Social Update: Dispelling an Untruth - You Don’t Have to Be a Minority to Get a Federal Fellowship

Nick Dolding

Nick Dolding

The first day of autumn is around the corner--September 22nd to be exact. For Starbucks, that means Pumpkin Spiced Lattes. For Hipsters, it means donning scarves and beanies way before the chill sets in. For graduate students in Academia, it’s fellowship time. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF)--one of several fellowship granting institutions-- has four consecutive October deadlines. For thousands of eager graduate students across the country, the pressure is on to put together a stellar application to receive this prestigious honor.

For the 2015 period, the NSF awarded 2,000 fellowships out of an astounding 17,000 applicants. According to the NSF website, “The group is diverse, including 1,077 women, 424 individuals from underrepresented minority groups (URM), 62 persons with disabilities, 35 veterans and 627 senior undergraduates.” This fellowship is not only a tremendous honor, given that awardees are in the company of former Nobel Prize Laureates, but it provides some degree of freedom so students can choose an institution, field of study, and mentor to work with as they pursue their master’s or doctoral degree. Unfortunately for most applicants, they are unsuccessful. Chances are, you may be or know somebody who is applying. With the stakes high, anxiety sets in, and the myths begin to fly.

Underrepresented Minorities Encouraged to Apply

One particular myth I find utterly irresponsible is that you must be a minority to receive the NSF fellowship. It is just not true. As a former NSF recipient and URM in science, I’m tired of hearing that you have to be a person of color to receive a federal fellowship. I don’t know where this narrative emerged from because this would imply that the selection process is biased to favor people of color. After taking a look at the numbers, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Consider the following stats from a recent NSF evaluation: Whites accounted for 79.9 percent of the awardees and 83.3 percent of honorable mention designees; about eight percent of awardees (7.9 percent) were Hispanic/Latino compared with 6.6 percent of honorable mention designees; Asians accounted for 10.7 percent of awardees and 8.9 percent of honorable mention designees; just over 4 percent of awardees were black (4.2 percent) compared with 2.5 percent of honorable mention designees. Overall, URMs accounted for 14.2 percent of all awardees and 11.1 percent of honorable mention designees, which dispels any minority-favored award bias.

Another myth is that your parents cannot be overeducated. Again, looking at the data, awardees were more likely than the national comparison groups to have parents with advanced degrees. Among doctorate awardees, 8.3 percent had mothers with a doctorate, and 23.6 percent had fathers with a doctorate, compared to 3.9 percent and 14.0 percent nationally, respectively. Among master’s degree awardees, 3.9 percent had mothers who completed their doctorate and 17.5 percent had fathers with a doctorate, compared to 1.3 percent and 5.8 percent nationally, respectively.

Overall, you can be a White American with parents who have an advanced degree and still be an NSF fellowship recipient. In fact, White awardees with parents who received doctorates make up the largest cohort of awardees who complete their doctorate. This isn’t surprising, given that White Americans represent a larger majority of the US population. Furthermore, the parents have gone through the gambit of getting a doctorate, so they know the ropes. If the data argues against any racial bias favoring people of color, then where does the narrative stem from? Aside from ill-informed graduate students or faculty, my guess is that it originates unintentionally from the advertisement for the fellowship.

Everywhere you look, advertisements read, “URMs are Strongly Encouraged to Apply.” This has somehow translated for some, to read “If You Are White, Don’t Bother”. In reaching racial parity in academia with the national population (an argument I don’t know if I agree or disagree with yet), one would argue that more URMs should be encouraged to apply for the NSF. Perhaps this is why you don’t hear “White Applicants are Strongly Encouraged to Apply”, because URMs are not applying in similar numbers. Advertisements can be heavily influential and, in this case, may be sending the wrong message.

A Nation With a Future

As a URM in science, I am proud to have received the NSF fellowship. However, I believe it is in our nation's best interest to keep avenues toward advanced degrees a meritocracy-based system. Any deviation from this goal, and the United States will continue to fall behind other nations in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which affects our nation's posterity. This is an important goal. Now, if there are institutional barriers that prevent any group (including Whites) from entering academia and receiving advanced degrees due to racial biases, then we should do our best to eliminate these barriers. I don’t believe there is any evidence these barriers exist for NSF applicants. Instead, applicants should focus more on how to set themselves apart from the massive applicant pool, than distracting themselves with untruths.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.