Everything You Need to Know About Getting a CyberCorps SFS Scholarship
It may sound like the secret agency at the center of the plot of next summer’s big sci-fi blockbuster, but CyberCorps is as real as it gets.
It’s no secret, either: Uncle Sam wants you to study information assurance for your country, and he’s willing to help foot the bill in return for your service.
The CyberCorps Scholarships for Service (SFS) program is designed to increase the pool of skilled information security professionals available to fill positions in government service. It is part of the larger Cybersecurity National Action Plan (CNAP) released in early 2016, which is comprised of a variety of programs to help shore up the country’s critical cybersecurity infrastructure.
It’s widely known that there’s a major shortage of skilled professionals in the U.S. to help protect both government and private information systems, and this is a major problem. So much so that the government has stepped in to offer a solution, offering incentives to get more candidates to enter degree programs in the field.
Through grants administered by the National Science Foundation (NSF), CyberCorps scholarships can offer qualified candidates:
- Up to 100 percent of tuition, fees, and other related educational expenses for up to two years
- Stipends of up to:
- $22,500 for undergraduate students
- $34,000 for graduate students
In return, SFS participants commit to:
- Attending a school that offers an approved degree program
- Participating in a 10-week internship at a participating agency (only required if you accept the scholarship for more than one year)
- Accepting a position in a government agency or government-approved cybersecurity job after graduation
- Remaining in that position for a term equal to the length of the scholarship funding
Considering the skills acquired, the costs covered, and the fact that a job will be waiting after graduation, it’s hard to see the downside to this program for students serious about a solid cybersecurity education.
Possible Changes are In The Works For SFS
As of 2017, legislation introduced in the Senate as S.754, the Cyber Scholarship Opportunities Act of 2017, aims to expand the program and change some of the terms of service.
If passed, the bill will:
- Expand possible employment options to colleges or educational agencies.
- Grant employment obligation exemptions to students working in critical infrastructure protection outside government service.
- Alter eligibility to include part-time students.
- Include associates-level degrees.
- Consolidate SFS scholarship information and jobs with other positions and opportunities from state, local, and tribal governments.
This would expand the number of institutions offering SFS scholarship opportunities, particularly by including community colleges. The bill also encourages NSF to expand cybersecurity education efforts down into K-12 school programs, laying the groundwork for future SFS scholars.
As of late 2017, this legislation hasn’t even gotten out of committee yet. In a normal year it would likely be a shoe-in to pass, but with the other fights shaping up in Congress, there’s a good chance it will never even make it on the floor for a vote. We’ll keep you updated. Check back often for the latest developments.
SFS Covers More Than Just the Cost of Tuition
The scholarships provide annual stipends of up to $22,500 for undergraduate students and $34,000 for graduate students.
Of course, the scholarship covers tuition costs, but also takes care of a variety of other educational expenses, including:
- Health insurance reimbursement of up to $3,000 per year
- Textbook allowance of $2,000 per year
- Professional development and travel allowance of $4,000 per year
Not included are meal plans or housing expenses. Since each participating institution is responsible for managing the stipends, they might have other restrictions. It’s a good idea to check the websites of schools you’re considering for more details on this – you’ll find all the links to participating schools below.
The scholarship typically covers two years of study, but may be granted for as little as one semester. Grants are pro-rated for the actual term of study in such cases. If you receive the scholarship for less than one year, you’re still obligated to one full year of post-graduation work with a qualifying employer to fulfill your obligations.
- Step 1 – Enroll in a Participating School and Apply for the Scholarship
- Step 2 – Register with the SFS Program and Explore Internship Possibilities
- Step 3 – Participate in an Internship Lasting 10-Weeks or Longer (only applies if you receive the scholarship for more than one year)
- Step 4 – Find Your Future Employer: Get Matched with a Federal Agency for Your Post-Graduation Obligation
- Step 5 – Submit to the Security Clearance Investigation and Interview
- Step 6 – Fulfill Your Post-Graduate Obligations
Step 1 – Enroll in a Participating School and Apply for the Scholarship
The first thing you need to do is make sure that the school you plan to attend is on the list of participating institutions (you can find them on this page, listed below).
You’ll notice that it’s a very select list. That’s because participating institutions are carefully vetted by the NSA and DHS. Only schools that are formally designated as Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education (CAE/IAE) are eligible, and even those have to apply to NSF and be approved. Competition is stiff, and it takes a lot for these schools to make the cut.
The same is true for students trying to get their hands on those federal dollars. The rigorous application process to enter SFS requires you to meet these minimum requirements, as established by the NSF:
- Be a full-time student pursuing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in cybersecurity/information assurance at an eligible institution and in the final two years of the program OR be a research-based doctoral student
- Be a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States
- Meet Federal employment criteria
- Be sure nothing in your past would prevent you from getting a security clearance if one is required for the internship and post-grad work you end up doing (generally required for federal law enforcement, intelligence and military agencies)
But there’s even more to it than that. Each participating institution will also have additional enrollment requirements. The process is governed by a Principal Investigator at each school.
Once enrolled in an information assurance program at a qualifying school, you’ll be able to apply for the scholarship through the school. This will require you to provide a resume, references, transcripts, and sometimes complete an essay.
Though the central SFS program ultimately signs off your award, each school manages and distributes the federal funds they receive to students in the form of scholarships. This means you’ll be applying and making your case for eligibility to the central SFS program through your school’s Principal Investigator.
The scholarship is not for first-year students. Keep in mind that if you’re an undergrad, it won’t kick in until your junior year.
Step 2 – Register with the SFS Program and Explore Internship Possibilities
Once you are accepted to the scholarship program, you’ll still have to register with the central SFS program in order to be matched with a federal agency where you will fulfill your internship and/or employment obligations. Once your Principal Investigator has nominated you and the SFS office approves the award, you will be e-mailed with the registration instructions.
Registration involves completing an online resume that will be made available to interested federal agencies. It’s important to keep your government resume brief and to the point. Flowery, lengthy descriptions will not work in your favor. Hiring agencies want to see:
- Areas of expertise
You should also be clear about your job objective and career goals. This resume should be generic enough to appeal to any agency you are potentially interested in, but should be clear about your individual preferences and accomplishments.
Once you have completed your registration, you can start searching the SFS database and other resources for participating agencies. The database will have contact information that allows you to reach out for further information on internship opportunities.
Similarly, those agencies will be able to search your resume and contact you if they are interested in your skill set for either an internship or post-graduation placement.
Step 3 – Participate in an Internship Lasting 10-Weeks or Longer (only applies if you receive the scholarship for more than one year)
A 10-week or longer internship is part of your commitment as a scholarship recipient if you receive the scholarship for more than one year. In many cases, this ends up being the same agency you work for during your post-graduate work obligation, but that isn’t a requirement.
The internship will be paid and your GS (General Schedule) level set based on your qualifications at time of employment. Interns generally are appointed between GS-7 and GS-11.
The internship is designed to expose you to worthwhile Information Assurance work and help you gain hands-on experience in the field. You’ll get a feel for the agency and its culture, and the type of work you could end up doing for them after graduation.
It’s also an opportunity for the agency to evaluate you, however. Your internship period can be seen as a long-form interview for a possible post-graduation position. If your performance or attitude doesn’t measure up, you may not be invited back for that job offer.
It’s important to note that not every eligible agency may be registered at the SFS site. Most agencies where you can fulfill your internship commitments can be found here. Additionally, you can intern at a National Laboratory or Federally Funded Research Development Center.
You don’t have to restrict your search to the database either—feel free to contact agencies you are interested in directly even if they are not in the SFS system.
Organizations are limited to five internship hires per year and you better believe competition is stiff, so it’s important to accept any offers you might get as early as possible.
Step 4 – Find Your Future Employer: Get Matched with a Federal Agency for Your Post-Graduation Obligation
You’re obligated to work for a federal agency or other qualifying employer after you graduate for at least as long as you receive scholarship funding, but doesn’t need to end there. If you find you love the agency and they love you, this could very well end being where you spend your entire career.
It’s important to get matched early and to put your best foot forward during the match process, because the agency you end up with can affect your long-term career prospects and the location in the country where you end up – you need to be amenable to moving anywhere to fulfill your obligation, but it’s nice to be able to be selective by exploring your options early.
Much of the work of searching for potential employers will happen when you are searching for suitable internships. If all goes well during the internship phase, then a post-graduation position might be in the bag and you may not have to do much work at all to get matched for your full-time position.
Treat the match process like any other job search. The resume you put together for the SFS program itself was probably pretty generic, so we recommend you don’t attempt to use the same one. When you are applying directly for your post-graduation position, don’t be afraid to customize your resume to match the position and needs of the specific agencies.
Work on your cover-letter writing skills. A personal touch is just as appreciated in the government as it is in private organizations—find the name of the hiring manager and address your letter accordingly.
Part of your commitment as a scholarship recipient includes participating in an annual job fair and symposium until you have successfully landed a post-graduation position. There is a virtual job fair in October, and an in-person fair each January in Washington D.C. Your scholarship will cover up to $4,000 of travel costs for attending the fair.
You’ll need to keep the good folks at the SFS program office updated on all your job search activity until you find a match so that they know you’re holding up your end of the deal by fulfilling your obligations.
You can search for open jobs through the SFS website by contacting specific agencies of interest or through the clearinghouse USAJOBS website. You’ll also find that some agencies, like the FBI, have their own job databases.
Like the internship, agencies are restricted to five post-graduation hires per year, so it’s a good idea to get on the job-hunt early and get your match as soon as possible.
Step 5 – Submit to Security Clearance Investigation and Interview
Not all positions will require a security clearance, but many of them do. You will have to undergo clearance checks for those positions, and if you are unable to be cleared, you will either have to find a different position or break your contract—serious consequences that might require you to repay your scholarship money.
In general, clearances are awarded by the Department of Defense’s Central Clearing Facility, with most of the investigative work performed by the Office of Personnel Management. Some non-DoD agencies have their own clearance programs, but most conform to the same structure.
There are three basic clearance levels that can be awarded:
- Top Secret
The basic steps for receiving any of these clearances involves:
- Submitting personal information on an SF-86 form
- Submitting fingerprints for a background check
- Undergoing personal interviews
Higher clearances go further back and reach deeper into your personal history. Old friends, spouses, and family members may be interviewed. Tax returns and public records will be scrutinized. If you have foreign contacts, they may be investigated.
Honesty and absolute openness are keys to a fast and smooth clearance process. Fudge anything and it’s game over. Many former sins can be forgiven but even a hint of lying or covering will set off the alarms and you’ll immediately get the boot.
It can take anywhere from 3 to 18 months to receive a clearance depending on the classification level and the complexity of your personal history.
If your clearance is denied, you can appeal the denial. The Central Clearing Facility will provide reasons the clearance was denied and you can provide mitigating evidence for another chance.
Step 6 – Fulfill Your Post-Graduate Obligations
You’re obligated to work for a federal agency or other qualifying employer after you graduate, and it must last for at least as long as you received scholarship funding – one year is the minimum obligation. Tired of being reminded of that yet?
Even if you receive the scholarship for less than one year, you’re still obligated to one full year of post-graduation work with a qualifying employer to fulfill your obligations.
You cannot accept just any offer, however. You must take what the NSF calls a reasonable offer: one in line with your qualifications and skills.
Most placements are made at relatively high pay grades, between GS-7 and GS-11. There are various adjustments for cost-of-living in different regions of the country, but the base salaries for those grades are:
- GS-7 – $35,359
- GS-8 – $39,159
- GS-9 – $43,251
- GS-10 – $47,630
- GS-11 – $52,329
Of course, federal employee benefits are also pretty generous. The government provides the widest selection of health insurance plans in the nation to employees. Life insurance and long-term retirement benefits are also far above what most private-sector employers offer.
If you fail to fulfill your commitment, either by refusing to take a position, not being offered a position, or leaving the position prior to your required term of service being fulfilled, you may be asked to repay some or all of your scholarship grant.
You may, however, seek a deferment of up to two years before you have to take your government position. Deferments are typically granted to offer you time to complete ongoing education opportunities, not to backpack around Europe.
Positions can be found all over the country and in a wide array of jobs. However, most positions are concentrated in the Washington D.C. area, where most federal agencies deliver central IT services from.
CyberCorps for Service Participating Colleges and Universities by State
CyberCorps by State
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia