Orignally Published on
Caffeinated Confidence
September 2017

All About the NSF GRFP

Finally, 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 even is. Not to worry. I got you covered. Essentially, there are four main things you really need to know:

  1. The NSF GRFP is a fellowship that provides a stipend (financial support) for science and engineering graduate students for up to three years,
  2. The NSF GRFP stipend likely result in a nice raise from whatever salary your school has offered you,
  3. During the time you’re funded by NSF, you can focus on your research since (typically) you won’t have to TA in order to get paid, and
  4. Professors are more likely to offer you a position in their labs because they don’t have to worry about funding you.

Seems like a pretty sweet deal. Unfortunately, the NSF fellowship is highly competitive. In fact, in this last year alone (2016) there were more than 13,000 applicants of which only 2,000 were selected to receive the fellowship. While your chances on winning this award 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 and who your reviewers are, the possibility of getting an NSF fellowship can open many doors, give your CV a big boost, and allow for a lot more freedom in your graduate career.

The Basics

All information on the NSF GRFP can be found by going to their website. You can also find much of this information in their Program Solicitation, which I strongly advise you read if you’re thinking of applying, as small details can change from year to year.

The Award

Through this fellowship, you can receive three years of support that includes a stipend of $34,000 (as of 2017) 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 a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or permanent resident,
  • Must be pursuing research-based graduate study in an NSF-supported STEM field, and
  • Must be enrolled in grad school in the U.S. (which must be accredited) or will enroll the following school year

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 (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 pm (ET) by November 2, 2017.

Changes as of Fall 2016

Up 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 for a maximum of three attempts. However, though students can still 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 for a maximum of two attempts.

  • Your education and work/research experience,
  • A list of your significant academic honors, fellowships, scholarships, publications, presentations, 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

The Application

The Online Application

To start your application, you will have to make an account on the NSF Fastlane website. This will allow you to access the online application portal. In general, the online application will ask you for the following information:

  • Your education and work/research experience,
  • A list of your significant academic honors, fellowships, scholarships, publications, presentations, 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

The Recommendation Letters

The NSF application requires three (3) recommendation letters. Like in all cases where you need letters of recommendation, ask early and remind constantly! If your letter writers don’t submit their letter on time, your application will likely be disqualified. NSF does not mess around with deadlines.

As far as who to ask for these letters of recommendation, I recommend asking people who can speak to your ability to succeed in a research environment and talk about any activities you've participated in that can speak to your leadership skills and desire to be active in your community. Once you select who will write your letters, it's best to make their job as easy as possible. I personally made sure to send them an email that included my CV and drafts of essays (I emailed the finalized essays later).

The Essays

Note: The specific prompt may vary from year to year, though I suspect the general theme should remain the same.

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).

The NSF prides itself on funding people, not projects. Therefore, this essay is there to allow your reviewers to get to know you better as a person. Because sure, they have your credentials. But just because someone has good grades doesn’t necessarily mean that they'll be able to advance knowledge in their field or step out of their lab and make an impact on society. Use this essay to demonstrate that you're a capable scientist or engineer, and let them know 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.

As far as page limits go, this is roughly how I broke down my essay:

  • 0.25 page: General Introduction
  • 1.25 page: Previous Research Experience and Intellectual Merit
  • 0.5 page: Current Graduate Research and Future Gradute Study
  • 0.5 page: Future Goals
  • 0.5 page: 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).

Though your personal statement is an 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. Rather, 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 page: Introduction
  • 0.5 page: Methodology
  • 0.5 page: Preliminary or Expected Results
  • 0.25 page: Conclusion and Broader Impacts

Three things to note. First, there isn't a specific section for Intellectual Merit in my statement, but I made sure to integrate it in my introduction and reemphasize it in my conclusion. Second, I also included figures in my research statement because my project happened to have some preliminary results by the tiem application season rolled around. I discuss more wehther or note figures are a good idea (or even necessary) below. Three, references and citations take up a lot more space than you realize and count towards your page limit.

My Advice

Read the Program 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.

When to apply:

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 not only have a second chance to apply once more in grad school, but you'll also become more familiar with the application process and get comments back from the reviewer’s which you can use to improve your essays the next time you apply.

However, if you are a grad student, the decision is a little tougher. I want to make it clear that I didn't actually have to make this decision as I got grandfathered in under the old rules. However, after talking to others, I think the main thing you should keep in mind is that first year and second year applications are all judged very differently. That is, a second year applicant will likely be judged on how refined their research proposal is as (technically) this applicant has had a whole year of grad school to work towards their project. On the other hand, reviewers are well aware that first year applicants likely haven't started their graduate research (much less found an advisor, in some cases) by the time application season comes around. So reviewers may be a little more lenient in the feasibility of your research proposal, and perhaps focus more on other aspects of your application.

Honestly, it’s a toss up and completely depends on how much research experience you have, and well thought out your proposal idea is. Personally, what I would do in the situation is start the application process as a first year (that is, write up the essays, secure letters of recommendation, talk to my advisor (or future advisor) about my proposal ideas, etc) and as the deadline approaches decide on if I stand a good chance. If I think I do, I'd submit the application. If not, I’d just save the application for next year.

Choosing 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:
  • Be within realm of the work you’re planning to do in grad school,
  • Be relatively feasible/realistic to pursue,
  • Should be novel research that has the potential to fill a knowledge gap in your field (e.g. intellectual merit), and
  • Has the potential to benefit society (e.g. broader impacts)

Importance of section headers:

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. Which is unfortunate, but it is what it is. They’re human. Because of this, I recommended that you make their job as easy as possible by including headers 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).

On include figures:

So some applicants may actually have preliminary results by the time they apply. 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.

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 extremely important to consider. 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 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 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.

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. It's in their best interest to help you. So please take advantage of these resources as the staff can probably provide insight into what the reviewers want to see in your application. In addition, there are plenty of students in your department who have applied for the fellowship previously. Chances are if you ask nicely they'd be willing to let you know what kind of feedback they received from reviewers and send 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 in your cohort 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 specific sub-discipline (as most reviewers may not be).

Broader Impacts:

From the NSF 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 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.

Additional Resources

No NSF advice post is complete without some example essays. I have linked my personal statement, research proposal, and the reviewer feedback below.

Here is a list of resources I personally used when I was writing up my applications. I hope you find them as helpful as I did.