A conversation between the MIT Office for Graduate Education (OGE) and Laurie Ward, graduate administrator for HST, to discuss what HST is doing for students seeking funding opportunities.

MIT’s decentralized structure provides departments with many freedoms, one of which is the ability to offer, promote, and celebrate graduate fellowships however they most see fit. Earlier this month, I spoke with Laurie Ward, graduate administrator for the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST) Program, to discuss what HST is doing for students seeking funding opportunities. “HST has a strong and vibrant culture of support,” says Laurie. “Faculty, staff, as well as past and current students—we’re all here to support fellowships.” And as we continued our conversation, I could see exactly what she meant by this.

Considering that about a third of HST graduate students receive a fellowship award, Laurie has every right to be proud of the work her department is doing. With a bright smile, she says, “We try to take every opportunity to brag about how secure our students are about pursuing and applying to fellowships, whether it be internal, external, domestic, or international.” She adds that “We encourage students to apply for anything and everything they are eligible for,” and this encouragement can be seen in a variety of ways.

First, the department invites current and past fellows to participate in an annual fall workshop on applying to fellowships. This workshop usually sees 6-8 current and past fellows sitting on a panel in front of a classroom of curious first and second-year PhD students. Two key topics drive the discussion: what I wish I had known while applying, and what I found especially helpful. This may include advice on browsing foundation websites for mission statements and goals, or how to format personal statements and research summaries. Laurie says, “Many foundations want you to demonstrate your ability to conduct quality research. Yes, they want to know what your research is in, but they are usually more interested in who you are as a person.”

Second, PhD students in their first year are given departmental fellowships so they may explore research labs and form faculty relationships without the stress of needing to secure immediate funding. This occurs before a student has become established within a research project, and allows for a bit more flexibility when testing the waters of different projects. Come the end of the spring semester, HST dedicates a section of its weekly newsletter to recognize and celebrate students who have won external fellowships, adding further validation to all of the hard work put into the application process.

And this is simply the surface. Laurie says, “We make empowering our students a priority because we know how important this is for their careers.” And it’s true: fellowships are a form of professional development that bring about well-deserved praise, and to have one or more can significantly improve a resume. HST is aware of this, and it only serves to benefit their student body.”

We here in the OGE are inspired by all of the great work being done at HST. It is a wonderful reminder that fellowships are beneficial for more than just funding; they often boost professional backgrounds and help lay the groundwork and practice for future grant writing and proposals. Laurie agrees, and she ended our conversation by reiterating the necessity of full-departmental support, saying, “This is a community culture. It is supported by all levels of the department – the faculty incentivize, the staff promote, and the students themselves peer mentor younger generations so that they, too, can have success. Fellowships are a practice ground for professional development. Once a student is successful, it will only help them in the future.”

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