NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Directorate for Social, Behavioral
and Economic Sciences
NSF 99-313 December 4, 1998
by Alan I. Rapoport
The importance of research assistantships as a primary support mechanism for graduate students increased significantly during the 1980s.
Primary mechanisms of financial support vary by S&E field.
Have Forms of Primary Financial Support for S&E Graduate Students Changed During the Past Two Decades?
The nation's research universities have traditionally coupled advanced education with researchin the process generating new knowledge as well as training scientific and engineering talent. This close coupling is reflected in the variety of forms in which financial support is provided to science and engineering (S&E) graduate students. Concerns have been raised about the role of different types of financial support modes in preparing science and engineering students for employment and about the appropriate mix of support. It would therefore be useful to examine how forms of support for S&E graduate students have changed during the past two decades.Mechanisms of support include:
Sources of support include Federal agencies, academic institutions, state and local governments, foreign governments, nonprofit institutions, and industrial firms. Most graduate students are supported by multiple sources and mechanisms over their course of studyand often in any given academic year. Generally, however, one form of support may be designated the primary mode of support for a student in a given year; information on this primary support mode is available from academic departments.
Trends in Primary Support
Primary Mechanism and Source of Support by S&E Field
Research Assistantships by S&E Field
The significance of the Federal Government as the primary source of support for RAs also varies by field. It was the primary source of support for about half of the graduate research assistants overall, for about 75 percent of those in the physical sciences, 60 percent in the environmental and computer sciences, just above 30 percent in psychology, and only 20 percent in the social sciences (table 2).
Teaching Assistantships by S&E Field
Fellowships and Traineeships by S&E Field
The Federal Government was the primary source of support for about one-quarter of all graduate students with a fellowship as their primary support. This was also the case for about two-thirds of those with traineeship support. The Federal Government was a more important primary source for fellowships to graduate students in aeronautical/astronautical engineering, astronomy, and the atmospheric sciences, providing 56, 53, and 51 percent of such support, respectively. In contrast, it provided only 13 percent of primary fellowship support in the social sciences. The Federal Government provided almost 80 percent of primary support for trainee-ships in the life sciences, compared to 23 percent in the computer and 17 percent in the social sciences (table 2).
Self-support by S&E Field
This Issue Brief was prepared by:
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 For example, by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), 1995, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
 See National Science Board, Science & Engineering Indicators-1998, NSF 98-1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998) chapter 5, "Integration of Research with Graduate Education."
 Data presented here on mechanisms and sources of support for S&E graduate students are from the National Science Foundation-National Institutes of Health annual Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. In this survey, departments report the primary (largest) source and mechanism of support for each full-time, degree-seeking S&E graduate student. Financial support data are not collected for part-time students. Full-time students may be seeking master's degrees rather than Ph.D. degrees, particularly in fields such as engineering and computer sciences. Throughout this discussion, S&E includes the health fields (medical sciences and other life sciences).
 Total Federal support of graduate students is probably underestimated because reporting on Federal sources includes only direct Federal support to students and support to research assistants financed through the direct costs of Federal research grants. This omits students supported by departments through the indirect cost portion of research grants; such support is classified as institutional (nonfederal) support, since universities have discretion over how to use these funds. For additional information on trends in support mechanisms by primary source, see NSB (1998), chapter 5, "Integration of Research with Graduate Education," pages 5-31 and 5-32.