When I applied for the NSF-GRFP, I found it very helpful to read over past successful applicants’ experiences and have a look at their essays. I told myself that if I received the fellowship, I would do the same for future applicants. I applied twice, and got it on the second try. I sincerely hope this post will be useful, and feel free to contact me on the form at the end of the post if you have any questions or comments.
Here’s the structure of this post. First, I will list some reasons to apply. Second, I will describe general strategies, both that I figured out on my own and also that I was told. Third, I will include links to my application material, and discuss why my second application succeeded and my first one didn’t.
Before I get too far along, let me say a few words about myself. I am a doctorate student in geophysics at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Right after graduating with a bachelor of arts in geology, I taught English in South Korea for a year. Then, I worked as an environmental engineer for three years before deciding to return to school to study volcano seismology.
With that behind us, here’s some reasons to apply for the NSF-GRFP.
1. It looks really great on your resume and/or CV, especially if you want to go into academia. One criterion of a successful scientist is the ability to get funding. If you get this fellowship, you demonstrate that you have this ability.
2. You get a lot more money (approximately double what you would make as a TA or RA).
3. Your advisor will love you, because now she or he doesn’t have to pay your salary. That means more money for fieldwork and experiments.
4. You don’t have to teach.
5. Because your advisor is not funding you, you have a lot more independence and get to do what you actually want to do during your graduate school career.
6. You get access to the NSF’s resources – like supercomputer time, for example.
7. You get valuable experience applying for grants.
Some general strategies:
1. Start early. The longer you have to polish your essays, the better. Also, you can get your essays out to the people who will be writing your letters of recommendation. This is a big help to those of them that actually do it before the deadline!
2. Be persistent. If you don’t get the fellowship the first time around, read the essay reviews, take them into account, and apply again next year. NSF strongly encourages you to do this. Plus, it’s good practice for being a professor, where you can expect to have grant applications turned down all the time – but you try year after year until you get funded. If you apply for the first time when you’re applying for grad school, you should have two more chances depending on when your school starts.
3. Send your essays to lots of people for editing. At a very minimum, make sure your advisor looks over it. Don’t be discouraged by initial feedback: my advisor said the first draft of my Research Proposal was ‘written like a high schooler’ this year. After liberal use of red ink, it made the cut.
4. Canvass the internet and your university’s resources to read up on the NSF-GRFP for as much advice as possible. My blog post describes my experience, but I am not a GRFP official and so I can only speak for my particular case. There are lots of websites out there to check out, and my university even had a meeting for NSF-GRFP applicants that focused on strategies for success.
5. Get a peer-reviewed paper out. If you are doing an undergraduate thesis, whip it into manuscript form and submit it. Also, jump on any and all opportunities to participate in meetings and professional organizations. Show that you’re serious about your graduate school career.
6. Contact your recommenders early, and send them a polished copy of each of your essays well before their recommendations are due. Also, send them a brief explanation of why you are applying for the fellowship, and why you think you are a good candidate. Remind them of work you did with them (for example, summer research, field camp, even a particular class project). They have hundreds of students – help jog their memory by describing what you did with them, and how it reflects on you now.
7. Don’t expect your work experience to count for much. You will note that none of my reviews mention my work as an environmental engineer as a reason for why I should get the fellowship. That’s because it really doesn’t matter. You can use your job to demonstrate how focused and responsible you are, but unless it was specifically in a research setting it will probably not matter too much.
Links to application material:
The first set of links are to my first application, in Fall 2011. This application was not successful, but I did get an honorable mention and my reviewers encouraged me to apply in 2012.
The second set of links are to my second application, in Fall 2012. I was successful that time around.
These essays are my personal work. If you would like to redistribute them, please contact me first.
Response from Reviewers
Response from Reviewers
I think my first application failed for several reasons. First of all, I had no publications in review or in print, as the first reviewer noted. The first reviewer also pointed out that my personal essay lacked detail. This is a big problem, because I have read that a lot of applications are rejected because the “broader impacts” portion is not well thought out.
The second reviewer also noted that I had no manuscripts in review or in print. She or he was concerned about the logistics of deploying ocean bottom seismometers in Antarctica. The reviewer wanted more details on how I would communicate volcanic risk.
The third review was uniformly positive but also lacking in detail. This probably means the reviewer did not read the application as carefully as the other two reviewers did.
When I tried again in 2012, I referred back to these reviews to determine where my weak points were. I pushed hard to get a manuscript in review in large part to prove that my Deception Island research was going somewhere (it is still in review, incidentally, the journal is taking forever). I also proposed a special session at the 2013 Seismological Society of America meeting, and the session was accepted before my NSF application was due. I noted that in my application as well, and one of the reviewers commented favorably.
I recognized that my Deception Island research proposal was unrealistically ambitious. Even though the research proposal is not actually meant to be carried out (rather, it gives you an opportunity to show how you would propose a research project), the lack of logistical detail was a big problem. In my 2012 research proposal to deploy infrasound microphones and a seismic network, I took care to mention specific instruments and cite previous projects that had used similar strategies.
Since two of the reviewers felt that my Personal Essay lacked focus, I made sure to include specific examples of how I would use open source software, mentor elementary, middle and high school students, and also educate communities living near volcanoes on the dangers that they pose.
The 2012 review reflected these changes. I think the combination of getting a paper in review and providing specific examples in my essays helped me succeed. An interesting difference this time around is that the reviewers mention recommendation letters – in 2011 they did not.
Just one final note on the personal essay. The reviewers seemed to like the idea of engaging elementary, middle, and high school students. I’ve found this to be an easy and rewarding way to involve the community, and I’ve attended a couple of events (one where I flew a 10′ hot air balloon with a hair dryer, and another where I sat at a table and talked about rocks). I originally proposed to engage communities near active volcanoes as well, but I have found this to be unreasonable. Both Guatemala and Ecuador have their own hazard programs, and they don’t need outside scientists to do their work for them. If I could write that essay over, I would omit that section.
Thank you for reading!
About glossarchThe word "glossarch" doesn't exist. At least, not yet. But let's pretend it does for a second. The first part is "gloss," a word that comes to us from Ancient Greek via Latin and English. It means "language." The second part also comes from Ancient Greek and can mean "having power over." So "glossarch" means simply "language controller." So what am I doing making up words? Well, I made up an entire language once. It's called Angosey. So I'm the Glossarch of Angosey. I'm currently a doctorate student in volcano seismology (a branch of geophysics). I enjoy writing fiction and poetry, launching balloons, programming, and hanging out with my lovely wife! Follow me on Twitter! Writing and language creation: @glossarch Balloons and science: @bovineaerospace
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NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Resources
If you would like more information on attending one of our NSF Support Series workshops, please consult our Professional Development events calendar. Students who interested in the GRFP or are actively working on the application can contact the Office of Grants and Fellowships at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Applying for the NSFGRFP
Applicants should first explore the user-friendly NSFGRFP applicant website.
Familiarize yourself with the official NSF solicitation.
Read the NSF Guide to Proposal Writing.
Create a Fastlane user account and read the Applicant Guide.
The Graduate Research Statement (PDF)
You must convince the readers that your plan of research:
- is worthwhile.
- is feasible within the grant parameters.
- should be undertaken by you.
Choosing a project:
- Begin with an area with which you are familiar. You should be comfortable with the concepts and vocabulary pertinent to the field.
- Complete a literature review to get an idea of what questions are being asked in your area, and what still remains to be done.
- Imagine the “next question” to ask of the work being done in the lab you work in (or have worked in).
- Frame your interest in a hypothesis driven manner.
- Brainstorm the experiments you will complete and outline what the results would mean one way or another for your hypothesis.
- Discuss your research plan with a faculty member. Verify that your program has the resources to complete your project and that your intellectual merit and broader impact are realistic within its scope.
Drafting your proposal:
Your project proposal must demonstrate:
- the significance of your research.
- the originality and creativity of your idea.
- the soundness and rigor of your methodology.
- that you are in the right institution to pursue your plan.
Title: Create a clear, concise but descriptive title.
Key Words: list several descriptors that best describe or categorize your study
Introduction: State the nature and scope of the specific problem(s). Cite key findings from literature that demonstrate the scope of the problem and the gap your research fills.
Hypotheses or Research Questions: List 2-3 specific hypotheses.
Research Plan: Describe your methods, connecting specific methods with specific hypotheses. Explain your timeline, any compliance issues, how you will monitor and evaluate progress, what limitations may exist, and what your contingency plan may be. Note anticipated results and give a rationale for these expectations. If your plan is part of a larger team effort, clearly explain your specific responsibilities and the role of your work in the larger project.
Intellectual Merit & Broader Impact: Restate the significance of the problem. Describe the potential outcome of the research, and who will benefit and how. Explain how you will communicate your findings.
References: Include key citations. References do count within the two-page limit.
The NSFGRFP Research Guide may be helpful in planning your proposed research essay.
Questions to ask of your completed first draft:
- How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
- How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project?
- To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
- How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity?
- Is there sufficient access to resources?
- How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?
- How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?
- To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships?
- Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
- What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?
- Is there sufficient documentation of the background and justification for the study?
- Does the plan address a significant need or problem?
- Does the plan address NSF funding priorities?
- Are the proposed methods rigorous and appropriate for the hypothesis? Are the steps or the process clear? Are potential pitfalls addressed and a contingency plan been outlined? Is the plan doable in the time allotted?
- Are the intellectual merits and broader impact suggested realistic for this project?
- Does the project proposal address the aims of the NSF, and the GRFP specifically?
The Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement (PDF)
This essay will work to demonstrate your ability to successfully undertake your proposed project and your potential to be a leader in science and/or education.
Like your research proposal, it must address the intellectual merit and broader impact criteria. It should be an integrated narrative that motivates, both personally and professionally, your choice of graduate study, and indicates how your future goals stem from your past experience.
This essay should show readers how well prepared you are to conduct research and how likely you are to complete your proposed project. You should give concrete examples of experiences in which you demonstrated characteristics like ingenuity, resourcefulness, determination, flexibility, reliability, etc.
- Experience on faculty-led research projects, research assistantships, leadership on student research teams
- Experience during internships, field research, study abroad, or employment
- Experience in coursework, lab work, or scholarship.
For each experience describe your role, your contribution, the outcomes, what you learned, and skills you gained.
- Describe how the experience will be useful to your future research, and how it has influenced your perspective and/or determination.
- Describe how the experience helped you improve your analytical skills, self-direction, time management, creativity, resourcefulness, etc.
- Describe the methods or technical skills acquired: research design, data collection, field research, data analysis, data protection, responsible conduct of research, grant proposal writing, presentation skills, etc.
Remember that reviewers are looking for students who are highly engaged, will encourage diversity, and will advance scientific knowledge that benefits society. You should demonstrate cultural competence, respect for other disciplines and other people, global awareness, and a willingness to integrate science and education.
- Research with international faculty and/or on interdisciplinary research projects.
- Reaching diverse audiences through teaching, scholarship, presentations, public outreach, media, etc.
- Leadership in field organizations, membership in professional societies, attendance at conferences.
If appears that your proposed research plan would be a challenge given your current ability, you should demonstrate your eagerness to learn the skills necessary to complete it. Give examples of your willingness to seek out and accept feedback and explain your plans to gain the necessary training.
This essay should also demonstrate your potential in a more personal manner: your motivations, your goals, your abilities, your character.
Ideas to address:
- How motivated are you to pursue your studies, and this project? What motivates you?
- What efforts have you undertaken to improve your skills and knowledge, inside and outside the classroom?
- Can you demonstrate a willingness to challenge assumptions, test new ideas, learn from mistakes, overcome barriers, think creatively, find resources, act independently, etc.?
- What qualities do you possess that will make you a leader in your field?
- Do you demonstrate an understanding of local and global challenges, and a passion to make a difference in the lives of people in the US and abroad?
- What are your career aspirations, and how will you contribute to your field?
- Do you demonstrate leadership qualities as well as the ability to be a collaborative team member?
- What are/will be your personal contributions to society?
- What key experiences made you who you are today?
- What are you passionate about? Why is your research important to you?
- How have you helped others?
- How will you adapt to advances in the future?
Steps to writing your essay:
- Brainstorm notes about experiences that best demonstrate your research qualifications, your personal strengths, and the motivation for your professional goals.
- Reflect on these experiences and decide which best demonstrate your knowledge, skills, and the characteristics that demonstrate potential. Reflect on which experiences best reflect the intellectual merit and broader impact criteria.
- Select concrete examples that make your skills, strengths, and motivations clear to your audience.
- Choose a writing structure. You might describe your experiences chronologically, or write about your most meaningful experiences first. You might also list skills you have acquired, and give a concrete example of how you applied that skill.
- Write a draft of your essay. Don’t be initially concerned if you go over the 3-page limit – it is generally easier and more effective to cut material than to add it. After you’ve included all your relevant experiences, try to identify an overall theme and use this to create a compelling introductory paragraph.
- Create a compelling introduction and conclusion that bring your ideas full circle.
- Share your essay with the fellowships advisor, writing tutors, family, friends, etc. to get feedback.
- Set aside your essay for a few days, and then revise with fresh eyes.
Questions to ask of your draft:
- Did you provide evidence of your intellectual merit and broader impact with concrete examples?
- Have you accurately represented your research experiences?
- Is your past experience connected with your future research and professional goals?
- Will a reader believe that you have the necessary skills and drive to undertake your proposed research?
- Does this essay reflect the real you? Does it feel sincere?
- Is the writing clear, compelling, and detailed?
- What sets your essay apart from other applications?
Students interested in studying sample essays for the NSFGRFP should contact the Office of Grants and Fellowships at email@example.com. The sample essays cover most fields and disciplines.
Sample reviewer comments
By analyzing reviewers’ comments on both successful and unsuccessful applications, you can determine what to include in your essays. Elements highlighted in blue will help boost your score, and elements in red should be avoided.
Much of the above material was adapted from GRFP learning materials created by Dr. Robin G. Walker, University of Missouri – Columbia. Visit her GRFP Essay Insights website for more information.