Some thoughts for awardees

Answers to various questions regarding the SMART Scholarship application process. Includes many tips and statistics.
human234895
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Some thoughts for awardees

Post by human234895 »

Hey, everybody. I'm a PhD student who's been with SMART for a couple years now, and I know a lot of you are in the process of receiving offers, so I just wanted to offer some thoughts.
  • SMART has a rough history. You should know that going in. IMO, they seem to have gotten better in recent years, but there is a well-documented history of the program treating students VERY poorly. To minimize the risk of complications, I suggest ensuring your award length is more than sufficient to complete your degree. Once enrolled, focus on the finish line rather than being the superstar who goes for as many extra clubs and certificates/minors and whatever else they can possibly have. It's much easier to finish early and say you need less of their money than to finish late and say you need more of it.
  • I suggest all of you accept the award and go on your site visit no matter your situation. You do not enroll in the program until your "final" acceptance of the service agreement after your site visit, so there's really nothing to lose other than that your site visit allowance is taxable.
  • While on your site visit, look for signals that you will be a valuable asset to the SF, not just a source of free labor for a few summers. One of the number one complaints of Phase Two students is that they aren't paid properly and aren't treated well at their SF. Make sure you know that your SF really wants you and the services you have to offer before signing a service agreement to work with them.
  • For grad students, look at the money VERY carefully and see whether it's worth the service agreement to you. All STEM grad students should at a minimum have their tuition covered and receive a liveable stipend. As such, SMART has less to offer over the typical grad school experience than the comparative boost undergrads will experience. Additionally, while on the scholarship, you probably won't receive insurance benefits from your university, so be prepared to pay market price for insurance... the allowance doesn't come close to paying for a half-decent insurance plan. Because of this, I encourage you to look at the offer much more as a career move than as a source of funding. My SF is a place that was on my short list of post-graduation employers anyways, so it was a very easy choice for me. Don't sign your soul to a place you have no interest in just because the SMART stipend is probably better than what your program offers.
  • Undergrads, especially younger ones: talk to your parents, a counselor, or some trustworthy adult figure about whether a service agreement is right for you. I don't say this to be belittling, but y'all are VERY young. Putting four years of your life on contract as an 18 year old is quite a big proposition.
  • Again, for the younger ones. Be careful with what parts of the "college experience" you explore. As part of this program, you will have to receive and maintain a national security clearance of a level acceptable for your work, ranging from Secret (S) to Top Secret - Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS-SCI). Your SF will tell you what level of clearance you need. The younger students probably haven't had a wild phase yet and gotten the chance to make the types of dumb decisions a lot of us did in college without much consequence. When I was processed, I had some baggage to talk about, but there is a general understanding that most people go through a college phase. I had addressed those issues, matured, and moved on in life, so it didn't cause me a problem. If you have an active clearance, you probably will not have that luxury. You have to get it right the first time. Don't do drugs, including marijuana in regions where it's been decriminalized because it's still a federal offense. Don't drink and drive. Don't engage in behaviors (especially sexual) that somebody could blackmail you over. All that stuff. If you have any curiosities about how suitability for clearance is assessed, google the "security clearance adjudication guidelines"
  • If you accept, then for the love of everything good PAY YOUR QUARTERLY ESTIMATED TAXES. It's crazy how many theoretically brilliant students in this program let themselves get surprised by a $3000 tax liability because they didn't make estimated payments.
I'm sure if I thought about it more, I could think up some other things that I consider important, but this is a good list. If y'all have any questions, don't be afraid to post on the Recipients board - not sure how many current SMART scholars actually pay attention to this side of the forum. Good luck making your decisions!

kyleculus

Re: Some thoughts for awardees

Post by kyleculus »

Hi! Thank you for this thoughtful post. I myself have been accepted as an incoming PhD student. I have the 5 year max award allocated to me and I am coming into a Mechanical and Aerospace PhD program straight from undergraduate. Since I am very familiar with the work of my sponsoring facility and have actually worked on some of their funded projects as an undergrad, I am not concerned with working at the facility post graduation. However, my largest concern is not being able to finish my degree in 5 years.

Will there be huge repercussions if I were to take an extra half year to a year to complete my degree? I know I wouldn't be funded by them, but would they be understanding in terms of waiting. I know there would be some official paperwork and requests to make, but I have read a few horror stories of PhD students just being flat out dropped because of this issue (I believe this was the issue).

human234895
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Re: Some thoughts for awardees

Post by human234895 »

kyleculus wrote:
Fri Apr 16, 2021 11:41 am
However, my largest concern is not being able to finish my degree in 5 years.

Will there be huge repercussions if I were to take an extra half year to a year to complete my degree?
Hey! Unfortunately, there's no way to know. There are essentially two possibilities:
  • They put you on a sort of probation (don't remember their official terminology for it) and allow you to finish the degree on your own dime, with department funding, etc. You would then resume the program and complete your 5-year service agreement once you were deemed back in compliance.
  • They move to terminate you from the program. This is a thoughtless approach, but it has happened before, and by complete happenstance, I actually recently met a former SMART scholar who went through this with them. He is several years separated from the program, has a mortgage and a child, and still doesn't know whether he owes the DoD several tens of thousands of dollars. This is the worst case scenario.
As I said in the OP, I really do think SMART has gotten better about these things. Maybe at some point, somebody sat them down and explained how grad school was different than undergrad. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic was first setting in as a reality that would affect us for a while, SMART quickly announced that they recognized the pandemic may cause delays and was prepared to extend award funding as necessary. There's just no way to know for sure though.

My suggestion for your scenario is to accept the award and go on your site visit. This will buy you some time. Try to nail down who your graduate advisor is going to be and explain your situation to them. Do whatever you can to get them on-board with definitely graduating you in 5 years. Don't accept a blue-sky dissertation project. Go with something well-defined, contained, and with minimal risk. I'm in a tight spot right now because my first project that I spent 1.5 years on collapsed, so now I'm scrambling to finish a new project. It'll get done, but only because I have the commitment of my advisor and another committee member to do whatever it takes to get me out of here on time. If you don't already have a rapport with a potential graduate advisor, this type of arrangement may be a little difficult, but do what you can. Generally speaking, 5 years is enough time for an engineering PhD, so I don't think you have too much to worry about. You should be careful anyways.

kyleculus

Re: Some thoughts for awardees

Post by kyleculus »

Thank you once again for such a coherent and thoughtful response! I am totally ok with the first possibility you mentioned but highly afraid of the second. Additionally, I am totally on board with what you said about making my advisor aware of the situation and to develop a plan. I actually already have a planned advisor that I have been in discussion with for months prior. We haven't discussed any projects/dissertation topics too in depth yet, but we plan to when I join their lab coming this August. However, I recently had a meeting with them to discuss the SMART Scholarship and the situation I am in with a strict 5 year time line. They seemed on board with the whole idea, but still didn't offer any solid plans of action for projects/dissertation topics. I think its warranted given I have yet to actually step foot in their lab. I am generally familiar with their work as it pertains to my undergraduate work so I think I should hopefully be able to hit the ground running come this August.

I will definitely go through with the site visit as you mentioned it gives me even more time to think about it. Thanks again for your help!

kyleculus

Re: Some thoughts for awardees

Post by kyleculus »

Also, if you don't mind me asking, do you happen do know where PhD graduates will enter on the GS pay scale?

human234895
Posts: 37
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Re: Some thoughts for awardees

Post by human234895 »

kyleculus wrote:
Sat Apr 17, 2021 10:57 pm
do you happen do know where PhD graduates will enter on the GS pay scale?
Somebody with a PhD should never be below GS-11. You will have literally a year of work time after all your internships, so you could reasonably push for a GS-12 or at the very least several steps. Starting grade may be determined by current mission need at your SF. For example, my SF told me they once hired somebody with similar qualifications as myself at a GS-13 but that was an unusual situation of immediate need.

Even though you aren't technically a fed until you're employed full time, you'll probably be given a Job Series as part of your internship for paperwork purposes. Maybe ask your SF for a reference series when you go on your site visit. You can then go look at the OPM pay tables for that series and locality adjustments to get an estimate of what your pay might be. If you're at a competitive service, this will be a very good estimate. If you're at an excepted service, you might not get access to the pay tables, but you can safely assume the pay will be higher than OPM tables for competitive services.

kyleculus

Re: Some thoughts for awardees

Post by kyleculus »

Thank you for this great information! I did read about PhD's entering at a GS-11 and heard about some people who entered higher as you've also mentioned. I'll be looking further into this when I perform my first internship next Summer.

Thanks again for the advice! Is there by any chance you're in the Discord server that was recently started? I would love to be able to interact over Discord chat if you were open to it as well.


Discord was posted here if you are interested:

https://www.thesmartforum.org/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=3767

human234895
Posts: 37
Joined: Sun May 05, 2019 12:46 pm
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Re: Some thoughts for awardees

Post by human234895 »

kyleculus wrote:
Sun Apr 18, 2021 3:31 pm
Is there by any chance you're in the Discord server that was recently started?
Joined this morning. Don't want to post my Discord un on an open forum. I'm listed at 8:59 AM (CST) in the #new-members channel. Feel free to send me a message or @ me in one of the channels.

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