This year a record number of Vanderbilt Graduate School students have won prestigious National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships.
The NSF fellowships are highly sought after because they provide qualified students with three years of support, including a $30,000 annual stipend, a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance that goes to the university, special international research and professional development activities as well as access to the foundation’s supercomputer network.
According to NSF, the program “recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines” and has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, including U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.
“This is a spectacular result,” said Dennis Hall, vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate School. “Given that we had so few fellowship recipients as recently as 2008, our progress has been amazing. Vanderbilt students are stepping up and demonstrating that they can compete successfully for these valuable fellowships.”
This year 22 graduate students have qualified for the fellowships. Sixteen of the new fellows are current Vanderbilt Graduate School students and six are new incoming first-year graduate students. That compares to 10 fellows in 2011, 10 in 2010 and 12 in 2009. Before that the number of recipients was in the single digits, according to Steve Smartt, the Graduate School’s associate dean for academic services.
Twelve of the new fellows, or more than half, are studying engineering. Other fields of study include biomedical sciences, psychology, political science, chemistry, physics and neuroscience.
This coming fall semester, the campus will have a total of 47 new and continuing NSF fellows enrolled.
According to Hall, the growing number of NSF graduate fellows on campus reflects the increasing quality of the graduate students that Vanderbilt is attracting. Since 2001, the number of applications to Vanderbilt’s Graduate School programs has been growing steadily and this year broke the 8,000 mark for the first time. This has increased the Graduate School’s ability to draw top-quality students from across the nation.
There are some additional factors involved as well.
First, the fellowship is unusual in that the students must apply directly to the foundation. As a result, officials don’t even know how many students apply each year. However, in the last few years, the Graduate School has begun taking various measures to encourage students to apply, including holding special workshops that describe the program’s manifold benefits, help students determine if they qualify and familiarize them with the application process and deadlines.
Second, NSF has significantly increased the size of the program in recent years.