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A compilation of stories, telescopes, internship resources, and other things radio astronomy.

Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

Applying to the NSF GRFP

Olivia Wilkins

In research, having an external source of funding definitely has its perks, something I found out while at the Universität zu Köln on a Fulbright research grant. While I have yet to learn more about the extent of the benefits from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP), it is already clear that being an NSF Graduate Research Fellow will do more for me than give me another line on my CV.

The NSF GRFP website highlights benefits of the grant beyond the paycheck, specifically GRIP (the Graduate Research Internship Program) and GROW (Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide). For now, I can only say "thank you" to the NSF for a higher stipend as I prepare to begin my studies at Caltech in September 2016, but I hope to take advantage of some of the other benefits in the years to come.

Of course, in order to receive these benefits, I had to apply for the grant. Here, I'll go over the basic idea behind the program, eligibility requirements, and the actual application, including my own essays. You are welcome to view my Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement, my Graduate Research Plan Statement, and the ratings sheet from my reviewers.

About the program (abridged)

The program website offers a lengthy history and account of notable recipients of Graduate Research Fellowships. Two key features of the grant are:

  1. the grant is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and
  2. the grant is for graduate students.

These two key components of the grant are immediately outlined by the NSF:

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) helps ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions.

In short, the mission of the NSF GRFP is to support students whose research has both intellectual merit and broader impacts. (Remember these two characteristics; your application depends on your ability to show them to the reviewers.)

Eligibility to apply

In recent years (specifically from 2015 to 2016), the eligibility rules for the NSF GRFP have changed. Hence it is imperative, if you are looking to apply, that you pay close attention to the eligibility requirements outlined by the NSF.

Every year, however, a couple of things remain the same:

  • Applicants must be U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, or permanent residents.
  • Applicants must be pursuing research-based graduate study (i.e. Master's or Ph.D) in an NSF-supported field.
  • Prospective fellows must be enrolled in grad school in the U.S. (which must be accredited) by the following fall.
  • Not more than 12 months of full-time graduate study may have been completed by August 1 of the year of application.

Additional requirements will be set forth in the current Program Solicitation.

Luckily, if you are unsure of where you will be attending at the time of application (like I was), you're still in luck, even though you have to list where you intend to go (i.e. whichever program you feel allows you to write the most compelling application without actually knowing exactly what you'll research). There are four categories of applicant, one of which is for those who do or will hold a baccalaureate degree but are not yet enrolled in graduate school.

The application

All applications are completed using FastLane and consist of several items. Each section of the application can only be accessed upon completion of the previous section, so I recommend requesting transcripts early so you can proceed to the more interesting (and intense) aspects of the application sooner. In the application, you will be prompted to provide:

  • personal information
  • education and relevant experience (including work, honors, fellowships, scholarships, posters, publications, and presentations; you probably want to have your CV handy while you fill in this part)
  • electronic transcripts (unofficial are fine)
  • proposed field(s) of study (pay close attention to individual deadlines)
  • proposed graduate study and school information (this is not binding, but make sure you list a school you actually want to attend; it will make for a naturally stronger application when you get to the essays)
  • names and email addresses of reference letter writers (be sure to ask ahead of time)
  • Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement
  • Graduate Research Plan Statement

Throughout the application process, you may find it helpful to view the NSF's tips for applying. Most of these items are self-explanatory, but the reference letters; Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement, and Graduate Research Plan Statement require special attention because these are where the reviewers will assess your intellectual merit and broader impacts.

The Program Solicitation is rather vague about what the intellectual merit and broader impacts criteria are, describing the intellectual merit criterion as encompassing "the potential to advance knowledge" (e.g. via transcripts, publications, summer research experiences) and the broader impacts one as "the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific desired societal outcomes" (e.g. K-12 tutoring, public outreach, science fairs).

Reference letters

All applicants are required to submit three reference letters, although you may (and are strongly encouraged) to submit up to five. However, a weak letter for the sake of filling an extra slot can do more harm than good by making a poor impression and wasting the reviewers' time, so only fill the fourth and fifth slots if you have strong relationships with professors or mentors that can provide additional support of your strengths. (I only had three letters because I felt everything could be covered by three references.)

The Program Solicitation advises that applicants:

  • choose references carefully (strong relationship to you over prominent title)
  • share essays with references
  • inform writers that their letters should reflect your intellectual merit and broader impacts

I also think that having variety in reference letters is important. I chose my undergraduate advisor (with whom I had one class, did research, worked as a writing associate and teaching assistant), another undergraduate mentor (with whom I had one class, worked as a writing associate and teaching assistant and learning community coordinator), and a summer research advisor (with whom I had one publication in prep and officially entered the field of astrochemistry).

There were two additional professors who I know would have written me stellar letters, but after having letters from professors with whom I had dynamic relationships already, what could these two professors offer? Probably not enough to be worth the reviewers' time.

Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement

The complete prompt for the Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement can be found on the application components page of the GRFP website. It begins:

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

The application components page also provides important questions to ask yourself before writing, prompting you to think about:

  • your fascination with your research area
  • leadership skills, unique characteristics, personal strengths
  • applicable experiences (your role, methods, findings, etc.)
  • broader impacts and intellectual merit of activities

There is no NSF-supplied recommendation for how to break up your [up to] three pages among the personal, relevant background, and future goals components of this statement, and how you apportion these compenents will depend on your own experiences and writing style. In my own statement, I blended the personal and background information aspects over all three pages, except the last third-of-a-page, which I allocated to future goals.

No matter how you allocate your space, it is important to write a compelling story that both shows who you are and what you have accomplished. Be vulnerable in expressing your research interests and how your academic life has allowed you to pursue them, and your passion, dedication, and enthusiasm will naturally show.

Graduate Research Plan Statement

The complete prompt for the Graduate Research Plan Statement can be found on the application components page of the GRFP website. It begins:

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 will also find on the application components page important questions to ask yourself before writing regarding:

  • about what scientific issues you are passionate
  • your technical knowledge and skills
  • a research plan
  • whether you will have enough time and resources to complete your proposed research
  • broader impacts and intellectual merit of proposed research

Note that your research plan is non-binding; that is, you are not making a contract with the NSF that you will join a particular program or carry out a particular research project exactly as you describe it in your essay. Rather, the goals of this essay is to assess your ability to identify and tackle scientific problems realistically.

In my research plan, I included a title, key words, and section headings (Introduction, Researech Objectives, Methods Overview & Support, and Intellectual Merit & Broader Impacts). I also included a figure and citations as warranted.

I recommend that your writing be confident; convince yourself that what you write will come to fruition, and the reviewers will likely believe that it will too. However, make sure that you are realistic. You may also want to consider including a timeline for the research or how you will address specific challenges that may arise.

Throughout the process, I recommend staying in contact with professors, mentors, and fellowship advisors, and reaching out to (prospective) PIs and previous winners (myself included!). You may also want to check out other blogs and websites (e.g. Alex Lang's website).