Guest author and second-year Ph.D. student Brittany Mihalec-Adkins shares her tips for creating a compelling and robust National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program application. The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in various fields.
By Guest Author Brittany Mihalec-Adkins
Last fall, after months of hunching over my laptop, questioning my life decisions, and agonizing over word choices, I submitted my application for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program, into the abyss known as “under review.”
The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) provides three years of funding and support to graduate students who are pursuing master’s or doctoral degrees in fields within NSF’s mission, which include life and social sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I applied during my first semester of a Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University, hoping to receive the NSF’s support for my proposed research on the short and long-term consequences faced by children in various types of foster placements. I knew this fellowship would cover my tuition for my final three years of graduate school, as well as provide a competitive stipend that would keep me from relying on teaching or research positions and allow me to focus solely on my own research (and therefore finish my Ph.D. sooner). GRFP fellows also have opportunities to apply for fellows-only supplement programs such as the Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP) and the Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) program. These programs could fund an international component of my research for up to one year.
Months after applying, I found out that all of my freaking out and insomnia had paid off when I learned that I was awarded a 2017 Graduate Research Fellowship. In an effort to get brownie points with the graduate school gods, I’ve decided to compile and share a list of tips that might help make other applicants hunch and agonize a little less. So, without further delay, here are eight tips for crafting a competitive NSF GRFP application:
1. Read all of the application materials…and then read them again
Without a doubt, the first thing I would recommend is reading the NSF GRFP website and application instructions until you know them by heart. Don’t read this stuff the way you “read” your 1991 “Intro to Leadership” textbook ten minutes before class – sit down with a mental (or literal) highlighter and a stack of Post-It notes. The easiest way for NSF to initially reject applications is to find the ones (and unfortunately, there will be many) who violate some formatting guideline that has been clearly outlined ten times on the website.
If you can get your hands on them, I’d also highly recommend reviewing successful applications from past recipients. It is incredibly helpful to see how a successful application was crafted, formatted, etc. A quick Google search of “NSF GRFP examples” returns applications from several generous scholars who have posted their materials online for this very reason.
2. Use your two required statements to tell a story
While we can obviously know very little about who will review your application once you send it off, I can tell you one thing about all of your reviewers with absolute certainty: they are human. And what happens when we humans have to read countless pages of someone else’s writing about themselves? We get bored. However, if it’s the most interesting thing we’ve read all day, then we hang on every word, wondering what will come next. We feel nostalgic for the narrator once we’re through. Be that person! Be interesting! Write a proposal worth funding by telling a story worth reading. Also, your reviewers will have Ph.D.’s, but they likely won’t be in the same specialized field as you. Try to avoid using jargon or assuming topic-specific knowledge; otherwise, your beautifully crafted, highly technical essay will be worthless. In other words, make sure that your proposal can sell neuroscience to a mathematician.
3. Put the ‘person’ in ‘personal statement’
Part of the story-telling business is crafting a super personable protagonist. When you’re telling your story, make sure that what you share makes the reviewers feel like they know you. Put enough detail in your descriptions of your experiences and interests that the reviewers can picture you and feel invested in your application. Tell a story about how you came to be interested in this particular topic beyond just “I always thought chemists seemed cool.” Explain how your area of interest first popped up in your life and how it came to be so important to you that you’re making it your life’s work.
4. Be strategic about what you highlight in your two personal statements
The GRFP reviewers are asked to evaluate how well each statement addresses two things: Intellectual Merit (“the potential to advance knowledge”) and Broader Impacts (“the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes”). To be successful, you will need to address both components in both required statements, but be very careful not to be redundant. Saying the same things in both statements is literally a waste of your minimal and precious space. Be strategic about what aspects of each criterion fit best in which statements, and think about how you can use points made in each statement to compliment points made in the other. In your Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals essay, lay out why you have the ‘intellectual merit’ to take on your proposed project and what ‘broader impacts’ you will have on the world with the help of this fellowship – even beyond this specific project. Then, in your Research Proposal, be specific about the ‘intellectual merit’ and ‘broader impacts’ of the project, not you. Make sense?
5. Get diverse letters of recommendation
Along the same lines (pun intended?), don’t let your three letters of recommendation say basically the same things about how great you are. Maybe the best-kept secret of all time is that your letters of recommendation are your chance to smuggle in more information about you than you have space for in your essays. Spend some time thinking about how to choose a diverse set of letter writers, and then outline what aspects of your experience can be best highlighted by each person. When I was at this stage in the process, I drafted a list of things I wanted to convey to reviewers and divided this list among my three recommenders. Also, when you run out of room to talk about one particular strength of yours, ask one of your letter writers to include that in their letter. Believe me, they will be more than happy to accept a list of things to include in their recommendation – you’re doing half the work for them and it works out way better for you than a generic “she is so smart” letter.
6. Be Bold…and underlined and italicized
NSF receives something like 20,000 GRFP applications every year for only 2,000 fellowships. Reviewers don’t always have time to pour carefully over each application; they are looking for ‘intellectual merit’ and ‘broader impacts’ in a whole stack of these things. Just to be safe, when you are pitching the ‘intellectual merit’ and ‘broader impacts’ of you and your project, let them know it! I used underlined, bolded font to all-but-literally say “HEY YOU, OVER HERE!” when I addressed the criteria. I also underlined parts of my essay where I listed specific leadership positions, awards, scholarships, and experiences relevant to my application and italicized parts that conveyed the critical need for my proposed research. This not only makes reviewers’ lives easier, but ensures they see what you did to address each criterion and lets them know that you carefully read that website as much as they’d hoped you would.
7. Sell it
Even if you have a perfect GPA, nine years of research experience, and intellectual merit for days, your proposal will not be funded if the reviewers can’t see how important your work is. At the end of your Research Proposal, you need to make your reviewers feel ready to cry at the very thought that this incredibly important project may not happen. At the very least, they need to be thinking “yes, this idea is worth a $138,000 investment.” This is possibly the most uncomfortable part of writing, but this is not the time to be subtle; break out those humble brags and underline those bad boys.
8. Give yourself plenty of time
My final piece of advice: don’t try to write this thing in a weekend. This may not be true of all fellowship winners, but I spent months working on my application. I asked for input until my mentors and friends were sick of me and I edited and edited until even I was sick of me. But each time I read through my entire application, I found something I could tweak. I found a word I could swap for a more descriptive one or a sentence I could make more personable. Ask your professors, mentors, friends, and family members to read over parts of your statements and tell you if it reads like a story, if they can hear your voice in the words on the page. Be ready to accept constructive criticism and know that each revision is an investment in your future.
Brittany Mihalec-Adkins is a first-year NSF GRFP fellow and second-year Ph.D. student in Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University. Her research focuses on the experiences of children and families involved with child protection and foster care systems, and interventions to disrupt the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment and unhealthy habits. Prior to beginning her Ph.D. work, she completed a master’s degree in Educational Psychology and undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Law & Society at Purdue University. In addition to her coursework and research, Brittany volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children involved with the child welfare system in her county and has strong interests in developing sustainable non-profit initiatives for vulnerable families.
© Victoria Johnson 2017, all rights reserved.
Below is the prompt for the Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement:
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? Page limit - 3 pages
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).
NSF Fellows are expected to become globally engaged knowledge experts and leaders who can contribute significantly to research, education, and innovations in science and engineering. The purpose of this statement is to demonstrate your potential to satisfy this requirement. Your ideas and examples do not have to be confined necessarily to the discipline that you have chosen to pursue.
If you have completed more than 12 months of graduate or post-baccalaureate study or a professional degree and an interruption of at least two consecutive years (fourth option under Completed Study in the NSF GRFP Program Information section), please address the reasons for the interruption in graduate study here. Please refer back to that section for details.
Important questions to ask yourself before writing the statement:
- Why are you fascinated by your research area?
- What examples of leadership skills and unique characteristics do you bring to your chosen field?
- What personal and individual strengths do you have that make you a qualified applicant?
- How will receiving the fellowship contribute to your career goals?
- What are all of your applicable experiences?
- For each experience, what were the key questions, methodology, findings, and conclusions?
- Did you work in a team and/or independently?
- How did you assist in the analysis of results?
- How did your activities address the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria?
Below is the prompt for the Graduate Research Plan Statement:
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).
Important questions to ask yourself before writing the statement:
- What issues in the scientific community are you most passionate about?
- Do you possess the technical knowledge and skills necessary for conducting this work, or will you have sufficient mentoring and training to complete the study?
- Is this plan feasible for the allotted time and institutional resources?
- How will your research contribute to the "big picture" outside the academic context?
- How can you draft a plan using the guidelines presented in the essay instructions?
- How does your proposed research address the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria?
Applicants are required to submit three reference letters. There are five slots available for applicants to list reference writers. Applicants are strongly encouraged to utilize all available slots.
The reference letter should provide details explaining the nature of the relationship to the applicant, comments on the applicant's potential and prior research experiences, statements about the applicant's academic potential and prior research experiences, statements about the applicant's proposed research, and any other information to enable review panels to evaluate the application according to the NSF Merit Review Criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.
Applicants can improve their chances of obtaining strong reference letters by doing the following:
- Choose your references carefully; choose people that can speak to your abilities and potential, rather than someone with a prominent title.
- Provide referees sufficient time to write a strong letter.
- Discuss the application and share your essays with them.
- Inform them that reference letters should reflect both your "intellectual merit" and "broader impacts."
- Track submission of letters using your status page in the FastLane application module - if necessary, remind reference writers about deadline. No late letters will be accepted under any circumstances.
- Have backup references in case one of your primary reference writers cannot submit their letter.
Your academic transcript is the evaluators' opportunity to view the courses you have taken, allowing them to determine your level of preparation for your proposed plan of research. Thus, it is a significant component of a complete application.
An academic transcript is required for every institution you have listed in the application module. If your transcript contains your academic records for more than one degree, you need to only upload your transcript once. You can select a checkbox on the application that the transcript information for an institution is contained on the uploaded transcript for another entry on the Education and Work Experience section of the application.