NSF Graduate Fellowships--An Overview

Last year, as I was applying to graduate school, I learned quite a bit about graduate fellowships and the benefits of receiving them. Although I did not receive any fellowships my first time around (I applied for three), the season for applying has come again, and I am hoping to score big. Here's some of the things I've learned about applying for fellowships, especially the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which is the most popular. Any readers who have additional tips should feel free to post them as comments!

The importance of fellowships

I was first introduced to fellowships as a means of funding graduate education by my brother. The fellowships he received were key in allowing him to have a successful and financially secure graduate experience. As the time to apply drew near, I also sought advice from a professor in my college at BYU. Although his department was different from mine, which prevented him from helping me directly with my research proposal, he instilled in me an idea of the long-term benefits of the fellowship. He had helped four or so students receive the fellowship, and it was career changing for all. Of them, I remember that one was at Stanford, one was at Harvard, and one was teaching at Yale.

How do fellowships change your career? I can think of four direct effects that receiving a fellowship can have:

  • Money--Compared with most graduate student stipends, the NSF fellowship provides at least an extra 5k a year for three years over their current stipend.
  • Leverage--For students applying to graduate school, this means leverage both with schools and with potential advisors. Why? Because they don't have to pay for you!
  • Freedom--Since you do not have to work for your stipend as a research assistant, and since you are not restricted by what your PI's grant dictates, you have the freedom to work on projects that you find interesting and that may hold more promise. You win, your advisor wins, everybody's happy!
  • Prestige--This can also be helpful (in theory) for prospective students in persuading a school (or lab) of interest to admit them. It also looks good on your CV when applying for future positions.

What is involved in applying for a fellowship?

Although each fellowship has its own requirements, most require similar materials, usually submitted via an online submission process. Here are some common materials:

  1. Application
  2. Transcripts
  3. GRE scores
  4. Letters of Reference
  5. Personal Statement
  6. Research Proposal

I will give a brief overview of each of these components, as far as I understand them.

1. The application

This is the part that asks all of the information that you would expect--name, age, race, education and work experience, awards, contact info, etc. The good thing is that this part doesn't require much thinking. Then again, it probably also does little to differentiate you from everyone else.

2. Transcripts

Usually one or two of these is required, which you request your undergraduate school registrar to send to an address specified by the fellowship institution.

3. GRE scores

These can be sent by the ETS website using a 4-digit code that you'll find on the fellowship's website. Oddly enough, the NSF GRFP will not be taking GRE scores this year. Personally, I think that stinks.

4. Letters of reference

Typically, fellowship applications call for at least three references. Sometimes they allow you to submit more. With the NSF application, you can put up to five names of people you want as references, and then rank them by order of preference. That way, if you choose, you can have two backup letter writers in case one or two of your top three don't work out. As with all letters of reference, it is a good idea to ask the letter writers before you submit their names into the online system (which will then send them an email with instructions on how to submit their letter). It is important to get letter writers who know specific things they can talk about that you have done. In my opinion, asking a professor that you've merely taken a class from is not sufficient. Professors that you've worked closely with, such as research advisors, are better. After all, you're in grad school to do research! My advisor recently informed me of what an impression a letter from the PI at my summer internship made on him. It not only helped me get into graduate school, it helped me get into one of the top labs in my program.

5. Personal statement

This is a 1-2 page essay focused on you--what you've accomplished, what drives your interest in your subject area, any atypical traits or experiences that have prepared you for research, etc. In the NSF personal statement, it's also important to talk specifically about how you satisfy the Broader Impacts and Intellectual Merit requirements (for definitions, search for them in the Applicant FAQs here). Basically, they not only want to know that you are smart and can design a good research proposal (Intellectual Merit), but that you also know how your skills and research proposal will affect the world at large (Broader Impacts).

6. Research proposal

This is probably the toughest part of the application. It was for me. Your project needs to provide a theoretical advance on the current knowledge base, not just a technical one. On the NSF website they urge you to check what areas are currently being funded for general guidelines of proposal topics. They also warn that disease-based research is less likely to be funded. As far as I understand, you're not actually obligated to carry out the research you propose. A large chunk of the people applying don't even know where they're going to school yet. What they are looking for is to know clearly that you can design a good research project, complete with controls and some logistical details (like how your institution/professor will provide the research materials, funds, software, etc.).

Last year, I chose a diffusion tensor imaging project. This was recommended to me by the PI in the neuroimaging lab I worked in over the summer previous. Although the basic idea was his, the writing and fleshing out of the proposal was mine. It was a stressful couple of weeks leading up to the submission deadline as I polished it over and over again. Needless to say, what I thought was a superb proposal was rejected. Luckily, the NSF reviewers provide some helpful feedback. Among other things, they suggested that I describe the resources I would use to carry out that project. Don't leave things out, assuming they will understand--they want to make sure you understand. This year I will be doing something different (you can actually apply three times: senior year of undergrad and first two years of grad school). Now that I actually know what school and lab I will be getting my doctorate at, I may be more convincing in my ability to carry out the research.

Hit or miss

Although there are many tips for producing a top-quality fellowship application (I really liked referring to Philip Guo's advice), your success often depends on factors that are out of your control. From the feedback comments I got from the NSF people last year, it was clear that one of the two reviewers didn't read my proposal very well. The things the reviewers value, the kind of day they're having, how many other proposals they've already accepted/rejected that day, etc. all probably contribute to their decision a little. In the end, you just have to give it the amount of time you think it's worth and move on. Best of luck!

Posted September 22nd, 2010 in Career, Science.

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