Hello! This fall (2020), I wrote and submitted an application for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). There is a lot of information about the NSF GRFP available on the main NSF page as well as on many NSF how-to pages (like Mallory’s blog or Alex’s website). I’m going to use this post to go over my experience (hopefully it can help you during your application process). I hope this helps, and good luck!
The GRFP is typically due around the third week of October. In 2020, my deadline was October 20. The format of the GRFP application is similar to that of college applications: name, address, birthdate, demographic information, relevant education and work experience, achievements, proposed field of study, 3 letters of recommendation, and 2 essays.
The first part of the application (the non-essay portion) is very important and needs to be filled out carefully. I have heard that poorly filled out non-essay portions are often used by reviewers to weed out applications. The essay portion is often seen as the most important part of the application and will probably end up taking more time than the non-essay portion.
If I could go back and change one thing about my application, I would probably change when I started writing the essays. I started writing in earnest around the end of September. For me, the longest part of the process was the rewrites of the two essays.
The GRFP application requires two essays: a personal statement (3 pages) and a proposal statement (2 pages). Detailed instructions about both can be found on the NSF website. NSF finds intellectual merit and broader impact extremely important, so you will need to include information about both in each essay. Intellectual merit refers to “the potential to advance knowledge” and broader impact refers to “the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes” (NSF Review Criteria). I looked up more information on these two topics, and the most helpful information I found was the presentation from UF professor Dr. David Mazyck. If you are a UF student, you will be able to watch his pre-recorded NSF workshop videos and RSVP for his bi-yearly NSF Fellowship application workshop. His slides can be downloaded without a UF account. For the slides, RSVP information, and pre-recorded videos, please visit the UF NSF Fellowship Preparation website.
According to various sources I came across, your two essays should complement each other. In other words, the readers should understand how your interests and background led you to your research topic. It may take some trial-and-error to figure out the best phrasing in order to make your story clear to your audience. Even though the essays are a continuation of each other, each one has a different goal (telling your audience about yourself vs proposing your research topic).
In the personal statement you must give your readers an idea of who you are. This is where it can be very helpful to ask other people to read your essay and provide feedback – you may think a detail is very important until an outsider asks you why you included it. Or you may think you explained something perfectly yet be informed by a reader that you need to include still more clarification. For example, I used one line to explain a project I worked on. One of my proofreaders asked me to explain the project in more detail, which I did. After I explained the project in more detail, another proofreader asked me something like “What is the reason for including this project?” At that point, I had to admit that the project did not flow with the topic of my paper, so I ended up removing the project entirely (and improving the paper, in my opinion).
Other than including missing details or removing extraneous ones, the main difficulty I had with the personal essay was writing in story-format (which makes the essay more cohesive and interesting to read). My solution to my inability to write in story-format was writing the essay in resume-format (first I did this, then this, etc.) so I had a general idea of how I wanted to phrase things, and then I opened up a new document and re-wrote my paragraphs (making sure to include better transitions to make my essay more story-like). My personal statement went through a total of about 27 revisions before I submitted it. If you are someone who can easily write in story-format, that’s great! If not, maybe you can try my trick or let me know your tips in the comments below.
The proposal was a completely different matter. Where the personal statement is tricky because you want to highlight what you’ve done without sounding conceited, the proposal is complex because you need to come up with a research topic succinct enough that you can finish it within three or four years, yet extensive enough that you can spend three or four years on the topic without running out of research questions. After coming up with a topic, you need to explain your idea (why your idea is important, who might benefit, what specifically you would do, etc.) in two pages or less.
For me, the hardest part of the research proposal was coming up with my topic. I was relatively new to research (and still am!) and I am interested in a diverse range of topics. What really helped me was when my advisor suggested I try to come up with a research topic that would include multiple of my interests. I ended up brainstorming for quite a while and eventually came up with an idea that I liked enough to run by my advisor and fellow lab researchers. Before and after I started writing my proposal, I read through the proposals of a few previous GRFP winners to get an idea of what to include in a proposal. After some revisions and help from my fellow lab members, I ended up with an essay which had a framework that looked like this: explanation of your topic and why is it important, previous work surrounding your topic, your proposed solution and approach to the topic, what the broader impact of your work would be. My proposal went through about 25 revisions before I submitted it.
I think one of my best decisions during this process was to ask for feedback on my drafts. My fellow lab members and advisor were invaluable while I was writing. I had never written anything like a proposal before, nor had I written such a long personal statement. I benefited a lot from their experiences with these styles of writing, and I would highly recommend you ask people you know for feedback on your drafts. If you don’t have a lab yet, you can also ask family, friends, or classmates for feedback (even if they can’t help on the finer points of academic writing, they can give you feedback on how understandable your writing is). If you are a UF student, the writing center is also a great resource. You can make an appointment online and see someone there within a couple days. The writing center is free for all UF students and they can read your essays and give you feedback and new ideas.
NSF GRFP application home page – https://www.nsfgrfp.org/
Create new GRFP application – https://www.research.gov/grfp/CreateApplicant.do
NSF Review Criteria – https://www.nsfgrfp.org/applicants/merit_review_criteria
NSF phone number – 703-292-5111
University of Florida
If you are a University of Florida student, you can access this website with NSF fellowship application workshop information by Dr. Mazyck. I highly recommend watching the two NSF Workshop Videos and reading through the PowerPoint Slides. – https://www.eng.ufl.edu/graduate/prospects/funding/nsf-fellowship-preparation/
UF Writing Center – https://writing.ufl.edu/writing-studio/for-students/schedule-an-appointment/
Sample Essays & Helpful tips
Essays submitted by past NSF GRFP winners – https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1xoezGhbtcpg3BvNdag2F5dTQM-Xl2EELUgAfG1eUg0s/edit#gid=0
Helpful tips on how to structure your essays apply – http://www.malloryladd.com/nsf-grfp-advice.html
More tips on how to apply – https://www.alexhunterlang.com/nsf-fellowship
I hope you can learn from my experiences with this application and that my collection of links proves helpful to you in your application process. My name is Katarina Jurczyk, and I am a first-year Ph.D. student in the INIT lab. Please feel free to reach out to me (email@example.com) if you have any questions or are interested in more information. (I will know in April if I was successful with my application!) If you are applying to the NSF GRFP, good luck!!