Around this time last year, I applied to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). It has a pretty low acceptance rate and is highly dependent on factors outside of our control, such as the review panelists we are randomly assigned and their moods on the day they read our statements. I knew it was a crapshoot, and I was mostly applying because, as a second year, it was my last chance to do so. Getting accepted for the fellowship was a very pleasant surprise. It has made me feel a lot more confident in my abilities and career goals and has made me somewhat more motivated to work through these very difficult times.
I was the only person in my department who applied last year, and most of the resources I used for my application came from online, and from the advice and examples of successful statements by my seniors in Queer organizations on campus I have been participating in. I am also very thankful for my advisor, who gave me thorough suggestions on my proposal. I know at least one person in my department is applying this month, and I would like to pay forward the support I’ve received in the ways I can. I have started a part-time position at my university campus Graduate Writing Center, where I will be reading other students’ statements and providing them with feedback and support. I will not be publishing my statements online, but I will provide some general suggestions and strategies that I have learned here. If you would like to see my statements, you can feel free to contact me, either through the contact form or through other means if we already know each other! If this is helpful for you, my application was in Mathematical Sciences – Mathematical Biology.
Tip # 1: Read the program solicitation. Read all of it. Make sure you understand exactly what they are looking for. The two main review criteria for this fellowship application are Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Make sure you devote enough in your statements to the Broader Impacts portion, as this is a common shortcoming of many applications.
Tip # 2: This is not the time for modesty! If you were meeting a new friend for coffee or going on a date, it might be a good idea not to rattle off a laundry list of all your accomplishments. But you are not trying to get the review panel to like you as a person. You are trying to convince them that you are worth throwing government money at. Make sure to list everything you’ve ever done, especially when it comes to publications and presentations. I will say right now that I did not have any publications when applying, but I am currently working on a first author publication (fingers crossed that it’ll be submission-ready this month!). So I listed this tentative paper with the year 2020, and wrote In Preparation. I would highly recommend this, especially if you currently do not have any publications, or if you are in the process of preparing a first-author publication – which often carries more weight. Also, make sure to list every poster and/or oral presentation you’ve ever done, even if it was just a department-wide poster session or presentation and you don’t think it was a big deal. This is not the time to leave anything out.
Tip # 3: Make sure you give your letter of recommendation writers enough time to write letters, and make sure they are people who know you and know your research well. As a general rule, I would suggest asking them at least a month or three weeks in advance, although earlier is probably better. I would also suggest giving them reminders as the deadline approaches, as you want to make sure everything is submitted on time. It is probably not the best idea to ask a random professor that you never spoke to but got an A in their class. You want to have someone who can vouch for your abilities in research. In addition, make sure to mention to your writers about the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts review criteria. The reviewers will be looking for both these things in your letters as well as your statements. If they aren’t familiar with your outreach work, provide them with a CV and/or description of your activities. One thing that I think really helped my application was getting a letter from a woman who was a postdoc in my undergrad lab and is now a tenure-track faculty member. She could speak to my research abilities, but also about the conversations we had as fellow women in a field where there aren’t many (theoretical physics). I also mentioned in my personal statement how seeing that representation in my undergrad lab encouraged me to apply to graduate school and pursue a physics-centered research group.
Tip # 4: Create a narrative about your scientific journey. If you are applying for this fellowship, it is likely that you have a range of professional experiences before this point, whether it is working in a lab, industry, healthcare, or peer-led projects. There is probably something that you’ve gained from each of these experiences that have led you to the project you are proposing today. Make sure that everything you are listing somehow ties into skills or perspectives you’ve gained that have made you more able to conduct the project you are proposing. Make sure you don’t list anything without somehow tying it in to how it has shaped you as the researcher you are today.
Tip # 5: For Broader Impacts, while it might be helpful to mention your own personal adversities and minority status, what will be even more useful is to list the ways that you plan to uplift other marginalized groups on a broad level. If you are not a member of a marginalized group, talk about initiatives you’ve taken to support those in marginalized groups throughout your career, and how to plan to continue doing so as you progress. If you are a member of a marginalized group, a good way to mention it is to bring it up in the context of outreach organizations you’ve participated in, and how you plan to use representation to encourage others in STEM, such as recruiting people to your program and increasing retention by making workspaces safer for marginalized people. If you identify as LGBTQ+, but you have never participated in and do not plan to participate in identity-based orgs, I would suggest not including it. However, if you were inspired by a talk by an LGBTQ+ identifying faculty member and it has shaped your confidence and pursuit of your career in some way, that could be a powerful thing to include.
Tip # 6: If there are any gaps in your records, such as lack of publications due to time limitations in your undergraduate research or lower grades because of some personal and/or financial adversity, I would include some kind of explanation in your personal statement. For example, I included the two projects I was involved in during undergrad, which have stalled in the research group in favor of other projects and my contributions were never published. However, it is best not to make the hardship the focus of your statement and delve too much into it. Instead, you can use this as a testament to your resilience and persistence, something that is incredibly important, as research is hard and will involve a lot of failures that you will have to be prepared to overcome. Remember the purpose of the application, which is convincing a panel of strangers who have never seen you to throw money at your project. You want to make sure that everything you include in your personal statement has some purpose that is highlighting either your intellectual merit or your potential to benefit society as a whole. The overall feel of the statements should be positive.
Tip # 7: For your research statement, I would recommend organizing it in pieces. What I did was start off with a biological introduction, lead into a broad question, and three sub-projects that fall under the umbrella of addressing my broad question. I then created separate paragraphs for each of these three sub-projects. It can be helpful to use bold or italic font to highlight these themes, and the specific steps you plan to take to address these things. You want to show that you have thought about methods, and especially if you are already a grad student, show the panel that the institution you are in has the resources to help you carry out your project. The more clarity and organization you have in laying out your plan, the better. It could be helpful to provide a figure or an equation (if you are in a more mathematical field such as mine). Make sure to address broader impacts of the research, as well as potential broader impacts that come with communicating the research and recruiting and mentoring undergraduate students participating in your research.
Tip # 8: If you don’t get the fellowship, DON’T BE DISCOURAGED. It does not mean anything about you as a scientist. There are so many faculty members I admire and respect who have been rejected by this fellowship, but they still went on to be amazing scientists. There are peers of mine who deserve it just as much as I did, if not more. It is a very random process! I also know someone whose labmate applied one year and got rejected, and applied the next year with nearly the same application and got accepted. That just goes to show that getting accepted and rejected has so much to do with factors that are out of your control. It is always a good idea to try, because you never know (for the same reasons), but just know that even if you don’t get it, you are incredibly awesome and you can still do amazing science!
I hope this was helpful, and feel free to contact me for any feedback! Also, know that these tips are just one person’s opinion, and there are many more resources for advice and support! I will include some that I have personally used: