How to get an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP)

Dear Graduate Student,

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program is a means of funding yourself during grad school. This prestigious award provides 3 years of salary for you, paid as a monthly stipend of about $2800, and includes roughly $12,000/year allowance for tuition. Any remaining tuition is often waived by your university. For the past few years, the award has generally been worth around $138,000 USD. The intention of this award is to remove the burden of living expenses (i.e. the need to work as a student employee) so talented students can devote their efforts to research and outreach. The NSF is not only a phenomenal monetary award, but it’s essentially your ticket into any graduate program you choose. Why? First, if the NSF finds you worthy of such an honor, then few (if any) graduate programs would dare say otherwise. Second, the award means you come at “no cost” to a Professor so they don’t have to spend any of their limited grant money on you (at least for 3 years). Third, because you don’t have to spend those 3 years teaching, Professor’s know you’ll be in a position to be a highly productive student. But the NSF is also extremely valuable because once you are an NSF Fellow, that label follows you throughout your career as a GRFP Alumni and provides access to a wealth of resources and opportunities

If you’ve decided to apply for this award, here are some tips for a good application:

  • As opposed to other fellowships where the majority of the decision to award is based almost entirely on the quality of the research proposal (similar to a grant), the NSF cares more about you and your ability to contribute to the scientific community at large. This is evident by the fact that they provide zero dollars for research and 100% of the funds go to your tuition and salary. Therefore the parts of the application that reflect your personal goals and experiences (commonly in the form of a personal statement) are the most important! In our grant-based training world, we often pay less attention to the personal parts of our work and focus solely on the science and in this particular case, you don’t want to do that. Spend a lot of time carefully crafting how you portray yourself as a whole person to the NSF because they’re interested in supporting agents of change who can help shape a diverse future for STEM.
  • For the scientific proposal, make sure you demonstrate that you know what makes a good proposal (solid background, hypothesis, methods, etc). There is no expected follow-through on you actually doing this research if you don’t ever end up finding research funding, but the purpose of this exercise is to show that you can write a good scientific proposal and that you have good ideas. That means that you probably shouldn’t write about some grandiose idea for which you don’t have methodology to explore since that is not a fully formed proposal. But because you don’t have to defend a budget in this proposal, you can propose methodology that is exciting and expensive and perhaps not very feasible as long as it’s a legitimate method for answering your question. Get creative!
  • Write, edit, edit, edit, re-write, edit, get feedback, edit, get feedback again, and edit again. Your application should go through numerous drafts so that your messages are succinct, you’ve hit every bullet point they’re looking for, and your format and grammar is perfect. There is no room for sloppy in an NSF application!
  • Find a NSF GRFP workshop near you if possible. Workshops are great because you can review each other’s work in teams and these are sometimes lead by previous award winners. Many R1 institutions have these workshops, and some even have resources online for those who cannot attend in person. Search around on the web to see what you can find because new resources are popping up all the time.
  • Highlight in BOLD the key points of your essay and plainly identify broader impacts in words. Yes, I know this breaks with traditional formal writing, but the point is that you want the reviewer to be able to easily skim your essay during the scoring and find all those points again. For example, you might say “It was with the Good Lab team that I authored my first publication” and there should be a superscript notation that refers to a citation in the footer of your essay for that publication. Note that I didn’t highlight the whole sentence or paragraph, just the most vital take-home message to the reviewer. Do this for scientific achievements, volunteer work, leadership experience, professional appearances, press and outreach, etc. This clearly articulates both the merit and broader impacts of your application.
  • Use a footer. I mentioned this above, but using a footer with 10pt font for spelling out long citations, journal names, conference titles, and more things like this that take up a lot of your precious, limited page space is just so very useful. Obviously, don’t cram a ton into the footer or use font smaller than 10pt. If you’re referencing some work you did, you don’t have to include the full, publication-quality citation, but you should at least provide authors, journal (abbreviation ok), and year in the footer with the title of the paper probably shown in the body of your essay.
  • Remember, in most instances you can apply twice and you will get feedback from reviewers. Do not dismiss this feedback! I was not awarded the first time I applied, but I took that feedback and improved my application as part of an NSF GRFP workshop and was successful the second time around. This feedback is key to understanding the gaps in your application according to the reader. Hopefully, you’ll have already had someone read and give feedback several times before submitting, but an NSF reviewers feedback is critical professional advice that helps you perfectly curate your application for the following year.

And once you’ve applied and are biting your nails waiting to see if you’ve been awarded, keep in mind that the NSF sometimes announces that results are posted first on Twitter. I was in the dark about Twitter in 2015 when I won the NSF GRFP and actually had no idea until a colleague emailed me with the subject title “GRFP” and body “Congrats – so awesome” to which I audibly screamed, panicked with confusion, nearly peed my pants, and began to hyperventilate while frantically trying to login to the NSF website and find out if he meant that I had actually won an NSF GRFP. Don’t be me, guys! Get with the times, get on Twitter, and while you’re there follow me @DearGrad.

Stay positive.

– R