Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Did the NSF Just Do Something Really Stupid Misguided?

To begin, as I always do when I write about the NSF, let me start by saying that I love the NSF, and I greatly appreciate all the research funding they give me.  (And all the rest of all those scientists out there too.  But mostly me.) 

However I think they just did something really stupid misguided.

NSF Publication 11-031, the replacement guide for the NSF graduate research fellowship program, came out a few weeks ago.  Down a ways under "Fellowship Responsibilities" (page 5) is the following text:

Fellows on Tenure are considered to be 1.0 FTE (full-time equivalent).  Consequently, when on tenure, GRFP Institutions may not request that Fellows provide service, irrespective of whether payment is received (see Stipend Supplementation for additional details).  The intent of this policy is to assure that Fellows are able to apply 100% of time and effort to their graduate studies and research.  Fellows should use their Reserve or Forfeit Statuses for activities that require service (e.g., teaching or research assistantships or internships)....
So now you can't teach or do internships while on a fellowship.  Maybe I could understand this... you shoudn't get "double-paid", of course.  Though you used to be able to teach while on a fellowship and get a bit extra pay as a graduate student, and in my mind that's a good thing.  Graduate students should learn to teach (or at least practice teaching, and hopefully they'll get better).  Indeed many programs make it an explicit requirement!  And learning how to juggle teaching and research is actually a skill graduate students should learn, at least if they're entertaining some notion of being a faculty member someday.  (And even if not, both teaching and juggling teaching and research remain useful skills for a PhD.)  I can understand NSF doesn't want universities abusing their fellowship winners by making them teach constantly (is this an actual problem, anywhere?), but there are other better solutions to the problem (like requiring someone at the NSF to approve the teaching, which some other fellowships do).

So this is stupid misguided.  But probably really not so bad -- the student can always just defer the fellowship while teaching or doing an internship, right?  (Of course, teaching alone might not cover tuition + stipend ... it doesn't at Harvard ... but let's ignore that...)

No, that's where they get REALLY STUPID MISGUIDED!

Look under Tenure Status (page 8):
Fellowship Tenure Status is granted in 12-month increments corresponding to a Fellowship Year (Summer or Fall Start) and may not be broken into smaller units spread across more than one year, except in cases of NSF-approved Medical or Military Deferral (see below).  During Tenure Status, a Fellow will generally be required to Forfeit (lose) the Stipend Payments for the months the Fellow is engaged in activities that require service (time), such as internships, teaching and research assistantships, irrespective of whether the service provides payment.
So now, if you do get an internship and decide to take it --  oops, you'll have to forfeit your fellowship for that time.  Same for teaching.  (Not sure if they'll hold to that if teaching is a degree requirement, we'll have to see.)  So they're actually creating a major disincentive to do things that I would like to tell my graduate students are useful -- like teaching, or doing an internship in a lab somewhere.  Very nice.

I'm going to find out who to send a letter to at the NSF to explain my opinion.  I hope many of you will send a letter on as well.  (If I get an address, I'll post it.)

Or perhaps I'm just misinterpreting, and someone will explain it to me.

And hopefully, by the time I next submit a proposal, the very nice people at the NSF will have forgotten about this posting.  (If anyone asks, Lance wrote this.  Or Richard.)

On a happier note, just wanted to point out that Claire's April Fools post was the funniest (theoryCS) post I've seen in a while.  (It's funny because it's true.)


Anonymous said...

Hi Michael.

Perhaps I am misinterpreting something, but I read it as something very positive. Please correct me if the following three points are wrong:

1) by saying the student does not have to perform TA duties NSF prevents the abuse form some departments (mainly humanities) who forced the students to TA for free while not spending a dime of their own money. By making it explicit the NSF also makes non-issue of the department putting pressure on the student to TA for free or some small supplement: now the student is simply not allowed. So seems like a very nice thing protecting students.

2) of course, teaching is important, so if some department requires reasonable (say, 2 semesters) teaching, or the student wants to do it, no problem, but then the department has to pay the student 100% instead of using government money which they want to spend on RESEARCH, not routine teaching. This also has a side effect that the department cannot make an unreasonable teaching requirement (say,3 years) w/o forfeiting a large chunk of the fellowship. Once again, seems like a great way to ensure NSF money go into research.

3) The internship seems an even less of a non-brainer, especially in CS where internships pays twice/thrice of what NSF pays. Namely, the student can/should do the internship, but then the expense should be on the company benefiting from the student, not the government. You say this discourages the student from finding internships, but (a) the student would still make much more doing the internship; (b) the smart student would choose the internship for his/her graduate development, even if the money was the same (hard to pay less than NSF :)).

This is my interpretation, anyway. Given your post, perhaps i missed something? If not, looks like a bunch of fantastic additions protecting students and ensuring government money is well spent.

Anonymous said...

The NDSEG fellowship has been this way for quite a while.

I agree with the previous commenter -- it makes no sense for a student to get double paid, by both the NSF and by their university (while teaching) or company (while doing an internship).

And the protection against making students TA for free is also good. (In the UC system, this is already disallowed by the GSI union.)

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anonymous #2 is incorrect. NDSEG allows students to teach while on fellowship; the wording is at


"As long as any teaching duties do not interfere with the fellow’s coursework or research, these activities are permitted while an NDSEG Fellow."

The student and advisor have to fill out some paperwork; I've never had a request denied, but of course generally students teach just once (or possibly twice) while on fellowship.

Lev Reyzin said...

When I was on NSF, I remember the rule being that a university could not make us teach, except for when it's part of the degree requirement. Yale, for example, wanted all Ph.D. students to TA twice, and I'm pretty sure NSF fellows were not except from this. (I wonder what happens now.) But I agree that teaching should not be discouraged by the fellowship -- I ended up teaching 5 semesters (by choice) and enjoyed the experience.

Anonymous said...

... what anon#1 said
/end thread

Anonymous said...

What anon 1 said is perfectly true. I have TAed for 3 years without any extra pay most of the time. My advisor wanted me to TA for her courses and I could not say no since she was paying me. Even on a fellowship, it was a lot of TAing, and no student can directly refuse to do so, given the ire of their major professors!

This will protect the students better.

Anonymous said...

When I was in school a fews year ago, they were always very specific and careful that the 2 semesters teaching requirement was educational for the grad student and not service to the department.
Fits well within these regulations. I think there can also be tax implications for grad students based on stipends/fellowships versus service/employment.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #7:

IANAL, but my reading of the document would be that requiring students to fulfill a teaching requirement while calling it educational and not service to the department would not be allowed under these rules. It states that service to the department, whether paid or unpaid, is not allowed, and specifically mentions teaching as a type of service.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a very reasonable policy to me. The NSF pays the students to do research, and not to do anything else.

If teaching is required for the degree, then on those months the student can just give up the NSF funding and be funded by teaching. Same holds for taking a paid internship at a research lab. Perhaps exceptions should be made for unpaid internships that contribute to the student's development. (Not so relevant in CS, but maybe in other fields.)

And if teaching is not sufficient to cover stipend+tuition, at least 2 factors in that equation (tuition and teaching compensation) are completely under the university's control. So if the university believes teaching is important for the student's development, it can cover the cost.

Regarding "juggling research and teaching", I agree this is an important skill, just as is juggling research and family. That doesn't mean the NSF should pay students to babysit..

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

As usual, love how the people who disagree and view this policy as reasonable/suitable are anonymous. And how they don't really bother to address my statements. Great work!

First, let me take a quote (the best I could find) explaining the NSF Graduate fellowship, from their own page.

"NSF Fellows are anticipated to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering. These individuals are crucial to maintaining and advancing the nation's technological infrastructure and national security as well as contributing to the economic well-being of society at large."

Personally, I don't view those goals as being consistent with saying, "Your support money is meant for support you to do 3 years of nothing but classes/research at your home institution, anything else we don't pay for." I'll accept that YMMV. Anonymous others have brought up abuses (people on fellowship having to teach for free multiple semesters) that in my experience are purely imaginary, or could be watched over through small amounts of additional paperwork (as I said in my original post, or pointed out how other fellowships like the NDSEG handle this sort of thing). Still, again as I said in my original post, maybe not so bad...

Except that (as I clearly stated) they don't appear to now offer the flexibility of turning the award on and off to allow teaching, paid internships, etc. This creates bad incentives.

For example, Anon #1, contrary to your beliefs, not all internships pay 2-3 times NSF rates -- especially when you consider moving costs, the costs and trouble of getting an apt./subletting your current apartment, etc. (I went through this myself as a grad student, and have a student dealing with it now.) Not being able to transfer fellowship months in many cases gives strong incentives to the student -- and, I could argue, the advisor, who has a free summer research assistant at his disposal -- to not seek a summer internship, which in many cases may not be in the student's best interest.

As another bad incentive, suppose you do have to teach for your program, or just want the experience before job-searching, but can't transfer a semester of your fellowship to a later semester. Then as a student you're incentivized not to teach, or to wait to teach until after your fellowship has run out -- maybe not the best timing as that last year or two is when maybe you do want/need full-time to be spent on research so you can finish the thesis.

I find the NSF plan poorly thought out on its merits, but even in my original post I recognized some might not find it so bad. But when you add the lack of flexibility the current description allows for, it really seems misguided to me, and I don't see that addressed in the comments, except for people just believing that's not what the NSF means, or thinking it's just fine that the student forfeit the fellowship for such time periods.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to what seems to popular opinion here, I completely disagree with this new policy (I'm a grad student not faculty by the way). Here's the thing fellowships like this are not only supposed to be paying you to do research (otherwise I'd just try to get grant money).

The goal of a fellowship is to invest in an academic's future. The plan being that by supporting them now, not only will their current research be good but they will be better prepared to do good research once they have finished their schooling.

The problem with this new policy is that they will now probably get slightly more research out of a fellowship candidate while they're on fellowship but they have robbed them of some of the things we are preparing for in graduate school (working in industry or academia). We ABSOLUTELY need to have some preparation for teaching especially if we are in a department with some absolutely wonderful teachers. Now these students may come out ill-prepared and end up not being able to work in academia (too many bad reviews on teaching won't look good as tenure-track) or just not being prepared to teach.

At this point, this is not only doing a disservice to the fellowship winner but also to their future students.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Thank you, anonymous grad student, for eloquently explaining a point I apparently was failing to make clear. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Follow up from anonymous poster #2:

The NDSEG and NSF *do* allow you to turn the fellowship on and off in order to teach, but, as you pointed out, a student loses the fellowship for that semester.

But what a student can't do is teach and get the fellowship at the same time because: (1) the fellowship doesn't allow students to get paid twice, and (2) the UC GSI union doesn't allow students to teach for free.

(If not for condition #2, Michael would be correct that students at UC could decline to be paid for GSI'ing and then GSI while on fellowship. But, although this is a hindrance to students on fellowships, I believe there are very good reasons for condition #2 to exist.)

I agree that it would be much better if these fellowships allowed time off to be moved to the end -- this does incentivize students to delay teaching and internships until their fellowships are over.

But I think it makes sense for the fellowships to try to prevent either: Schools using students on fellowship as "free TAs", or students getting double salaries while teaching and on fellowship (which many students on the NSF fellowship). (Not that I object to grad students getting paid more! But I understand why the fellowship might want a student to be doing research, not TA'ing 20-30 hours a week, while they are paying.)

Anonymous said...

My above comments about the UC GSI contract apply only the NDSEG, clearly. I was pointing out that the new NSF rules will make the situation the same for NSF fellows, whatever university they attend and whatever TA/GSI contract they might each under.

Anonymous said...

The "cannot do an internship" and "must take in 12 month increments" are NOT new. As a graduate student, I took 3 internships and forfeited 6 months (= $15,000) to do it. I would do it again. I don't think a $2,500 a month opportunity cost would ever prevent me from taking a $7,500 a month internship that was beneficial for my career. Though I am not sure that these things are paying what they used to.

That said. I do agree with Michael that taking these things in 12 month chunks is annoying and it is not clear at all what this is accomplishing ever.

As per the teaching, the NSF covers 3 years, so you should have a year or two in there that you can teach without forfeiting anything.

The concern from NSF that I do understand is this: My understanding is that UC Berkeley used to 1) make NSF students teach without additional remuneration and 2) provided tuition + stipend to all teaching assistants (basically using the NSF funding so that they did not have to pay teaching assistants). [I think that the union fixed this.] But, such a system can create really bad incentives for HAVING an NSF (you might be made to teach if they don’t have enough teaching money).

Now the real question is: how prevalent is this practice. I cannot name a single school that it happens at. However, if there are more than a few universities that do this, then I don’t blame NSF at all. (Though the suggestion to require teaching appointments to gain individual approval may hold merit).

In general, I wish that NSF took on the Journals instead of the schools.

Anonymous said...

Note that you can avoid losing fellowship money while interning if you defer for a full year. Clearly that won't work for everyone, but if e.g. your advisor can fund you for 9 months that would be a way to manage this. However, I totally agree, it's ridiculous that it can't be deferred in smaller increments.

UCBerkeleyEECSProf said...

Anonymous wrote:

"My understanding is that UC Berkeley used to 1) make NSF students teach without additional remuneration and 2) provided tuition + stipend to all teaching assistants (basically using the NSF funding so that they did not have to pay teaching assistants)."

This is utterly false, at least for the EECS department at any point in recent history. I do not know of any occasion that the EECS department has ever had a policy of forcing NSF Fellows to teach, and it has not been the case for as long as I've been here. In particular, I'm confident this has not been the case at any point within the past 5 years.

Yes, the UC Berkeley EECS department does (like many other universities) require all PhD students to teach at some point before they graduate. No, this has never been limited to just NSF Fellows. No, there is no requirement that NSF Fellows do this during their NSF Fellowship tenure. The requirement applies identically to both Fellows and non-Fellows, with no distinction between them. Today, if a NSF Fellow teaches during the term of their fellowship, then they receive payment for their teaching in addition to their Fellowship stipend (though there are some limits on how much teaching one is allowed to do in any year where you are supported by the Fellowship -- and of course the new NSF rules will completely forbid this practice in the future).

I cannot speak for other departments, but the claim Anonymous made about the EECS department is not an accurate representation of the EECS department's practice or policy, at least not within my time here.

It would be a shame if NSF's policy was based upon inaccurate rumors about what an institution is alleged to require (but does not, in fact, actually require).

Dave Lewis said...

I (who am still thankful for my NSF Fellowship 25 years later) don't see the issue. PhDs take longer than three years for most folks, so there's time to get teaching experience in while making full use of the fellowship.

And sure, it would be nice to be able to do 4 9-month chunks of NSF money with internships in between, rather than 3 years where you lose 9 months of money in the summer. But as far as I know you're never been able to do that (probably because of the administrative burden to NSF). And if a student is hotshot enough to get good internships three summers running, they probably aren't too worried about those lost 9 months.