Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Fellowships Considered Harmful (not really, but I wanted a clickbait title)

Ph.D. and postdoc fellowships provide several years of no-strings-attached funding. While they are undeniably beneficial, I also warn about potential downsides that fellowship recipients should watch out for.

Most Ph.D. students and postdocs in STEM fields in the U.S. are funded by a professor's research grants. However, some get fellowships, which provide no-strings-attached funding so that the recipient is not bound by a particular grant or advisor. In theory, a fellowship provides only benefits: the recipient has the freedom to work on whatever research they want, not just what a particular grant stipulates. But in reality, fellowship recipients should be aware of potential downsides so that they can plan accordingly.

I was super lucky to have had most of my Ph.D. years funded by fellowships (NSF and NDSEG), and I've also discussed this issue with several friends whose STEM Ph.D.s or postdocs were funded by fellowships rather than grants. Now as a professor, I'm in the position to work with students funded by either my grants or by fellowships. So although all of these opinions are based on anecdotes, my intuitions are reasonably well-calibrated.

In short, fellowship funding may be harmful because they could place the recipient outside of their advisor's critical path, which may end up having unintended negative impacts on the recipient's motivation, ability to publish good papers, and even job prospects.

Each professor has a “critical path” of the most important (critical!) projects that they want to pursue to advance their career interests. They may also have secondary side interests in ideas that would be cool to pursue, but are not critical. As I described in Econ 101 for Assistant Professors: A Simple Guide to the Economics of Grants, this diagram summarizes the critical path:

If you're funded by a grant, then you're likely on your advisor's critical path, since they need you to execute well on that grant's project direction to publish good papers, which then lead to follow-on grants, which lead to more papers, and so on. Your advisor is heavily incentivized to help you since your success means their success, and your failure could jeopardize their reputation. Their own career advancement is directly tied to how well you do in your Ph.D. or postdoc.[1]

Now here's the potential downside of having a fellowship: Your advisor may still decide to have you join their lab even though your research interests are not on their critical path, since it doesn't cost them any money to do so.[2] They may be genuinely interested in your ideas, but they won't bust their ass to make sure that you succeed, since they're busy busting their ass working with students/postdocs on projects that are on their critical path.

OK, three downsides of not being on your advisor's critical path:

  • Motivation: It may be harder to stay motivated through inevitable low points in the research process if you don't get as much personal attention or encouragement from your advisor, since their energies are more focused on other students/postdocs who are on their critical path.

  • Publications: It may be harder for you to publish top-tier papers since it often takes the knowledge and experience of your advisor to properly frame your research into a compelling academic paper. It's hard for a student or postdoc to publish top-tier papers without working closely with their advisor throughout the writing process. And professors are usually busy working on papers that are on their critical path.

  • Job prospects: It may be harder for your advisor to write a strong letter of recommendation or to informally promote your work to their colleagues, since they haven't worked as closely with you and don't understand the nuances of your project. (This issue is most relevant when you're applying for faculty or research lab jobs.)

I want to emphasize that none of these potential downsides are due to purposeful malice or negative intentions on the part of professors. It's all a consequence of limited resources: All else being equal, professors prefer to spend their limited time and energy on projects and people that are directly on their critical path. It's that simple.

As a fellowship recipient, if you want to avoid these downsides, it's critical (ha!) for you to still align with some professor's critical path. However, if you prefer the freedom to work more independently and are willing to cope with potential downsides, then you have that option as well. I chose the latter path.

1. However, being funded by a grant by no means guarantees a good Ph.D./postdoc experience, since you may dislike the project, dislike your advisor, be given a crappy part of the project, or be on a grant that is less critical for your advisor. But that's a topic for an entirely different article.

2. This situation is less common in fields where equipment costs are high. In those cases, even if a student/postdoc comes for free, the advisor still needs to pay for equipment, so they are unlikely to take on fellowship recipients that are not on their critical path. Ironically, it also doesn't come up much in fields such as the humanities where advisors don't fund their students from grants; in those cases, people are rarely on their advisor's critical path regardless of their funding situation.

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Created: 2016-03-11
Last modified: 2016-03-11
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