All About the NSF GRFP!

NSF_GRFP

Hi all!

So this year, after two previous attempts, I was finally awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship! I guess third time’s really the charm, huh? Though I was going to make a similar post regardless of if I was awarded it, I thought this would be a nice way to add my own advice as to how to give this fellowship your best shot!

What is the NSF GRFP?

So, maybe you’re like I was and are completely clueless as to what the NSF GRFP is or even what a fellowship is! Well, I talk a little bit about fellowship and other grad school jargon here, but essentially there are pretty much four main things you really need to know (or care about):

  1. It provides $$$ for science and engineering graduate students (that includes a paycheck and tuition) for three years,
  2. The stipend they provide will probably a nice raise from whatever your school has offered you,
  3. During the time you’re funded by NSF, you can completely focus on your research since you won’t have to TA in order to pay your bills, and
  4. Professors will likely be more than thrilled to take you in their labs because they don’t have to worry about funding you

Sounds, pretty sweet, huh? I bet you’re wondering how can you obtain such a nice award.

Well, admittedly, it’s not easy. The NSF is highly competitive. Hell, this last year alone there were more than 13,000 applicants, of which only 2,000 were selected to receive the fellowship. And though your chances on winning are sometimes less dependent on how well you can write a good proposal and more dependent on which field of study you’re submitting to (more on that below) and who your reviewers are, the possibility of getting an NSF fellowship can open many doors, give your CV a big boost and allow a lot more freedom in your graduate career. And, even if you don’t get it, I think that the advice I give here is also applicable to other fellowship applications as well as proposal writing in general. So, hopefully this is useful?

Anyway, let’s get started.

The Basics

All information on the NSF can be found by going to their website, nsfgrfp.org. It is also all included on probably the most important document on this website, the Program Solicitation, which I strongly advise you read if you’re thinking of applying.

The Award

Through this fellowship, you can receive three years of support that includes a stipend of $34,000 and an additional $12,000 per year to cover you education expenses (e.g. tuition!).

Eligibility

In order to apply for the NSF GRFP, you:

  • Must be U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, or permanent residents.
  • Must be pursuing research-based graduate study in an NSF-supported STEM field.
  • Must be enrolled in grad school in the U.S. (which must be accredited) or will enroll the following school year
Changes as of Fall 2016:

Until Fall 2016, students were allowed to apply for the NSF GRFP every year from their senior year of undergrad up to their second year of grad school. So, essentially, you could apply three individual times. However, though students can always apply in their senior year of undergrad, NSF has changed the rules so that graduate students are limited to apply only once, either on their first year or second year. So at maximum, you can apply now is twice. (See my thoughts on this below).

The Application

The Online Application:

To start your application, you will have to make an account on the NSF Fastlane website. From there you will be able to access the application that will ask you for some basic information before you have to submit your essays. In particular, the main things it will ask you for are:

  • Your education and work/research experience,
  • A list of your significant academic honors, fellowships, scholarships, publications, presentations, etc, etc.
  • You proposed field of study (which will be used to know which review panel to send your application to, see below for more details),
  • Proposed graduate study (where you currently attend/will be applying for grad school)
  • The title of your proposed research along with some general keywords
  • The names, emails and affiliations of your recommendation letter writers

In general, the online application is fairly straightforward and if I remember correctly, it keeps track of which sections are finished and which are still missing information.

The Recommendation Letters: 

The NSF application requires three recommendation letters. Like in all cases where you need letters of recommendation, ask early and remind constantly! If they don’t submit their letter on time, your application is disqualified. NSF does not mess around with deadlines. Also, when I personally asked for these letters, I was sure to include my CV and both my essays (even if they were just drafts, I emailed the finalized essays later). Other than that, make sure that these letter writers can speak to your ability to succeed in a research environment and can discuss about activities that you have taken part in that speak to your leadership skills and desire to be active in your community.

The Essays: 

The Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement: (Page Limit – 3 pages)

PROMPT: Please outline your educational and professional development plans and career goals. How do you envision graduate school preparing you for a career that allows you to contribute to expanding scientific understanding as well as broadly benefit society?

Describe your personal, educational and/or professional experiences that motivate your decision to pursue advanced study in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Include specific examples of any research and/or professional activities in which you have participated. Present a concise description of the activities, highlight the results and discuss how these activities have prepared you to seek a graduate degree. Specify your role in the activity including the extent to which you worked independently and/or as part of a team. Describe the contributions of your activity to advancing knowledge in STEM fields as well as the potential for broader societal impacts (See Solicitation, Section VI, for more information about Broader Impacts).

Please note that the specific prompt may very from year to year, but the general theme should remain the same.

The NSF prides itself on funding people, not projects. And as such, all that text up there basically says that this essay will allow them to get to know you better as a person. Because, sure, they have your credentials, but someone with good grades and awards doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the potential to advance knowledge in their field nor does it mean that someone will be willing to step out of their lab and have some sort of impact society. So, this is your time to shine and tell them all the work that you’ve done that demonstrate what a capable scientist or engineer you are, why you think grad school is an important next step in your career and how you plan to become an important asset to your field.

This is, roughly, how I broke down my essay this past year:

  • 0.25 page: General Introduction
  • 1.25 pages: Previous Research Experience and Intellectual Merit
  • 0.5 pages: Current Graduate Research/Future Graduate Study
  • 0.5 pages: Future Goals
  • 0.5 pages: Broader Impacts

The Graduate Research Plan Statement: (Page Limit – 2 pages)

PROMPT: Present an original research topic that you would like to pursue in graduate school. Describe the research idea, your general approach, as well as any unique resources that may be needed for accomplishing the research goal (i.e., access to national facilities or collections, collaborations, overseas work, etc.) You may choose to include important literature citations. Address the potential of the research to advance knowledge and understanding within science as well as the potential for broader impacts on society. The research discussed must be in a field listed in the Solicitation (Section X, Fields of Study).

Please note that the specific prompt may very from year to year, but the general theme should remain the same.

Though your personal statement is a very important aspect of your application, this research statement is truly what the fellowship panel will use to see if you have the skills necessary to conduct research. And I’m not talking about your technical lab skills. I’m talking about your ability to read scientific literature, find a knowledge gap and think about a feasible way to answer new scientific questions.

Unfortunately, you only have two pages to fit what is essentially the complete scientific method plus any references you used. Here’s how I broke mine down:

  • 0.75 pages: Introduction
  • 0.5 pages: Methodology
  • 0.5 pages: Preliminary/Expected Results
  • 0.25 pages: Conclusions/Broader Impacts

Note 1: Though there isn’t a specific section for Intellectual Merit in my statement, I made sure to integrate it into my introduction and again, briefly, in my conclusion.

Note 2: I also included figures in my research statement because my project happened to have some preliminary results by the time application season rolled around. I discuss more about whether or not figures are a good idea (or even necessary) later on in this post.

Note 3: References/citations take up more space than you realize. I advice to use the least amount of  references as possible.

The Deadlines

The deadlines for your NSF GRFP application will vary based on your field.  I have listed the deadlines for the 2017-2018 application cycle. Regardless of what date your application is due, everything must be received by 5 p.m. local time (based on your mailing address). The exception is for your letters of recommendation which have to be submitted at a later date (also listed below).

  • October 23, 2017 (Monday): Geosciences, Life Sciences
  • October 24, 2017 (Tuesday): Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Materials Science, General Engineering
  • October 26, 2017 (Thursday): Psychology, Social Science, STEM Education and Learning
  • October 27, 2017 (Friday): Chemistry, Mathematical Science, Physics and Astronomy

Reference letters must be submitted by 5 p.m (Eastern Time) by November 2, 2017.

My Advice

1. READ THE SOLICITATION IN ITS ENTIRETY

The solicitation is the document that will tell you about all the important deadlines, the different fields of study you can submit your application to, as well as exactly what the NSF wants to see in your application. This includes the formatting requirements for your essays. The NSF will throw out your application if you do not follow their formatting requirements (especially page limit) down to the letter. So it’s extremely important to know exactly what they want and to use this document to triple check that your application is in order.

2. Regarding when to apply:

Well, first of all, if you’re a senior in undergrad you should definitely apply! Seriously, you have nothing to lose. Because even if you don’t get it you’ll 1) be able to apply once more in grad school, 2) become more familiar with the application process and 3) get comments back from the reviewer’s which you can use to improve your essays the next time you apply. Honestly, aside from the stress of finishing everything before the deadline, there’s not really any downside, in my opinion.

However, if you are a grad student, the decision is a little tougher. Especially since the NSF has only had this rule for a year now and I personally got grandfathered into the old rules so I didn’t have to make this decision. However, talking to others, there’s one thing your really need to keep in mind: undergrad, first year and second year applications are all judged differently. During your second year, they’re definitely going to judge on how refined your research is. They may even expect results since you’ve had a whole year of grad school to try and get some. So the pressure is a little higher, but you should already have a well thought out research idea that you’ve been working on for at least a few months at that point. On the other hand, a lot of first year grad students haven’t even started research or even chosen an advisor by the time applications are due.  So, while the review committee may not judge harshly if the feasibility of your research idea is a little more out there, they may focus more on how well you can formulate a research idea and come up with reasonable methodology (something that a second year would have already figured out). Honestly, it’s a toss up and completely depends on how much research experience you have, and how put together you think your idea is. However, here’s what I would do in the situation. If I were a first year, I would start the application process–write up the essays, secure letters of recommendation, talk to my advisor (or future advisor) about my proposal ideas, etc. If, by the time I’m done writing everything up, I think I stand a good chance because my research idea is well thought out, my essays show intellectual merit and broader impacts and my recommendation letter writers (and others who have peer reviewed my application) think I have a well written application, I’d submit. If not, I’d just save the application for next year. It’s already half done anyway, right? In theory, all you’d need to do is update and revise.

3. On how to choose a topic:

As I mentioned before, the NSF likes to point out that they “fund people, not projects.” As such, they will not force you to pursue whatever research topic you choose to write about in your research statement. So, write a topic that you feel comfortable with, have read up on recently or have been exposed to in the past. That said, your topic should:

  1. Be within realm of the work you’re planning to do in grad school
  2. Be relatively feasible/realistic to pursue
  3. Have intellectual merit; that is, it should be novel research that fills a knowledge gap in your field
  4. Has the potential to benefit society (e.g. broader impacts)

I made a short post last year on how to chose a research topic, but essentially, you’re combing the literature for a knowledge gap–a question still outstanding in your field. Bonus points if you clearly state how answering this question can better society or be used to perform an outreach project of some sort.

4. On the importance of headers/bolding font:

Reviewers have to go through more than two dozen applications. So, aside from maybe the first few on the top of their pile, they’re probably only quickly skimming through your application at the very most. Because, hey, they’re human. Because of this, it is highly recommended that you make their job easier by including sub-headings on important sections of your application essays. In particular, as all NSF applications are judged using only two review criteria (Yes, you guessed it: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts), it makes sense that these two topics should be explicitly labeled when you talk to them in either essay.

Another way to draw the reviewer’s eye to something important in your essay is by bolding specific lines in your essays. I used this tip in my personal statement, being sure to bold things like “this technique was described in our manuscript…” or “I presented these findings at…” or “It provided me the opportunity to get hands on experience with…” I only warn that if you decide to bold things in your essays, don’t over do it (because then it looks messy) and be consistent (that is either bold part of the sentence or the whole thing, but don’t switch back and forth).

4. To include a figure; or not to include a figure

So some applicants may actually have enough research under their belt to have preliminary results. This means that if you wanted to, you could actually include a figure. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Well, that same picture can also takes up valuable real estate in your very, very small page limit. Will a figure actually make a difference in your research proposal? It’s debatable, but my advice is only include a figure if it’s demonstrating the feasibility of the research topic (e.g. proof of concept), is directly related to something you specifically did (e.g. the schematic of an instrument you built/modified), or shows intellectual merit (e.g. this is data that no one has been able to obtain until now). If none of those things apply, then don’t bother. If they do, make sure the figure follows the formatting rules, has a caption and is readable at a glance.

5. On selecting a field of study:

Choosing a field of study is important for two reasons:

  1. It determines the deadline by which you have to submit your application, and
  2. It determines which panel will end up judging your application

The last one in particular is of extreme importance. Why? Because you want your review panel to be as familiar with your specific research topic as possible so that they can not only understand some basic terminology (e.g. make their lives easier — see #4 for similar advice) but also have a clear grasp on why your particular research topic is important to progressing the knowledge of your field. If they’re capable of figuring that out easily, there’s a higher chance that you’re application can end up on the “fund” pile.

As an example, my research topic (see essays below) could have been submitted to either Chemistry – Environmental Chemical Systems or Geoscience – Atmospheric Chemistry. Though the panel from the former field of study may have understood the general idea of my proposal, it is likely that they wouldn’t be able to easily see how how impactful my research could be. After all, there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t get a single atmospheric chemist on my review panel. So, regardless on how well written my essays are, it’ll definitely be much harder for the Chemistry panel to evaluate the intellectual merit of my proposal than the Geoscience panel, because they’re just not as familiar with the most recent literature that has come out on the topic!

6. On the importance of peer-review and utilizing resources at your university

A lot of university’s have some sort of writing center and some have offices specifically dedicated to helping students obtain fellowship applications. Because, you know, the more fellowships that students win, the less money the school has to give away. So please take advantage of them as they can probably speak to what reviewers want to see in your application. In addition, there are plenty of students in your department who have applied previously and can not only let you know what kind of feedback they received from reviewers, but also give you their old essays so you can have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Another great way to get feedback on your essays is by starting a writing group! After all, it should be fairly large number of students who are also applying for this fellowship. Not only will a writing group help keep up morale as deadlines get closer, but they can also read your essay and give comments on its readability as someone who isn’t as familiar with your sub-discipline (as most reviewers may not be).

7. On the extreme importance of including “Broader Impacts”

From the NSF GRFP Solicitation:

Broader impacts may be accomplished through the research itself, through the activities that are directly related to specific research projects, or through activities that are supported by, but are complementary to, the project. NSF values the advancement of scientific knowledge and activities that contribute to achievement of societally relevant outcomes. Such outcomes include, but are not limited to: full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); improved STEM education and educator development at any level; increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology; improved well-being of individuals in society; development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce; increased partnerships between academia, industry, and others; improved national security; increased economic competitiveness of the US; and enhanced infrastructure for research and education.

Every person that I have ever talked that has applied to the NSF GRFP and has gotten rejected (including myself) was most likely rejected because they simply because the reviewers didn’t like what you wrote for the broader impacts section in your application. Which seems unfair, especially if everything else in your application was great. But let’s remember that there are only two criteria which the reviewers use to determine whether you’re application should be funded. Intellectual merit, in my opinion, is pretty straight forward. You just have to show that your project idea is something novel and that your previous research experiences demonstrate that you’re qualified to pursue the research topic your proposing. However, broader impacts is a little more difficult–a little more subjective, if you will. All I can advise is read as many previous essays as possible and if you can, get your hands on the reviewer’s comments. Be sure that both essays have a broader impacts, and if you can, link the two essays together through these sections. Lastly, when you do write out your essays, be sure that this section is written clearly and is easy for the reviewers to find.

My Essays:

No NSF advice post is complete without some example essays. I’ve attached the essays from my application last year as well as the reviewers’ comments, which I hope you all find helpful! There are also other example essays available on the websites that I’ve listed in the “Other Resources” section:

Other Resources:

Here are a list of resources which I personally used when I was writing up my applications and which inspired me to make this post! Hope you find these just as helpful!

I also have a short list of common fellowships that STEM students apply to, which you can find here.

Good luck, everyone!

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