Some advice for applying for the NSF GRF

The semester is starting, and a bunch of senior undergraduates and early graduate students are gearing up to write applications for the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship.  There is some absolutely wonderful advice for applying for the NSF GRF on the internet, and I thank all of the people who posted advice that helped me when I applied.  This post isn’t supposed to summarize all of that advice; there is too much out there for me to do justice to such a summary.  However, I wanted to add my two cents for those of you looking for advice, and I’ll be compiling a list of other helpful resources at the bottom of the post.  Let me know in the comments or via email if you can think of other good advice and/or if you have links to share.  Good luck with your applications!

Why should you apply for the NSF GRF?

It occurs to me that some people may end up at this page without knowing much about the NSF GRF.  NSF has a webpage that explains the basics, and I will give you seven reasons why you should consider applying, if you’re on the fence.

Reason One:  You may be required to by your academic advisor or department.

Reason Two:  If you get the NSF GRF, it will look very nice on your CV.

Reason Three:  Even if you aren’t awarded the fellowship, you can put it on your CV as a fellowship that you applied for.  This is especially true if you get an honorable mention.

Reason Four:  It is really good practice for grant writing.

Reason Five:  $$$ – the NSF GRF almost certainly pays better than any TA or GRA, and probably better than most fellowships from your individual institution.

Reason Six:  If you get a fellowship (any fellowship), you will be able to spend more time on your research than if you TA or GRA.

Reason Seven:  Sometimes PIs can’t take you on, even if they’d like to, because they don’t have the funding.  Maybe they’re dry on grant money right now, or maybe they just accepted a bunch of grad students and can’t support any more until some older students graduate.  Bringing your own funding can help you get into such labs.

General Advice:

There are three sections to the NSF GRF: the research proposal, the personal statement, and the previous research essay.  In each section, you must address both the intellectual merits and broader impacts of your proposed project.

Be very specific about your broader impacts.  Go right ahead and tell them “the broader impacts of this project are blah, blah, blah” so that they can’t miss it.  I especially recommend describing in detail an outreach project related to your research that you intend to conduct.  I outlined an outreach project and I still had a reviewer tell me that it wasn’t detailed enough, so be specific.

Read the guidelines and NSF’s mission statement before you write.  Also, it is worth making it clear in your proposal that you have read the mission statement and intend to uphold NSF’s core values.

Internet Resources:

            Before I applied for the fellowship, I didn’t know anyone else who had successfully won an NSF GRF.  I did have the google though, and that was a wonderful, wonderful resource.  If you don’t take the time to find all of the advice on applying that you can find, you’re not trying hard enough.  I especially recommend finding the sites where there are posted examples of winning proposals and reviewer comments.  I’ll try to keep an updated list of links below, and please let me know if the comments if you find any good sites that I’m not aware of.


            When I was googling advice, I found several people who suggested that formatting was crucial to a winning application.  Reviewers spend a shockingly small amount of time looking at each proposal.  Someone told me it was <5 minutes per six-page proposal, but I’m not sure if that is true.  Regardless, you have to convince a stranger who might work in a very different field that your project is potentially transformative and that you are worth funding, and all of that with hardly a glance at all of your prose.  Here are some bits of advice to help you with formatting:

1)      SPACE.  Given the insane space restrictions in each section of the application, it seems like you should try to use the smallest possible font and cram as much as you can into the space available.  Don’t!  No one wants to squint to read your endless blocks of text.  Use graphs/tables/pictures/figures if you can and if it is appropriate, and otherwise, put some white space in among the text.  You might think two pages isn’t enough space, but I actually found a two-page proposal much easier than EPA’s five-page proposal.  Conciseness and clarity will be your friends, as will white space.

2)      BOLD.  When I was googling advice, people suggested using bold/italics/underlines to emphasize key points in paragraphs.  I thought it looked hideous when I first did it, because we’re trained not to do that as scientists.  But hey, it worked, so I’m passing on the tidbit.  You need to make every word in your application count, so you shouldn’t have any unimportant fluff in your paragraphs.  However, some things will be most important, and you want those things to stand out so that even a bored, tired, hungry reviewer will see them.  Bold them!  Just to give you an idea, my personal statement was 1295 words long, and 356 words were bolded.

3)      HEADINGS.  In your research proposal, it can really help to break the text up into sections with headings:  background, hypotheses, aims, broader impacts, etc.  That will help with white space, too.

Getting advice/feedback on your proposal:

The NSF GRF may be the first grant proposal that you’ve written.  If not, it is likely the most important grant proposal that you’ve written to date.  Therefore, you’ll want to get feedback on your proposal.  This feedback may come from your academic advisor, your professors, your friends, and/or your family members.  These people do not want to (and will not) read twenty separate drafts of your 6 page application. 

You might think that I’m exaggerating about the number of drafts that you will generate while writing your predoc application.  It certainly took me that many drafts.  I hope it will take you fewer, which is why I’m going to impart this magical piece of advice:  make outlines.  That is the advice that I wish I had gotten before I applied.  Before you start writing, make outlines for your personal statement, your proposal, and your previous research essay.  Decide what key points you are going to make in each paragraph, and carefully map these out in outline format.  Then send your outlines and the proposal guidelines to your feedback-givers.

After you’ve amassed feedback on your outlines, or maybe feedback on multiple versions of your outlines, you can start writing.  And after you think your essays are done, you can get feedback on those.  You might stagger the feedback requests; send draft 7 of your essays to one person, and draft 8 to someone else.  This way, you’re not asking one person to read several drafts for you.

Making an outline may seem trivial, but I sincerely wish that I had done so.  You see, you mostly want feedback on your ideas, not your prose.  By sending someone an actual draft, you’re telling them that you have already carefully considered each idea, and you’re simply linking the ideas together now.  But if you don’t make an outline, your first draft is probably going to contain very different ideas than your fifth draft, and so on.  Instead of asking feedback-givers to slog through all of your prose to find your ideas, let them see your ideas in outline format.  They’ll be much more willing to see multiple versions of an outline than multiple versions of your essays.  (This post opened my eyes to my writing style, my advisors’ writing styles, and the importance of making outlines, and I highly recommend taking a look.)

Internet Resources:

Ten Tips for Applying to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

Note:  I don’t typically write advice posts, and I may or may not make it a habit.  Please note that the advice and opinions that I give here are my own, and not those of my employer or NSF.  

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