Eight Steps to a Strong NSF GRF Application

ReVision editor Emma Spikol offers guidance for applicants to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Each fall, as deadlines for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRF) approach, prospective and current graduate students seek advice as they strive to craft successful applications. For many young researchers, the NSF GRF is their first funding application, and there is ample reason to devote significant effort to the process.

The award offers a compelling annual payoff: $34,000 in stipend support with a $12,000 allowance for the institution to offset educational costs. The support can be applied to any three years in a five-year period. Moreover, whereas NIH grant applications are quite extensive, the NSF GRF is succinct in comparison, consisting of a two-page research statement and a three-page personal essay. Preliminary data is not a criterion for a successful proposal, making the endeavor especially accessible to new and prospective graduate students. Finally, odds of receiving an honor are anything but remote; out of ~13,000 who apply each year, ~2,000 receive funding and an additional ~1,800 receive honorable mention — itself a significant achievement worth highlighting prominently on a CV.

Not sure where to start? Never fear. Applicants looking to maximize their chances can get a jump start with these eight pieces of advice. 

1. Practice, practice, practice

A succinct, organized, compelling, and cohesive proposal cannot be formed overnight. Expect to read several example essays from previous successful applications before you begin writing. Once the writing begins, plan to have numerous iterations of your essays reviewed by peers and mentors before submission. The style and format of the proposal will be unfamiliar to new applicants, so even experienced writers should plan to start early.

Those who apply as prospective students (a great opportunity for practice) may apply again during graduate school, but after joining a graduate program, students may only apply once, in either the first or second year. The opportunity to practice and incorporate feedback is one benefit of applying in the second year of graduate school. I recommend drafting practice essays by the application deadline the first year, which leaves plenty of time for critiques and revision before submission the next year.

Struggling to complete a draft? Writer’s block should not stop you from seeking critical input; requesting comments on incomplete drafts can help you mold what you’ve written so far into a complete essay.

2. The big why

Before you put fingers to keyboard, take some time to consider your personal motivation for pursuing science, and the fundamental questions underlying the research project you are proposing. Although these broader intentions may be multifaceted, focusing on one key theme for each essay will make your application both compelling and easily digestible.

In life science research, it is tempting to propose the advancement of medical cures as a guiding principle. However, although the NIH strongly emphasizes the application of knowledge to advance health, NSF has a broader focus, aiming to “promote the progress of science” in a wide variety of fields, which does not include medical science. So, when answering the question “why,” in your personal essay, consider what sparked your drive to understand the world around you. In your research statement, highlight the potential of your project to advance scientific knowledge and innovation. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box — NSF is committed to supporting novel and idiosyncratic ideas on the forefront of innovation.

3. Emphasize Broader Impact

Every component of your application will be evaluated through the lens of two criteria, which must have their own headings in each essay: intellectual merit, defined as the applicant’s potential to advance knowledge, and broader impact, which refers to the applicant’s ability to benefit society. The intellectual merit criterion includes your ability to plan, conduct, and report research, work collaboratively, and interpret scientific literature. Intellectual merit tends to be a more intuitive criterion for prospective and current graduate students, so a clear commitment to broader impact is a great way to make your application stand out. Broader impact encompasses the applicant’s ability to enhance public understanding of science, integrate research with educational initiatives, and create opportunity for communities that are underrepresented in the scientific workforce. In particularly strong applications, the “Broader Impacts” sections in each statement complement and reinforce one another. If possible, you should also request a recommendation letter from a mentor who can speak to your science outreach and communication activities as well as your research acumen.

4. Show, don’t tell

Although it may seem like succinct way to fulfill the review criteria, avoid the temptation to simply list relevant experiences, skills, qualifications and qualities in your personal statement. Instead, use anecdotes that illustrate your distinguishing characteristics without the need to state them explicitly. Weave important accomplishments and critical skills into your narrative. Ultimately, a rich story with distinctive details is a much more convincing and captivating way to communicate your intellectual merit and broader impact than a generic list.

5. Don’t hide failure

Science isn’t easy. So, demonstrating your familiarity with failure in your personal essay is a great way to convince reviewers that you have genuine experience with research, a realistic outlook on the scientific process, and the grit required to become a successful scientist. Discussing challenges that you have encountered shows that you have the determination to persevere through failed experiments, unexpected results, and other dispiriting moments that are so common in science. When you write about a difficulty you have encountered, be sure to describe how you overcame that challenge and how the experience contributed to your growth as a researcher. It’s even more compelling if you can also illustrate that you applied the newfound wisdom from a previous failure to your ongoing endeavors.

6. Past, present, future

A common mistake is to focus exclusively on previous accomplishments and present activities in your personal statement, without any indication of how you will extend your intellectual merit and broader impact into the future. A great way to structure a paragraph is to: 1) detail a previous experience and its challenges, 2) discuss how you learned from those challenges and made improvements that are reflected in your current work, and 3) mention some specific plans to extend this endeavor into the future, further building your growth as a scientist and communicator.

7. Cut the jargon

Beware that although your reviewers will be from your general field (i.e. life sciences, physics, astronomy), they may not be from your specific subfield. Using overly esoteric scientific jargon can impede your reviewers’ understanding, leading them to misperceive experimental details and deduct from your score for a lack of clarity or logic. Furthermore, reviewers have only a short amount of time to read each proposal, so dense statements that are difficult to read will not be well-received. Make sure the breadth of your proposal is suitable for two pages; for the NSF GRF, a straightforward plan that is elegant and cogently communicated is far superior to a complicated, overly ambitious idea that is inaccessible to a reader outside of your scientific niche.

Struggling to visualize your audience? Try writing for fellow students with an undergraduate degree in your general field; if you are in life sciences, imagine perhaps that your proposal is being read by your primary care physician.

8. Second Opinions

As you polish your application, seek input from multiple sources to benefit from varied perspectives; feel free to ask students whose previous applications were awarded, senior students or post-docs in your lab, and your advisor and letter writers to read your essays. And of course, submit your essays to ReVision for input from our editors! Although it may seem counterintuitive, your advisor is not always the best source of guidance on facets of your essay that are specific to NSF GRF — he or she might be far more familiar with NIH grant application criteria. However, lab heads who have served as NSF GRF reviewers are important exceptions. It is critical to seek input from some mentors or peer editors who have prior experience with the particulars of the NSF GRF.

It can be dispiriting to change part of your essay that you’ve grown attached to, but try to keep an open mind — a good strategy is to save a copy of your unedited work so you can feel secure about deleting blocks of writing to experiment with a new direction.

Most importantly, do not despair if your proposal is not awarded. Above all, the NSF GRF essays are an excellent opportunity to practice writing and editing. No matter the result of your application, your writing is sure to have improved — a skill that will undoubtedly serve you well in future endeavors!

For full details on applying to the NSF GRF, visit https://www.nsfgrfp.org and take a look at the program solicitation.

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