Oct 24, 2022

Navigating the application process for the Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship Program

Overview: Over the last 15 years, it has become harder to find funding for graduate school.  More departments are moving to a model in which internal funding (such as slots for teaching or grading assistantships) are used only for students pursuing PhDs.  In addition, many grants that faculty are awarded to conduct research are awarded for a period of three years, which is less than the typical length of a PhD student program. 


A solution for students (and their research advisors) may be to apply for awards from “scholarship for service” programs.  These awards require the recipient to work for a designated employer for a period of time after their graduation.  For students in engineering and science, one of the largest of these programs is the Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship Program, which is funded by the US Department of Defense.


This post provides an overview of the program and then provides insight on tips for a successful submission from a recent recipient in the midst of their PhD program (Camden Brady) and a recipient who is now working for the Department of Defense (Dr. Hunter Rogers).  If you are a US citizen looking for funding support to complete a STEM degree, you might be interested in a scholarship-for-service program offered by the US Department of Defense. This program can support undergraduate or graduate students supports students through the Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship-for-Service Program. This program is open to undergraduates and graduate students who are pursing either a master’s, or Ph.D. in select science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Applications this year are due on Dec 1st, 2022. This program is unlike the NSF GFRP in two main ways. The first is that students are supported in areas that are of interest to the US Department of Defense. The second is that recipients are obligated to obtain civilian employment with the Department of Defense upon their degree compl’tion.




Post Contributor(s): Dr. Marian Kennedy, Camden Brady (a PhD student at Clemson University within the Department of Industrial Engineering), and Dr. Hunter Rogers (Research General Engineer at the 711th Human Performance Wing of the Air Force Research Laboratory). 



Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash
The Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship program offers graduate students support in exchange for committing to work for the Department of Defense (DoD) for a period of time after earning their degree.  Support includes full tuition, an annual stipend (of varying amount) and opportunities for internships during the graduate school years. For those supplies for support for graduate school, students need to apply in the year before they begin graduate school or early in their graduate school programs. 


The website for this program is masterfully designed compared to many of its programmatic peers, allowing for easy navigation and offering helpful tips and data!  The award statistics for each cohort on the site include these statistics for the 2022 cohort (who applied in 2021):    

  • 482 awards
    • This is smaller than the number of awards granted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellows Program (GRFP).
  • 19% success rate
    • This is a higher success rate than that published by the NSF for the GRFP.
  • 3.75/4.00 average cumulative GPA
  • Distribution by degree program:  BS 46.89%, BS/MS 12.66%, MS 13.90% and PhD 26.56%. 

This shows that half of the awards are granted for graduate students with approximately 25% of funds going to MS students and 26% towards PhD students.  The website also indicates the percentage of applicants and recipients from each discipline. Of course, I checked my own: 2.3% of the recipients and 2.7% of the applicants were from materials science and engineering, respectively. 


Basic Outline of Application Process

The administrators also deserve applause for their library of videos that will guide you through the steps in the application process. Most the application process is much like that for any scholarship you might apply for, including submission of transcripts, letters, etc. The main component of the application that might be challenging is the personal statement. In it, undergraduate applicants are asked to address all the following prompts (all of these are on the program’s website linked above):

  • “Your educational and professional goals”
  • “The factors and experience that led you to choose your field of study”
  • “How working as part of the DoD civilian workforce will further you technical and professional goals”
  • “How your experience, interests, and goals will further the DoD mission”

Graduate students must answer all of those as well, and also answer an additional prompt:

“Elaborate on the kinds of research you have engaged in or would like to engage in during your studies as well as during your expected tenure with the DoD. Please discuss these research interests in sufficient detail for an expert who is technically competent in your field to judge your understanding of the questions to be addressed, relevant hypotheses and approaches one might take to answering the questions, and other research principles required to investigate in the research area you identify.”

As a student, I did not investigate this program.  Scouring forums, I found that students have mixed perceptions of the required job after graduation.  Some seemed to appreciate job security (a plus during a market downturn), while others were concerned that if they participated in the SMART program they would be too limited.


Tips for getting started from two recent recipients

Since I have not had experience either mentoring or receiving this award, I reached out to Camden Brady, a PhD candidate in Industrial Engineering at Clemson University.  Camden was awarded a SMART Scholarship in April 2022 to study how humans and artificial intelligence can form more effective teams.  This work is overseen by his faculty mentor, Dr. Kapil Chalil Madathil.  Dr. Hunter Rogers, who was also in the SMART Scholarship program under Dr. Kapil’s supervision, weighed in on her experience as well. You can learn more about Dr. Hunter’s research on Google Scholar.


Q:  How did you first learn about the SMART Scholarship program? 

Camden Brady:   My mom informed me about the SMART scholarship once I graduated high school and began my college career.  I pushed the scholarship to the side during my undergraduate career because I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do yet and I didn’t think I would be qualified for it. 


Dr. Hunter Rogers: My advisor informed me about the scholarship program after I had completed a submission for the NSF GRFP. My parents both worked in civil service for the DoD and the program seemed like a natural fit for me, especially once I learned about the variety of research programs I could be a part of within the DoD.


Q:  What made you decide to apply?

Camden Brady:   I was worried about funding for grad school, so I talked to my advisor, Dr. Kapil, and he highlighted this opportunity.  He really encouraged me to apply.  I still didn’t feel like I had what it took, but I devoted a lot of time to making the application the best I could.


Dr. Hunter Rogers: Much the same as Camden, I saw that this scholarship program had the potential to remove the weight of funding off my back. After realizing I was familiar with the areas of DoD service and scouring the supporting facilities research, I decided to reformat my GRFP application and apply.


Q:  What were the critical steps in your application process?

Camden Brady:   I had to write a personal statement which highlighted myself and why I believed I deserve the scholarship.  This was followed by a research statement (a component that is only required for those using the scholarship to fund graduate school).  Based on this, you may receive an interview from one of the sponsoring facilities you selected if they are interested in learning more about you. Finally, if the sponsoring facility selects you, then you receive the scholarship.


Dr. Hunter Rogers: A big step for me was the personal statement. I was not very experienced at writing about myself.  Working with my advisor who was more experienced with proposal writing really helped me craft a strong personal statement. After submission, I was left waiting to see what interviews I would receive, if any.  I spent time thinking about how I would convey my experience and how my research was crucial to the DoD.


The scholarship program offered me funding if I would commit to working with the Air Force Headquarters group A9, which is a Mathematical Modeling/Operations Research group operating out of the Pentagon.  It was a very technical assignment and didn’t have any connection to my focus area (Human Factors research) that I had spent time on during my Ph.D. program. This unit selected me from the pool of candidates because they appreciated how I thought through technical problems, and they wanted a person who could bring a new perspective to their projects.


At that point, I had to decide if I wanted to accept the funding (and branching out into a new area right after I would graduate) or decline this funding opportunity.   I chose to accept the scholarship and it worked out better than I imagined, as I was ultimately able to return to Human Factors research in my current PhD position.


Q: What’s one piece of advice you have for students completing fellowship/scholarship applications?

Camden Brady:   My process to apply for a SMART scholarship was rushed because I started preparing my application late.


While it worked out, I would suggest reaching out for help/advice as early as possible from your advisor. 


During the start of my application preparation process, I sat down with my advisor and Dr. Rogers to discuss the SMART scholarship application process.  I also had my application statements revised about 4 times in 2 weeks.  This process helped increase the professional tone of my statements and eliminated grammar error.  I also spent a significant amount of time in the application process speaking with my lab members about their projects.  Since I was new to the research scene, this helped me gauge what research areas I was interested in.


Dr. Hunter Rogers: I am going to tell you what I told Camden in our meeting.   Applicants should consider their fit for DoD work and culture.  A good description of this can be found on the application portal.  The SMART program is looking to find academically talented individuals to support the military through their technical skills. The DoD is putting a significant amount of resources into the development of scholars and their careers, so you need to assure them during the application process that you will be a good fit for the DoD and have the potential to build your career in your sponsor facility. They go through some trouble to find the best candidates, and to make sure that those scholars will love their jobs, because that’s what creates a sustainable workforce.



Q: Some students say that completing scholarship/fellowships helps them learn about themselves.  Did you have that experience and if so, what did you learn?

Camden Brady:   I did learn more about myself during the application process.   I learned about potential research areas, identified projects that interested me and solidified what I wanted to do after completing my graduate program.  It also forced me to think about my experiences thus far and how they have impacted my educational and career goals.  For example, I had two previous internships before completing the SMART application and while I was filling in the application, I realized how my internships changed my career aspiration from a role in manufacturing to a researcher studying human factors.


Dr. Hunter Rogers: I learned a lot about my ability to adapt during my internship with A9 and I was really able to hone in on what research directions excited me.


Q:  Did you apply for multiple graduate fellowships or scholarship opportunities in parallel?

Camden Brady:   No.


Dr. Hunter Rogers: I had applied for the NSF GRFP and started one with the Department of Energy as well.



Q:  How and when did you first make the connection to your Department of Defense Partner?

Camden Brady:   I partnered with the Naval Information Warfare Center Atlantic in Charleston.   My advisor recommended that facility to me because of connections he had.  I was excited because I also love Charleston.  In my application, I applied for a range of sponsoring facilities.  When they contacted me for an interview, I was thrilled.  During the interview, we started discussing the DOD project I am currently helping with.


Dr. Hunter Rogers: My story is a bit more complex because I ended up transferring my commitment to a different sponsoring facility.


My original sponsor facility, Air Force A9- a mathematical modeling group, initiated my SMART scholarship interview. After getting accepted as a scholar, I was very motivated to make sure that my dissertation work would be of importance to the DoD since they were funding my training.  Therefore, I made an effort to reach out to researchers from the Air Force contributing to human factors studies.  I was able to connect with a group located at the Air Force Research Laboratory.  I appreciated the correspondence and their support as they made an effort to read my publications over the next two years. I was surprised, that this group decided to offer me a position after graduation and I worked with both A9 and 711th to find an equitable solution.  At the end, I transfered my commitment from to the 711th Human performance wing of Air Force Research Laboratory with the support of A9.   


Q: I get this question all the time, so I thought I would ask you both.  What made you decide to stay at the same institution for both your undergraduate and graduate work? 


Camden Brady:   I will answer this with a list.  The first two bullet points were heavily weighted than those following.  However, I wanted to explicitly mention the more personal factors. 

· I had established connections with peers, research lab, and my research advisor at Clemson University.
·  I was already attending an institution with a well-known program for research of human factors and that was the area I was interested in pursuing.  
·  Clemson is also close to my home, which I appreciated during my undergraduate career.  It was nice to return home for a home cooked meal every once in a while, and to visit my girlfriend.
·  I appreciated that I was already familiar with the area.  Starting graduate school can be tough because expectations are drastically different and going somewhere new, where you would need to navigate an unknown area, could add to my stress levels.
·   I considered Clemson a great school during my undergraduate years and now into graduate school.  I love everything about it including our sports teams. 



Dr. Hunter Rogers: Clemson had been my home for four years during my undergraduate program.  As I was graduating with my undergraduate degree, I still felt like I wanted to spend more time at Clemson.  Additionally, the institution achieved an R1 designation at the end of my undergraduate program.  This meant that I would be getting my doctorate from an institution with an exceptional level of research.  (More information on the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education® can be found here.) Finally, I knew most of the Human Factors faculty and knew I had some great minds around me to guide my research.


Q: In addition to funding, what has been the largest benefit to participating in the SMART Scholarship program?



Dr. Hunter Rogers: Job security made a huge difference to my graduate experience. After the initial interview with A9, I had an internship lined up every summer that would help me gain experience and would end up with a job that I was prepared for as I already learned the culture of the institution.  I would already have experience of the team, culture, type of work, and how to navigate the institution, which would improve my transition to full time work. Additionally, I wouldn’t need to constantly apply and interview for jobs throughout my graduate school years. Just before defending your dissertation is the most stressful point, and having to worry about a job then would have been hard.


Q: Any advice for graduate students transitioning from their degree program to their first position after a SMART scholarship?



Dr. Hunter Rogers: Take advantage of asking questions and making connections with people in your internships facilitated by the SMART program during your graduate program. This will help socialize you as an employee and help others match you to the right projects.   Also, work with those contacts to find areas to live, social areas etc. to help make the full life transition.


Q: What was the most enjoyable part of the research process for you and the least enjoyable part of the process as you completed your dissertation? 



Dr. Hunter Rogers: The most enjoyable part for me was getting to see other people excited about my research and the designs I was able to complete. Least enjoyable was the qualifier and comprehensive exams that are required within some Ph.D. programs at Clemson.  The first exam (qualifying exam) is there to determine how much of the core materials you have mastered within the first year of your Ph.D.  The second exam (comprehensive exam) helps faculty determine if the research you proposed for your dissertation is sufficient for a Ph.D. and if you have the knowledge needed to complete the research proposed, respectively.


(Note from Dr. Kennedy:  Most PhD exams have similar types of steps or exams, but the specific scope of those steps is determined by each program and not the university). 




Q: There are many productivity programs and software out there.  Are there any tools you would suggest for graduate students?  More specifically, were there any tools that were especially helpful as you finished your dissertation and transitioned into your first post-doctoral position?



Dr. Hunter Rogers: I am a huge fan of Microsoft Excel! I made sheets to track my personal spending as I tried to move to Washington DC for my placement (which ended up not happening, which made things slightly easier).  I also had a checklist and timeline in Microsoft Excel for all the things I needed to wrap up with writing and forms/steps needed for moving into the new job.   As a graduate student, I also made use of the counseling and psychological services on my campus to help work through the stress and anxiety I was dealing with.



Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at epsteinwords.com.