplete or incorrectly prepared applications.

For example, if they request an official transcript, don’t send an unofficial transcript off the Web. If they limit your answer on each question to 400 words, don’t give them 425. If they want only peer-reviewed publications, don’t list others. If they want a document that you absolutely cannot provide, then write a separate statement on a separate piece of paper to include with your materials that explains why this document is not available. And so on. They mean what they say.

Make your writing technically solid. No typos, no incorrect punctuation or grammar. Need I say more? There is; there are nice professors and writing centers.

Proofread. Several times. Over time. Proof not only for typos, but for clarity and all the good ideas and examples that may pop into your head the more you think about your answers. Draft the application, wait a couple of days, and go back and look at it again. Do this several times. Prepare the application early to give you time to harness your subconscious, your creativity, and your own analytical skills.

Remember to back up your files regularly.

Prove it. Whatever the list of criteria, demonstrate that you have all of these qualities.  Especially look at a criterion that is somewhat unusual and be sure to address it. Show, don’t tell. Back up your statements with examples and specifics.

On addressing financial need or hardships and obstacles you have overcome (where requested and/or where you think it appropriate to the scholarship’s criteria for selection): tell your story honestly, simply, and without self-pity. But let them know. 

Think strategically. Choose your words, anecdotes, examples, and questions to answer strategically. Make your answer work for you on all possible levels. 

For example, if a question asks for a description of a work of art and your response to it, and your field is international relations, pick a work from a country and artist, with a subject matter and history, that you can relate back to your discipline and to your motivations for studying that discipline. If they ask for interests or hobbies, choose activities that pertain to your field and strengthen your proposal.

Keep it tight. Write or speak economically. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use detail and images and anecdotes and specifics. But keep it tight. Write fully and with passion, then pare it down to the gold.

Involve your mentor. Work with your advisor/mentor to discuss your proposed approach to the application and to request feedback on your draft documents. The final documents must be your ideas in your own words, but outside review can help you hone your responses and avoid missing critical requirements.

Choose your references wisely, and help them help you. Don’t hesitate to ask potential references if they can give you a strong, positive recommendation. Give them all possible information about the scholarship’s criteria for evaluation, the organization’s mission, and your own accomplishments. Tell each reference a few specific things you would like him/her to address: this helps keep your recommendation letters from being too similar and sounding formulaic. Make sure you give them enough time; make sure they know the deadline; and provide them with a stamped, addressed envelope. Give them a gentle reminder close to the deadline.

Procrastination doesn’t pay (literally)!  Don’t push the deadline in submitting your materials.


Helpful hints on standing out from the crowd

When applying for scholarships and fellowships (in any discipline) in which the selection committee wants to know as much about you as your work, here are four sound techniques for standing out from the crowd. This kind of scholarship will typically involve a personal interview and/or a written application with essay questions. Questions seek to explore your critical thinking abilities and values and try to get a feel for what shaped and molded you, what drives you to study a particular discipline, and what you want to accomplish and why.

Work from your life. Draw on your personal life and experiences to pick truthful examples, anecdotes, feelings, and realizations that you can discuss with passion. Honesty and passion will come through in your writing and speech. And if you’re describing something you’ve really experienced, you will have a flood of details, feelings, and thoughts that help you flesh out your discussion.

Tell stories. Telling the story of a pertinent personal experience is a great way to start an essay or interview question response. It helps you come up with a unique answer with memorable and powerful images and ideas, and it is a great way to catch the committee’s attention right up front.

If you don’t know how to start, tell a personal story. If you don’t feel you’re a really strong writer, tell a story—it will bring out the best in you. If you’re a really good writer, you already know the power of stories—use it. 

Images, metaphors, similes, analogies, your feelings and intellectual insights—all of these visual and sensual and emotional devices are good for this sort of competition. They give your answers power and impact.

Be who you are. If you want to stand out, be who you are. Don’t just say what you think they want to hear; answer outside the box. Colorless neutrality and safe clichés do not make you memorable. Don’t try to hide your personality if you want to be remembered.

Tell the truth, then tell the moral of the story. It can be an effective technique to recount a personal story that does not show you in the very best light if you use it as a springboard into showing something important you have learned or how and why your ideals or goals have changed.

Even for scholarship competitions that call for a more work-focused, professional approach, these tips can be adapted for use in a restrained fashion and work well within live interview situations.


Additional Resources

  1. NAU Office of the Vice President for Research, Funding webpage.

  2. NAU Graduate College, Scholarships and Awards webpage.

  3. Advice for applying for graduate science fellowships: NSF, NDSEG, Hertz by Philip Guo. 

  4. Useful Tips for Applying, National Science Foundation, Graduate Research Fellowship Program webpage.


Choy, Susan P. and Sonya Geis. 2002. "Student Financing of Graduate and First-Professional Education, 1999–2000: Profiles of Students in Selected Degree Programs and Their Use of Assistantships." National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, NCES 2002–166.

FinAid Page, LLC. FinAid! The Smart Student Guide to Financial Aid. "National Postsecondary Student Aid Study." (accessed January 15, 2009).

US Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. 2004. "2003-04 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study," NPSAS:04.

National Science Foundation. 2008. "National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Recipients: Statistics and Past Recipients." (accessed January 15, 2009).

The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2008. Stipends for Graduate Assistants, 2008-09. (December 1).



Winnie Ennenga, Director, Office of Grant and Contract Services
Ramona Mellott, Dean, Graduate College

Melissa Hatfield Riggs, Graduate College