One of the most puzzling tax scenarios that is common in academia but almost unheard of outside of it is fellowship funding because it neither a wage nor self-employment income. Fellowships (which in my usage sometimes includes training grants) frequently pay the stipends and salaries of grad students and postdocs, but also apply to some other kinds of trainees that aren’t considered students or called postdocs. This post explains the weird tax situations for fellowship recipients and how to resolve them. I’ll clarify right up front that you do need to incorporate your fellowship income into the gross income you report on your tax return, and you almost certainly will end up paying tax on it (unless your total income is very low or you have lots of other deductions/credits).
- How to Prepare Your Grad Student Tax Return
- Grad Student Tax Lie #1: You Don’t Have to Pay Income Tax
I have to define my terms up front here because “fellowship” is used variously inside and outside of academic research, and these weird tax situations don’t always apply. What I’m talking about is when your income from your academic/research role is not reported on a W-2 (and you’re not self-employed). Often, though not always, winning a fellowship generates this kind of income. The NSF GRFP is probably the most well-known example of this type of income at the graduate level for STEM fields. Basically, you’re being paid because you won an award, not because you are directly trading work or time for money. This kind of income can come from training grants and other kinds of grants as well as fellowships, and in those cases you might or might not be labeled a fellow. If your income is reported on a W-2, whether it’s called a fellowship or not, this post doesn’t apply to you!
Personally, over my time in/near academia, I received non-compensatory pay on five occasions:
- I was postbaccalaureate fellow at the NIH for a year between undergrad and grad school, and my income was reported on a 1099-G.
- I was on a training grant in my first year of grad school, and my income was reported on a 1099-MISC in Box 3.
- I won an internal fellowship for my second year of grad school, and my income was reported on a 1099-MISC in Box 3.
- I was paid from my advisor’s discretionary funds in my sixth year of grad school, and my income was reported on a 1099-MISC in Box 3.
- I was a Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the National Academy of Engineering, and my income was reported on a 1099-MISC in Box 3.
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Receiving Unusual Tax Forms
The way to definitively tell that you’re receiving non-compensatory income is that you don’t receive a W-2 at tax time for your income, which was likely paid similarly to a regular salary or perhaps in a lump sum per term. Instead, you might see your income reported on some other strange tax form:
There are other possible mechanism for this reporting; these are the two most commonly used within universities.
Neither of these forms was designed for reporting fellowship income; neither does it very well, but they do get the job done if you know what you’re looking for.
A 1098-T, which is issued to some students depending on your university’s policies, is sort of a clearinghouse form for the sum of your fellowships/scholarships/grants received (in Box 5) and also the sum of the qualified tuition and related expenses that were billed (Box 2) or paid (Box 1) to your student account. Your fellowship income might be lumped in with your scholarships in Box 5, which makes them a little hard to parse, or Box 5 might only include your scholarships (see next section if so).
The good thing about the 1098-T if it includes your fellowship income is that it does put front and center two of the important numbers you’ll need to work with when you prepare your tax return, the sum of your non-compensatory (fellowship, scholarship, and grant) income (Box 5) and your Qualified Education Expenses (Box 1/2). You don’t really need to know what your fellowship income was independent of your additional scholarship/grant income See Weird Tax Situations for Fully Funded Grad Students for more details about working with the 1098-T.
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The 1099-MISC is a super confusing form to receive for fellowship income.
First, any non-academic who hears/sees that you have income reported on a 1099-MISC is going to think you’re self-employed. Self-employment/contractor income is the most common usage for the 1099-MISC, but that income is reported in Box 7. Fellowship income will show up in Box 3, “Other income.” If you are a grad student, you are not self-employed; do not pay self-employment tax! (The situation is murkier for postdocs!)
Second, the instructions for the 1099-MISC tell you to (“generally”) report your Box 3 “Other income” in the “Other income” line on your 1040 (line 21). You can do it that way and your tax calculation will turn out correctly in a lot of situations, but it’s more correct to report the income explicitly as fellowship/scholarship income. It’s less confusing for the IRS and will possibly enable you to take more educational tax breaks.
- How to Prepare Your Grad Student Tax Return
- Where to Report Your Grad Student Income on Your Tax Return (applies for non-student fellows as well)
Receiving No Tax Forms
Going along with the theme of not receiving a W-2 at tax time, you might very well not receive any tax form at all! It’s very common for there to be zero communication between the organization that pays the fellowship and the fellowship recipient. Other times, the fellow might receive what I call a “courtesy letter,” which is just a short, informal letter stating the amount of fellowship money paid.
Further reading: What Is a Courtesy Letter?
Fellows who don’t receive tax forms or whose universities/institutions don’t communicate with them at all about their personal taxes may feel completely adrift. They have no idea where to even start with preparing their tax returns. Many pay no taxes at all (if you know someone like that, send them this article!) since it takes a certain level of awareness of your tax responsibility to even wonder if you need to pay income tax. Even those who suspect they need to report and pay tax on their fellowship income might be daunted by the task of figuring out from scratch exactly how to do that.
But it’s really a simple process to carry out if you know what to do! You should be able to find the amount of fellowship income you were paid for the whole year from your bank records. If you’re not a student, you just straight report that number in the “wages” line of your 1040/1040A/1040EZ with “SCH” written next to it. If you are a student, you have to work with your other scholarships and qualified education expenses a bit before reporting a number for your non-compensatory pay; see Weird Tax Situations for Fully Funded Grad Students for more details on that.
Further reading: Where to Report Your Grad Student Income on Your Tax Return (applies for non-student fellows as well)
Quarterly Estimated Tax
In my observation, most fellowship recipients have the responsibility of paying quarterly estimated tax, and many, many, many neglect to do so. If you need one level of awareness to even understand you’re supposed to pay tax on your fellowship income, you need an even higher level of awareness before you follow through on paying quarterly estimated tax. In fact, if the organization providing you the fellowship didn’t mention this, it’s not a water cooler topic around your department, and/or you’ve never been self-employed, you almost certainly wouldn’t know to do it.
The basic principle here is that the IRS expects to receive tax payments throughout the year, not just in April when your tax return is due. If you owe enough additional tax at the end of the year (and don’t qualify for an exception), the IRS is going to demand not only your tax payment but late fees and interest as well.
The main system for sending tax in to the IRS is tax withholding on a normal paycheck. If you don’t do that or your withholding isn’t sufficient, you’re supposed to file quarterly estimated tax. Basically, you send in a payment (no forms need to be filed) to the IRS four times per year to make sure you don’t have too much extra tax due when you file your yearly tax return. You should work through the estimated tax worksheet in Form 1040-ES to figure out if you are required to pay quarterly estimated tax and in what amount; you can also find the instructions for filing it in that form.
Taxable Compensation and Earned Income Tax Breaks
Some of the tax breaks the IRS offers are contingent on the type of income you have, and fellowship income (not reported on a W-2) does not necessarily qualify.
Individual Retirement Arrangement
To contribute to an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA), you (or your spouse) must have “taxable compensation.” Unfortunately, while taxable, fellowship income does not qualify as “compensation” (Publication 970 p. 5). So if your only income for a whole calendar year is fellowship/non-compensatory income and you’re not married to someone with taxable compensation, you aren’t eligible to contribute to an IRA in that year.
- Grad Student Tax Lie #9: If You Have an Income, You Can Contribute to an IRA
- Taxable Compensation or Earned Income
Earned Income Tax Credit
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Earned Income Credit (EIC) is a credit extended to low-income individuals and families. If your household income is quite low and/or you have one or more children, you might be able to receive the credit. As the name implies, you need “earned income” to qualify for the EITC. Unfortunately, fellowship/scholarship income is not considered “earned income” (Publication 596 p. 18). Puzzlingly, having zero earned income disqualifies you from the credit, but having too much non-earned income also disqualifies you from the credit. The definition of earned income also plays into the calculations for the Child Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit.
Further reading: Grad Student Tax Lie #8: You Can Claim the Earned Income Tax Credit
What other weird tax situations have you encountered due to your fellowship income?