National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Application Tips

Fall officially begins tonight, but the new school year is already in full swing. For many first and second year grad students (and some prospective grad students), that means it’s time to prepare National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) applications. It can be a stressful experience, but never fear: I am here to help with my unsolicited advice!

Each year, the NSF awards ~2,000 competitive fellowships to grad students in a variety of STEM disciplines. In addition to providing a prestigious resumé (or, as we prefer in academia, CV) boost, these fellowships pay our tuitions and a $32,000/year stipend for three years.

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I applied for an NSF GRF back in 2011, as I was preparing my grad school applications. I was lucky enough to receive an award that year – and I do mean lucky; grant reviewing is quite subjective, and my award came down to my ability to please 3 randomly assigned human reviewers.

I am convinced that I received a big boost because I applied so early in my research career. Reviewers expected less of me because I wasn’t a grad student yet – even though I had been more or less acting like one in my paid job as a research assistant – so my ability to write convincingly about scientific research was probably more impressive than it would have been had I been a first or second year grad student. So if you are just now applying for grad school, also apply for an NSF! Expectations will never be as low for you again.

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I got loads of help when I wrote my NSF GRFP essays and did lots of Googling on best practices. Here are some tips I put together that I hope will be helpful to other NSF GRFP applicants who are furiously Googling now!

Rosa’s unsolicited NSF GRFP application advice

1) Just do it!

It’s not easy, and the whole process can kind of suck because GAH! so much work for a gamble at free money! But the NSF GRFP is probably one of the shortest major applications that you’ll ever prepare. The cost-benefit ratio is definitely worth it.

If you don’t get an award, you still get feedback on your application, which will help you improve future grant applications. If you do get an award, you have an NSF award! And you definitely won’t get an award if you don’t apply.

If you’re like I was back in 2011, trying to navigate the grad school application process and wondering if you could throw an NSF GRFP application into the mix – really just do it! I found that writing my NSF GRFP application really made me think through my research goals, which was helpful for my grad school application process as well.

I could also note on my grad school applications that I had applied for an NSF fellowship, which made me look like an organized go-getter. After I received my NSF award, I could have reached out to professors who didn’t accept me as a student to see if having my own funding changed their minds.

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2) Start early! 

Your reference letter writers are supposed to comment not only on you but also on your proposed research. That means that NSF GRFP reference letters should be more tailored than usual, so you want to give your recommenders plenty of time to do that. I started drafting my essays at the end of September and sent my reference letter writers drafts of all of my essays in mid-October, just over a month before the deadline. [When I applied, applications were due mid-November. They’re now due late-October/early-November, so I suggest moving my dates up 2 weeks.]

3) Don’t be shy or humble!

The NSF GRFP application form has minimal space for you to list your accomplishments, so you have to make sure to laud yourself in your essays. This is not the time to be humble. Brag about how awesome/smart/good at research you are.

4) Focus on broader impacts and work them into all of your essays!

You’ll be rated on two criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Intellectual Merit is important and comprises half your score, but you should already have plenty of practice writing to that, so it will come pretty naturally. Furthermore, it’s probably what your letter writers will focus on.

Broader Impacts are less familiar. Really addressing them requires more than one or two throwaway claims about long-term trickle-down effects of your research. My year, the NSF GRFP website had a pdf with lots of examples of what they consider to be Broader Impacts activities. Look through that list, and try to incorporate as many items as possible into your essays. [Note that the aforementioned pdf was from 2011 because I can’t easily find a more recent one. I doubt the NSF’s criteria for Broader Impacts has changed much, but take the list from 2011 with a grain of salt.]

If you do any sort of volunteer or outreach work, even if it’s not directly related to your project, find a way to work it into your essays. I think you can stretch (though not break) the limits of plausibility here. I wrote about volunteering with inner-city kids at a local science museum and noted that “the experience made me aware of my responsibility to disseminate information beyond the scientific community.”

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If you’re female and/or a minority, you can work that into your essays. I chose not to go this route because I felt like I had adequately addressed broader impacts in other ways, but I have had friends who successfully did. I could have written something about how I’ve benefitted from having strong female scientists as role models and mentors, and how I want to be a role model and mentor to others.

Another easy Broader Impacts move is to mention how much you love teaching and mentoring undergraduates, and OMG you can’t wait until you get to be a TA/professor. There’s an example of that in my personal statement. [I still love working with undergraduates, by the way!]

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If you do it right, you will probably sound corny. You may hate yourself a little for the corny, but it’s what they’re asking for, so get over it!

5) Get help!

I discussed a few different research ideas with my boss/PI before I settled on the one that I wrote about. She also made several important suggestions for additional measures to compare and helped me clean up/fancify the language I used to describe my proposed research so that I could sound extra scientifical.

My PI also informed me that I didn’t have to do the exact project that I proposed, which I hadn’t been aware of. NSF GRFP is about funding the budding young scientist rather than the exact scientific project, so applications just need to demonstrate an ability to write about research intelligently. Don’t worry about mapping out the exact, perfect project that you will definitely do. A good project that is well-described and justified will do.

I also reached out to friends who had won NSF awards in the past and asked to see their applications. One even offered to show me her rating sheets. It was really helpful to see examples of successful applications – and it was eye-opening to see how my friends approached their essays in substantially different ways. For example, one friend’s personal statement was about how being an immigrant made her want to study cultural differences, so quite personal. Another friend’s personal statement focused more on her research experiences – less personal, but still engaging and ultimately effective.

Finally, having a few people read your essays and offer comments and suggestions will be invaluable. I recommend getting a science-minded friend who’s not exactly in your subfield to read through your writing. Your raters will be in the field, but they may not be experts in your methods or analysis, so it’s good to get a check that you remain accessible in your writing.

6) Good luck!

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