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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.

Overview [top]

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 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?

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?

Concrete examples from my application [top]

Final thoughts and additional resources [top]

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:

Good luck! Feel free to reach out if you have questions related to the program.

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