A call to serve science

Military personnel develop valuable skills that can serve them well in a research lab, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) is offering a new funding opportunity intended to encourage them to pursue graduate studies. The program, announced in December, offers supplemental funding for principal investigators (PIs) holding active research grants from the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) to support a U.S. military veteran Ph.D. student for up to 3 years.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” and it “would certainly increase my willingness to recruit veterans,” writes University of Texas, Austin, chemist and MPS PI Graeme Henkelman in an e-mail to Science Careers. “[T]he only limitation that I see is that we get very few veterans applying to our program. … That said, if veterans know about this kind of incentive, perhaps we’ll see more applications in the future. That would be great!”

These are highly skilled, highly qualified individuals, and we’re better off if we have them in our pipeline.

The coordinators of the new program hope the additional funding will increase veteran representation in graduate school by encouraging PIs to recruit such students without worrying how they will fund them. “If you find [a veteran] that you would like for your group and you have an NSF award [from MPS], you should have no reservations about recruiting this person to your campus,” says NSF program director Charles Pibel. “MPS has set aside sufficient funds that we believe we would be able to provide support for every supplement request.”

“We’re a federal agency, and we’re looking at how we can help these people who put their lives on hold to give service to their country,” he continues. “Most NSF money [awarded by MPS on research awards] goes to fund graduate students, so this is a natural way for us to contribute to the federal mission of providing support for veterans.”

The benefits of increasing veteran participation in academic research flow both ways, says Army veteran Nathan Fisher, an assistant professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo. “I’m glad that it helps veterans,” he says of the new funding, “but I think we also need to keep in mind that these programs help science and academia tap into a really great source of talented young people. … It benefits us as much or more as it does them. It’s not charity. These are highly skilled, highly qualified individuals, and we’re better off if we have them in our pipeline.”

Fisher says his own time in the military helped him develop leadership, management, and mentorship skills, which are crucial for a successful academic career. More broadly, he says, veterans “tend to be very mature, very responsible, and very adaptable. These are all things that are essential for success in graduate school. Veterans have an edge up on many of their peers just by virtue of experiences they’ve had. They tend to be good decision-makers, even under pressure—because they’ve had some practice with that. They also, in general, tend to be very collaborative, and that’s of course important for science going forward.” They are also more likely than the general population to be from groups underrepresented in science, so increasing the number of veterans in graduate school could be a step toward greater diversity in the academy.  

Funding to support graduate students is helpful, but for veterans, another large barrier remains: They have to get accepted to graduate school. “Because of the choice [veterans make] to do service, sometimes the boxes aren’t all checked,” Fisher notes, so on paper they may appear less qualified than traditional applicants. It’s a problem they share with applicants from other underrepresented groups.

Compounding that problem is the fact that veterans, for a variety of reasons, may choose to downplay their military experience instead of highlighting how the training has prepared them for a research career. University of Hawaii, Manoa, botany graduate student Gerry Cobian says that most of his colleagues don’t know he spent 4 years in the Marine Corps, including two tours in Iraq. “It’s not that I’m not proud of what I’ve done. … I just don’t want people asking me questions about my service, what happened or what I did.” Also, he says, “there’s a stigma that returning combat veterans are kind of unstable. … I don’t want people to judge me or think something’s wrong with me just because I served.”

Such preconceptions, which Fisher describes as “the stereotype of the broken veteran,” coupled with a lack of appreciation for veterans’ unique qualifications, can help explain why there aren’t as many veterans in academic science as there could be. Although limited to mathematical and physical sciences, the new NSF program aims to address this problem. Because it is a supplement to existing research grants, current MPS grant holders can apply at any time. And in contrast to most other funding opportunities, they are almost guaranteed to get the money.

Better late than never

Small bias, big difference