In the first year of my PhD (2017) I applied to several PhD fellowships and was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. The GRF is a 3-year fellowship for early-stage graduate students pursuing research in STEM. Here I’ve consolidated notes, tips, and examples, including one of my application essays, to help current and future applicants.
I try to update this page with each application cycle, since it has been useful to a number of past applicants and winners.
If you plan to apply for the fellowship, read the official NSF GRFP Program Solicitation right away. The Program Solicitation is a self-contained document with all the essential information: eligibility, deadlines, how to apply, review criteria, etc. When I was applying I didn’t read the Program Solicitation until pretty late, upon which I realized the formatting of my essays was wrong. (Brief panic ensued). Please read it! I believe they can desk-reject your application if you don’t follow the formatting guidelines.
For better or for worse, most of your application will already be determined by what you’ve done up to this point: Your publications, research experience, letters of recommendation, etc. Therefore, your main efforts should be directed toward the two required essays:
- The Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement is your “how I got here and where I’m going” personal statement. Max 3 pages.
- The Graduate Research Plan Statement is a short proposal of a research project you plan to conduct. You don’t necessarily have to carry out this plan should you win the fellowship (as in, the NSF isn’t going to hold you to it), but you need to demonstrate that you can pitch an impactful project, understand relevant literature, plan and evaluate the project’s execution, etc. Max 2 pages.
The most important part of these essays is explicitly demonstrating how you and your research fulfill the GRFP’s two review criteria. I discuss these criteria next.
Criterion 1: Intellectual Merit [top]
The first criterion upon which your essays will be judged is Intellectual Merit, which the NSF describes as the potential to advance knowledge—in other words, the scientific impacts made by your past, present, and future research. Some questions to consider here are: What scientific contributions have you made or will you make? What knowledge gaps is your research filling in? How can other researchers build off your work? What are tangible outcomes of your work, like publications or presentations? What research-related honors (i.e., endorsements from other scientists) have you received?
- In the Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement, discuss the Intellectual Merits of your previous research projects in the “Relevant Background” part of the essay: Novel methodologies, promising experimental results, publications, presentations, awards, etc. A concrete example: In the Intellectual Merit section of my undergraduate thesis description, I said that I turned the thesis into an (accepted) conference paper. I also mentioned one comment from the paper’s reviews: “The techniques proposed in this work are likely to be used by other researchers.”
- The Graduate Research Plan Statement is all about Intellectual Merit. In my statement, I consistently emphasized the novelty of my proposed methodologies and the scientific importance of the problem itself.
Criterion 2: Broader Impacts [top]
The second review criterion is Broader Impacts, which the NSF describes as the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. In my opinion, Broader Impacts is more vague than Intellectual Merit. I interpret it as how your research-related activities go beyond academia. I think the NSF wants Fellows who are comfortable interacting and engaging with the public. Some questions to consider here are: How can you make your research accessible to a broad audience? How have you communicated, or will you communicate, your work to the public? Who is benefiting from your research, and in what way?
- In the Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement, good candidates for Broader Impacts are teaching and outreach, especially related to increasing minority participation in STEM. Another good candidate is describing how your research has been used “in the wild” (beyond academia). My statement’s Broader Impacts was mostly about my outreach and teaching experience.
- In the Graduate Research Plan Statement, describe how your proposed project will impact society. These impacts don’t have to be 100 percent direct, since the (harsh) reality is that most PhD research projects don’t immediately change the world. You can also discuss how you plan to communicate the results of your work to the public. My proposal’s Broader Impacts section had a few sentences about both societal impacts and public engagement.
- Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement [link to the PDF of my personal statement]. The sections in this essay followed the structure:
- Personal background of how I got into CS research and major highlights, like awards and publications (~half a page)
- Relevant work, which I divided into three projects, each with their own Intellectual Merits and Broader Impacts subsections (~2 pages)
- Broader Impacts and future goals, like outreach initiatives and applications of my work (~half a page)
- Graduate Research Plan Statement. I didn’t include a link to my research plan because the project is still underway and not published. I’ll add the link once the project is complete.
The sections in this essay followed the structure:
- Motivations for studying the problem and basic notation (~1/3 page)
- Proposed approach and evaluation plan (1 page)
- Intellectual Merit and technical contributions of the research (~1/3 page)
- Broader (societal and outreach) Impacts that would come out of the project (~1/3 page)
Hopefully it’s clear by now that you should be specific about Intellectual Merits and Broader Impacts in your essays. Also make sure to read the other GRFP guidelines so you don’t miss any details. Final thoughts:
- Try not to sell yourself short. A lot of graduate students suffer from imposter syndrome, but this isn’t the place to show it. Your scientific value will come through best in these essays if you emphasize it (heavily).
- Don’t be afraid to use figures in your essay.
- Bold important results, awards, and contributions. This quickly draws the reader’s attention to the important parts of your essays, which is helpful to reviewers who have to read many applications.
- Alex Hunter Lang’s webpage is the one of the most-used resources for GRFP application tips. It also has a large compilation of essays and tips from past winners in different fields. I highly recommend reading his tips and perusing successful essays from previous years.
- Get lots of people to read your essays. The most valuable reviewers are past fellowship winners and professors who have experience writing NSF proposals. The NSF has a specific “style” that they look for in funding proposals, and who better to understand that style than people who have been awarded NSF grants before?
Good luck! Feel free to reach out if you have questions related to the program.