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Four Tips on Applying for the NSF GRFP

October 25, 2012

As a past recipient of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, I tend to get a lot of questions from students in my department about how to write a good application – particularly this time of year, as the fellowship application deadline approaches.

There are already a lot of good sources for advice on the internet (particularly here and here, and lots of good links here, to name a few), but I want to add my thoughts as well. In a nutshell, the four points I find myself repeating year after year are:

  1. Look at previous winners’ applications
  2. Ask someone to read (and critique) your proposal
  3. Pay attention to Broader Impacts
  4. Apply early and apply often

I’ve explained each of these points in more detail below. Advance warning, but this post is pretty long – feel free to jump ahead if there’s a section you’re particularly interested in.

Look at previous winners’ applications.

I found it helpful to look at previous successful applications particularly when writing my research proposal. If you have never written a research proposal or grant application before, having reference materials showing what it “should” look like will give you a good starting point both in terms of formatting and in terms of how much background you need to provide, how much detail vs. big picture ideas to give when explaining your proposed experiment, etc.

Probably the best place to start when looking for previous winners’ applications is to ask around your research group or your academic department. This is a great way to find applications written by applicants who are in a similar (or the same) field as you are. Different fields have different expectations and different conventions, so if you are a molecular biologist, you will probably find it most useful to look at a proposal written by another molecular biologist than one written by, say, a computer scientist or an astrophysicist.

If you cannot locate previous winners in your department, there are several other resources you might try. The NSF keeps a list of GRFP “Resource Persons”, and you may be able to find someone at your school who will be willing to offer advice.

Second, you might also check to see if your college or university has a fellowships office with previous applications on file. For example, at UW-Madison, the Office of Fellowships & Funding Resources collects research statements and research proposals from past fellows, and makes them available as reference materials for current applicants.

Failing all that, there are a lot of example applications floating around the internet (particularly here). However, I highly recommend making one-on-one contact with a previous winner or a faculty adviser if you can.  Building relationships with your fellow scientists is always good, and they may be willing to give you individual feedback on your application. Which brings me to my next point:

Ask someone to read through your research proposal and critique it as if they were a reviewer.

When I applied for the NSF fellowship during my senior year of college, I wrote a first draft of my proposal and asked my undergraduate research adviser to read through it. When I got it back, it was covered in red ink. As an undergraduate, I didn’t have a good sense of what a “good” research proposal should look like, and whether the experiment I was proposing was going to look reasonable to a reviewer. Getting feedback from someone who “knows the business” and who writes these things for a living was invaluable for getting my proposal whipped into shape.

Professors are great people to ask for this kind of help, because they read (and write) funding applications all the time. However, if your adviser is too busy to give you detailed feedback, consider asking a senior graduate student in your research group or your department. As we progress through our graduate careers, we receive reviews on papers that we’ve submitted for publication, and we help review papers that other research groups have submitted for publication. These experiences help us develop a much better sense of what looks good in a paper or a proposal, and what sets off a reviewer’s bullshit detectors.  While we may not be experts at this, we certainly know more about it than we did as undergrads or first-year students, and reviewing younger students’ NSF applications can be good practice.  So, senior grad students can be a great resource for this kind of help.

Whoever you ask for help, though, make sure they know that you need brutal, honest feedback on your proposal. Ask them whether it is convincing, and whether there are any weak spots you need to work on. If they think the entire thing is crap and you need to start over, ask them to tell you that too. It’s hard to hear, but it will make for a better application in the long run.

Pay attention to the Broader Impacts criterion.

This is a big one. This article by a trio of NSF GRFP reviewers states that “for a large number of applicants, the broader impact criterion was the decisive factor.” This is consistent with my experience – I have several friends who applied for the NSF and got full marks on the Intellectual Merit side of their application, but were told they didn’t adequately address the Broader Impacts. One friend, in particular, received an Honorable Mention his senior year of college, but received the fellowship the next year after essentially just reworking the Broader Impacts sections of his application. These are just bits of anecdotal evidence, of course, but it’s my impression that the NSF gets more applications from academically-outstanding applicants than it can possibly fund, and if the rest of your application is strong, the Broader Impacts can be what pushes it to the top of the pile.

You should address the Broader Impacts criterion in EVERY essay in your application, though I would argue that it is most critical in your personal statement and research proposal and less so in your description of past research. Addressing Broader Impacts in your research proposal should be relatively easy – if you are talking about research into potential solar cell materials, for example, you can talk about how your research might help lead to cheaper, more efficient solar energy. Some of this motivation will be in the introduction in your research proposal, but most successful applications that I’ve seen explicitly include a sub-section titled “Broader Impacts” at the end of the proposal in which these ideas are spelled out in very clear terms.

Addressing the Broader Impacts criterion in your personal statement can be a little harder. This is a great place to talk about any outreach activities you’ve been involved in and the past – and how you intend to continue to build on them to bring science to broader audiences in the future. If you are a woman or a member of a minority group traditionally underrepresented in the sciences, your personal statement is also a great place to talk about any challenges you have faced getting established in science and what you plan to do to help reduce these barriers for others in the future.

The article linked at the beginning of this section provides a nice description of what fellowship reviewers look for in this essay; you may also find it helpful to look at the NSF’s list of “Representative Activities” for examples of things that satisfy different aspects of the Broader Impacts criterion. Whatever you choose to focus on, however, try to tie it in to things you’ve done in the past, so that you can show that you have the experience and the drive to actually follow through on your Broader Impacts activities.

Apply early, and apply often.

If you can, apply for the GRFP during your senior year of college, or during the year in which you’re applying for graduate school. There are two reasons this is important:

First, if you get the fellowship before you enter grad school, it will give you a lot more leeway to do the research that YOU want to do. As a graduate student, you will need to join a research group. Unfortunately, when professors choose which students (or how many students) they want to take on, they are often limited by funding constraints. If they only have enough money to pay two students, then they’ll only hire two, no matter how smart you are and how much you want to work for them. If, on the other hand, you come in with a fellowship that pays you for three years, you are essentially a “free” grad student, and potential advisers don’t have to worry as much about whether or not they have enough money to hire you. This makes it much, much easier to get in to your first-choice research group, especially if there are a lot of other students interested in working for the same professor.

(Anecdote: after I applied to graduate schools and visited the programs to which I was accepted, I had a pretty good idea of which professors I was most interested in working for. I emailed them and asked how many students they were planning to take, how many students usually wanted to join their groups, etc., in an effort to gauge how likely I was to get my first choice. I got pretty non-committal responses all around. As soon as the NSF fellowship list came out, however, several of them emailed me to say, “I’m so glad to know you’re interested in my group! Please consider coming to School X, because I’d love to talk more about what you might do if you come work for me.” Having my own funding completely changed the game from me chasing them to them chasing me. Money talks.)

In this vein, if you are a first-year graduate student, putting in the time and effort to write an NSF proposal on research being done in a lab you’re particularly interested in can be a good way to demonstrate to a prospective adviser that you’re really serious about their research.

Second, if you don’t get the fellowship, you will still learn from the experience, and you’ll be able to put together a better application next year. After the award decisions are made, you will be able to read the comments that the reviewers made on your application. Look these up and see which parts of your application they thought needed improvement.  Reviewers are given the same guidelines for assessing applications from year to year, so something that a reviewer comments on this year is likely also something that reviewers will pick up on next year.  Take advantage of this fact to fix any flaws they found in this year’s application and improve it for next year!

Whew.

I think that’s it. Hope it was helpful to some of you, and good luck as GRFP application season hits the home stretch!

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