Tips to Winning Grad School Funding Awards

I finished graduate school in 2008 earning dual masters’ degrees in engineering and business, which took 3 years.  I was awarded a prestigious NASA graduate fellowship, sponsored by UNCFSP to help fund my studies.  There are many awards out there for graduate students, even more for women and minorities who are underrepresented in their fields.  As an African American, I would like to see more minorities earn graduate degrees which will make us more competitive in the work force, vital in this current tough economy.  According the U.S. Census Bureau, only 4% of Hispanics and 6% of African Americans over the age of 25 have advanced degrees.  With the emergence of online universities and colleges and with this competitive economy, a bachelor’s degree is becoming easier to attain and needless to say, anybody can grab one.  I’m writing this article to help those out there apply for and win these graduate scholarship and fellowship awards, based on my experiences. Some of these esteemed awards can come from NASA, NSF, AAUW, minority organizations, and the U.S. government branches like the DOD.  For more information and an easy-to-use searchable database of graduate school funding sources, check out my website: http://www.MinorityGradStudent.com.  The website is for anyone to use, and you can search for programs that are for anybody as well as those tailored to specific minority groups. Also, I will admit that this article may be somewhat biased towards the science, engineering, and technology fields since I have my BS and MS in technology areas, and my graduate fellowship was for my engineering studies and research. 

So you’ve finished your bachelor’s degree.  Whether you graduated with honors, or you’re just honored to be graduating.  Whether you are Cum Laude, or “Thank you Lawdy”!  Now what?  Do you get a job, or further your education?  Or maybe you are into your career and want to go back to school for an advanced degree?  There are three things you want to consider when making this decision.

1. Do I really need a graduate degree for what I want to do in life?
2. Do I have the time and dedication to work towards another degree?
3. Do I have the finances to pay for another degree?!

Question 1, varies by individual, but if you answered “yes”, then let’s move forward.   For question two, just look in the mirror and tell yourself “yes I can”!  Now I can help you with question 3.  There are many scholarship and fellowship awards out there for graduate students.  For the remainder of this article, I will use the term “awards” to mean graduate school scholarships, fellowships, and other financial aid grants that are not loans, but simply cash in your pocket.  Many of them are specifically for women and persons from underrepresented groups.  I created MinorityGradStudent.com as a place for minorities to find funding resources for graduate school and to discuss various topics.  I define “minorities” here as the same groups as the U.S. Census Bureau.   The majority of these U.S. awards are for U.S. citizens, but there are several where citizenship is not required.  You can easily filter these results on the search page.  The awards are usually merit based, and some of the award stipends are around $30,000 per year, plus full tuition and fees!  That’s pretty decent, right?  A quick distinction between scholarships and fellowships:  Scholarships usually give you a stipend of a few hundred or thousand dollars, and may or may not cover your tuition and fees.  A fellowship, which is generally for graduate school only, will usually cover your full tuition and fees and give you an additional larger stipend that could be tens of thousands of dollars.  Sometimes there is a requirement such as working for the organization that provides the award for X number of years, attending conferences, or some other stipulation, but it is well worth it in my opinion.  The requirements are generally some combination of:

1. Good grades on your undergraduate transcripts.
2. Strong recommendation letters.
3. Work/research experience in your area of study.
4. Writing a long, zealous, and sagacious essay.

Number 4 is what usually scares everyone away.  But wait, don’t leave!  They want you to run off!  Fight back, make the program committee read your essay!  Look, you can use the same essay for all of your award applications, just tweak it each time to fit the criteria of the award program you are applying for.  Don’t try to write the entire essay in one sitting and then immediately submit it.  Take your time, put some thought into it.  Then let your professors or superiors at your job look over it and provide feedback.   PEER REVIEW IS IMPORTANT! Make sure you address everything that they require in your essay.  If your undergraduate GPA is low but you have valuable work experience and strong recommendations, mention in your essay how you are more of a hands on person and sell yourself and your exposure outside of the classroom.  For the NASA fellowship that I won, one of the keys was to link my engineering research area to a particular NASA center.  I went online and did some NASA.gov research by checking out the projects where my research would be beneficial, and specifically made the connection in my essay.  Not only did I win the award, but I scored an internship with NASA after my first year of grad school.
The essay is most vital portion of your application.  Know exactly what you want to do in graduate school, what you can bring to the program, how the award program will help you, help them.  For example, if you are in the life sciences or medical field, mention you want to study stem cell research, or something else that is an emerging scientific breakthrough, and how it can help a large number of people.   It doesn’t hurt to talk about your entire career plan.  You may want to earn a biomedical masters degree, then go onto medical school and become a surgeon.  Or maybe you want to get your law degree in an area that needs more lawyers to defend or prosecute citizens.  The people who evaluate your applications for these award programs like to know that you have a destination you are planning to go with the money they are giving you.  Now, truth is, most of the time it is acceptable to diverge from your initial career path.  Meaning a slight change in your area of study in some cases won’t have any consequences such as returning the money.  For example, there are some awards that may want minorities to earn a PhD and then go be a professor at a minority institution.  However, if you decide to go into the industry and not teach, they usually do not mind.  Or you may decide to leave the PhD program after only receiving your Masters degree, which is quite common in grad school.  Just make sure you read all the fine print when applying for the award.  It doesn’t hurt to ask about the terms of agreement.  But if I were you, I would call the program office from a phone that is not my own number, rather than email them, if I was going to ask something like, “is it ok if I quit grad school early if I win your award?”  In that case, I wouldn’t use my real name either just to keep anonymity.  If you were to email them this inquiry, they could keep a record of it on file and will probably blacklist your application before any adjudication!
Keep your grades as high as possible, and be an outstanding performer on your jobs, internships, and class projects.  Then when it comes to hunting for recommendation letters, make sure you ask your potential recommenders if they can write you a STRONG recommendation.  Emphasis on the word STRONG.  There are people out there that will write you a recommendation letter, but it may not be in your best interests.  I have heard stories of professors that didn’t quite see eye-to-eye with some of their students, and those professors would still write the letters, but would say things like:

• “John Doe struggled throughout the semester, often seemed uninterested in the material, and did not work too well with other students”
• “Jane Doe was a mediocre performer on the job.  She never went the extra mile and would not take the initiative to help out others.”

This is not what you want in your recommendation letters.  You want to have a favorable relationship with your recommenders.  Make sure they know some things about you.  What I did a few times was provide a short biography and mini-resume to professors that only saw me in class and didn’t know much else about me, so that they had some additional material to use when writing my letter.   
 Well, I hope I was able to shed some helpful insight to someone.  Remember put time and thought into your essays making sure you explain how they can help you help them, have your essay peer reviewed, do your best in the classroom and on the job, and get strong recommendation letters.  And one more thing, apply to as many program as possible!  My senior year of college I applied to 9 different graduate fellowship programs for engineers.  I won only one.  Yes it took a significant amount of time, but the results speak for themselves.  I had 9 copies of the same essay saved; each one just tweaked a slight bit to match the requirements for that fellowship that I was applying too.  Apply to those scholarships and fellowships and best of luck!  And be sure to check out http://www.MinorityGradStudent.com!

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