Who got the NSF GRFPs? And are we ok with that?

NSF recently awarded the latest round of the NSF GRFP, aka the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. These awards are given to graduating anthropology undergrads or first year graduate students. To make a long story short, they are very prestigious, pay for most (or all) of graduate school, and prove to grad schools and future funders that you are For Real. These awards set you up for success. So who got them and who didn’t says a lot about our discipline and where it’s going. So: what do they tell us?

You can view the full list of awards here. The first thing these awards tell us is that anthropology is underfunded. Around 2,000 NSF GRFPs were awarded, and 48 of them went to  anthropologists. This just underscores the point I’ve made before: Anthropology fails to be a ‘real’ science ‘like biology’ just because the discipline is full of fuzzy-headed postmodernists, but because we’re radically underfunded compared to other sciences.

Over at Small Pond Science, Terry McGlynn has argued that NSF graduate fellowships are part of the problem. That is, despite the program’s goal of leveling the playing field for students of non-elite colleges, it still ends up giving more awards to elite students. Is this true in anthropology? And — more important for me — how well does the NSF GRFP do in achieving the NSF’s goal of increasing gender and ethnic diversity?

Let’s look at gender and ethnicity first. I am not going to go down the list of awardees and profile them. But a brief gander down the list of names reveals that probably around 30 of the 48 recipients — maybe 62% — are women. And maybe about 50% have Probably Non-Anglo Names. That’s pretty good. I lose track of what percent of AAA members are women, but it’s over 50% and has been for some time. Ethnically, the AAA is (iirc) less diverse. So to me it looks like the NSF GRFPs are holding the line on gender and moving forward on ethnic diversity. Let me know if you disagree, but I think this is good news.

What about privileging elite versus non-elite institutions? Only six institutions received more than one NSF GRFP: Berkeley (4), NYU and University of Chicago (3 each), Duke, University of Oregon, and UC San Diego (2 each). Roughly a third of the awards went to these institutions. What about the others? Well, Barnard, Cornell, and Brown (and Sciences Po!) are on there. But so are San Jose State and UT Arlington. Are elite schools over-represented? Probably. But I think this may reflect the candidate pool — many people at regular schools have not heard of the NSF GRFP the way people at, say, elite liberal arts colleges have.

Of course, the real elites are not on this list because they don’t need to be. They form their own world — funding their own graduate students, and hiring the graduates of other elite schools. This world is buffered against the broader economy because of its wealth and status. They just don’t need the NSF GRFP. I imagine the Chicago students, for instance, who received the award were marginal admits to the program, or MAPSS students looking to make themselves attractive to a Ph.D. program. Unlike a lab-based discipline, anthropology’s artisanal, field-based research methods basically mean that you can run a discipline on intramural funds.

So in the case of anthropology at least, I don’t think the NSF GRFPs are ‘part of the problem’ as McGlynn claims. Really, by the time you are handing out golden tickets to graduate school the candidates have already been through two-decade long exposure to America structural forces. I mean, it’s an important part of the process of broadening the role of under-represented groups in science, but it’s also one of the final stages of that process.

In American anthropology at least, the biggest issue is the existence of two systems: a public, increasingly imperiled one, and a more insulated elite one. For a discipline of our size and shape, change really comes from the admissions and awards committees of a few key schools.

 

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

8 thoughts on “Who got the NSF GRFPs? And are we ok with that?

  1. “This may reflect the candidate pool — many people at regular schools have not heard of the NSF GRFP the way people at, say, elite liberal arts colleges have.”

    Indeed. This is why it’s logical to ask how much NSF could do in ensuring that the candidate pool is diverse. And the answer seems to be: quite a bit.

    The NSF could be much more active in promoting the awards, doing outreach to underrepresented institutions. They could be monitoring where those applications are coming from, releasing aggregate number of applications per institution, to perhaps provide data for institutions to see how their application rate compare to peer institutions.

    Now, there’s a discussion after that about whether such measures are effective, but the point remains: NSF could be actively seeking applications from underrepresented students and institutions.

  2. “I imagine the Chicago students, for instance, who received the award were marginal admits to the program”

    Let me see if I understand your logic:
    1) a student is admitted to one of the premier programs in the country

    AND

    2) said student applies for and is awarded what is arguably the nation’s most prestigious doctoral fellowship – a fellowship that for anthropologists is actually more competitive given the low number awarded relative to their disciplines

    THEN

    3) said student must be “marginal”.

    Wow.

    Most people are loathe to expose their biases sompublicly, but at least job applicants to UH Manoa can be aware of what combination of Prestigious Fellowship x Grad Program Ranking is likely to get them considered Marginal/Exceptional without looking past the first 1/4 page of their Vita.

  3. @Emilio Bruna What I meant to say — and did not say clearly enough — is that first year graduate students in the anthropology program at the University of Chicago who enrolled there without receiving a stipend or tuition from the department would be the ones most motivated to apply for an NSF GRFP. The students who received full tuition and a stipend would be less likely to apply for additional funding than those who came unfunded.

    @Zfaulkes: I absolutely agree. Part of an elite education also involves knowing how to write these applications — indeed, even just navigating the NSF site to find documents about what constitutes ‘broader impact’. All of that culture capital that elite schools impart to their students should be made more broadly available. A lot of it is out there now if you know how to google for it but… if you know how to google for it, you’re not the kind of person who needs to google for it.

  4. “This world is buffered against the broader economy because of its wealth and status. They just don’t need the NSF GRFP. I imagine the Chicago students, for instance, who received the award were marginal admits to the program, or MAPSS students looking to make themselves attractive to a Ph.D. program.”

    This statement is factually wrong and ethically irresponsible. Some clarifications:

    University of Chicago students are admitted months ahead of the NSF GRFP announcement. Thus, their outside funding has absolutely no bearing on the decision to admit them.
    Until this year, we were unable to offer full funding to all our admits. Although a department with some symbolic capital, we have no more real capital than any other Research 1 schools and, in fact, far less than most of our competitors.
    Even with full funding packages, the NSF is more generous than our in-house offers. Thus, many of our students already admitted will apply their first year to try to improve their situation. No buffering.

    So what is different? As the author himself suggested, the pool. We may be attracted to the same type of students as the NSF reviewers. Secondly, training. Our university has an office dedicated to help students apply for these and other grants such as the Fulbrights. Our faculty also do their best to help students who ask for feedback on their applications. That is probably the single most important factor in our success and one universities across the spectrum could emulate.

    I write with profound respect for the accomplishments of my future colleagues, who amaze me with their intellect and who, in every case I know, have earned the recognition they have received. Many students come from working class and migrant backgrounds and would never have arrived where we are if Chicago or other institutions along the way decided to filter according to ‘wealth and status.’ The institution may be rightly perceived as elite compared to schools suffering the whims of public funding and legislative oversight, but the individuals populating this institution do not necessarily come from privileged backgrounds.

    Shannon Lee Dawdy
    Associate Professor
    Director of Graduate Studies
    Department of Anthropology
    University of Chicago

  5. To go from what was said to what you say you meant requires a massive leap of intepretation…yeah, not buying and if you did mean that, it makes no sense. It took me 2 minutes online to find that in the U of C Anthro PhD program “Most of the students admitted in anthropology also receive a combination of teaching salary and stipend for the first five years of their program in the amount of $21,000 per year; a few others may receive the stipend/salary combination only after their first two years of study”.

    Are you really suggesting that a student would forgo applying for a $34K GRF fellowship because they were awarded a $21K TA/Stipend combo as an entering student, ie, the “elite students” are satisfied with $13K per year less rhan their “marginal” colleagues. Riiiight.

    And we haven’t even touched the whole ‘running a program solely on i tranural funds thing”.

  6. Now that’s what I call transparency! I’m glad that this post is generating public statements regarding practices at schools like Chicago, and I’m happy to have my statements corrected. Cheers and thanks for that information.

    I will say, though, that when you write “we have no more real capital than any other Research 1 schools” I am not sure that that is accurate. Manoa, where I teach, basically cannot offer any incoming support for graduate students. I have heard rumors that another large state research university is now admitting students every other year due to funding cuts. If we are R1 schools (that classification no longer exists iirc but we have previously been classified that way) then if Chicago can offer even tuition remission for incoming graduate students, it is in better shape than other research one schools.

    I’d be interested in hearing about the practices of other schools that I mentioned (NYU and Duke) to see whether I feel I’ve misrepresented them, and to have a frank and transparent discussion from them about their funding of graduate students.

  7. I think it’s odd to assume that there is not a significant difference between elite research universities and ones that are now nominally “state” or public ones (since taxpayers no longer pay anything close to operating costs) in terms of students who apply to them, what those students know about grants, what universities have students who receive NSF grants in anthropology, etc. Of course, anthropology departments in private institutions such as Chicago do not just admit only wealthy students. They haven’t for decades. On the other hand, they likely admit students who have been undergraduates at institutions that are at least top research universities with few exceptions.

    “So what is different? As the author himself suggested, the pool. We may be attracted to the same type of students as the NSF reviewers.” The “type” of students who NSF reviewers are attracted to are, lo and behold, similar to the “type” of student admitted at Chicago. This statement reinforces the point that it is not random that students from elite universities are more likely to get NSF grants.

    “Secondly, training. Our university has an office dedicated to help students apply for these and other grants such as the Fulbrights.” Again, elite universities have just these kind of resources. Resource-rich universities correlate with NSF grants awarded to anthropology students at those institutions, not absolutely one hundred percent of the time. The relatively smaller number of NSF grants that go to students at less “prestigious” institutions could even be said to be the exception that proves the rule. Again, not absolutely. But then correlations are not absolutes.

  8. Might it be true that the University of Chicago and NSF reviewers are attracted to the same students because they come from the same social/academic background? Isn’t that how elites work? Elites by definition define “excellence” by looking at themselves in the mirror!

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