The question is hypothetical, but it came up in a conversation and I'd like to see if we can come up with a logical analysis and conclusion. For various reasons, graduate students might not be inclined to apply for funding.

By funding I mean grants or scholarships intended to support graduate students directly in the form of money given directly to the student. That is, I am not talking about applying for research scholarships intended to fund an experiment, buy equipment, etc. Here are a few (made up) examples.

Case 1 (Differential). I get 20000 of internal departmental funding but be encouraged by the department to apply for external funding. If I then get 5000 scholarship, then the departmental policy might be to drop the internal funding to 15000, so I don't apply for it.

Case 2 (Rich Student). I am very wealthy and I have no need for funding. I am a brilliant student and could probably get many different scholarships but I chose not to because I feel other students with less money need the money more.

The "Rich Student" scenario is slightly different than the "Differential" scenario. If I am rich then for sure some other poorer student could have gotten the money, whereas in the "Differential" scenario, I am now only getting 15000 so another student will get the 5000 anyway.

The problem with not applying for scholarships is that I don't get scholarships, and in many fields winning scholarships is good for your academic career. Perhaps in some fields this is more important than others.

Overwhelmingly I've heard that one should always apply for scholarships regardless of circumstances because of this. Of course theoretically, I could bypass my "rich student morality" by using it to do something useful for the community.

Personally, although I am not in these situations, I feel that it is most beneficial to always apply for scholarships, I would just like to have some kind of evidence that support this.

So to put this in a definitive question: for graduate students, is there ever a reason not to apply for at least a few available scholarships?

5 Answers 5

  • Reward to ratio of the application. If you already have some funding, and the additional funding is small compared to the time required to apply for it. For example, you have an NSF fellowship at ~$30k/yr, so it might not be worth applying to $2k scholarships which take a week or two of time.

  • Reward to ratio of the work. You don't want to take on a new project.

  • The project isn't relevant to your line of work.

  • You aren't qualified (GPA, citizenship, or status limitations)


Beyond @mankoff's answer of it not being worth it (I've chosen not to apply for fellowships with a poor reward:effort ratio), you might not be allowed to. For example, many fellowships, NIH training grants etc. have rules about what other funding you can get (especially for the same project).

  • I read the question as operating under the assumption that one is an incoming graduate student, rather than in a situation where funding may already be in place.
    – aeismail
    Feb 24, 2012 at 4:31
  • @aeismail I had read it as generally more "Why would you not do this?". Though it could indeed be for incoming grad students - some of them slide directly into training grants for example, and some of those are quite strict.
    – Fomite
    Feb 24, 2012 at 5:47
  • I probably should have said "applying" rather than "incoming." but even if one is on a training grant, I would think a student could give it up to take a fellowship, right?
    – aeismail
    Feb 24, 2012 at 8:35
  • As an incoming graduate student I was not allowed to obtain outside employment (I had to be a research assistant essentially for my first year), so this situation at least in some circumstances generalizes to incoming graduate students.
    – Andy W
    Feb 24, 2012 at 13:10
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    @aeismail Choose whatever wording you wish. It could be a scholarship, a modest grant, etc. Many funding agreements have clauses preventing you from committing to other things - this bit me last year.
    – Fomite
    Feb 24, 2012 at 20:10

Why didn't I apply to the NSF pre-doctoral scholarship during my second year of grad school?

  1. Time - I didn't have any. And since I was doing a different project from what I proposed when I applied my previous year, I would have had to write my application over from scratch.
  2. Feedback from previous year - my subject GRE score was not high enough. Even though I could have re-taken the exam for free, I didn't have time to study for it all over again.
  3. I had a stipend - Even though the award would have increased my yearly stipend by about $6k, the chances seemed slim and I felt my time was better spent being on top of my course work, studying for my qualifying exam, and getting a good start on my thesis project.

(Full disclosure: after passing my quals I opted to leave grad school with a MS instead of finishing the PhD. I've been employed full-time at academic or industry labs since.)


I refuse to abide by the rich student frame of thought. If the rich student has funding and works for a PI, then that PI is then able to fund another student. Graduate Fellowships should not always be considered a zero-sum game.

However, certain fellowships like SMART involve military service. Others like the NIH NRSA prevent you from taking summer internships. I see both as pretty valid reasons for not bothering to apply.


The "Differential" argument doesn't really even hold as much weight as you'd think, because many departments will reward you with a bonus for bringing in an outside fellowship. Then it becomes even more of an incentive to obtain an outside fellowship.

In addition to this, external awards make you more attractive to potential advisors, since you don't cost them as much in the long run to support you. In some cases, this even makes the difference between being able to work on a project of one's own choosing, versus a project for which the advisor has funding.

So, the only reasons I can think of why one wouldn't want to apply for at least some sort of fellowship support are:

  • Being a fantastically rich student, who can pay his own tuition and stipend support for the full duration of the program, or
  • Being a student of extremely limited means, who can't afford the costs of reporting GRE or scores or transcripts to the various funding agencies. (In many cases, though, "hardship waivers" are available that renders even this point moot.)
  • Define 'fantastically rich'; I work full-time in industry and pay my expenses (tuition, books) out of my own pocket. Not only do I not have time to work on scholarship applications, many of them are need-based which pretty much disqualifies me. I'm not sure that makes me 'fantastically rich'. Feb 27, 2012 at 19:52
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    @KellyFrench: Given that PhD studies are largely incompatible with a full-time industrial position, I mean someone who could afford to spend $250K over five or six years without batting an eye. However, if you're a master's student, the whole argument changes, because funding for master's and PhD programs are completely different mechanisms.
    – aeismail
    Feb 27, 2012 at 23:12

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