A Leg Up on Applying for the NSF GRFP

SEP 12, 2016    by KRISTEN EMMETT

Kristen Emmett, graduate research assistant in the Ecosystem Dynamics Lab at Montana State University, recently was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship. Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez (MSU).

After working outside of academia for eight years I decided to earn a graduate degree. In my first year back to school I was encouraged to apply for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The GRFP is a prestigious award for graduate students providing a stipend and cost of education funds for three years. Practically speaking, it enables students to focus on research instead of how to pay their bills. My fellow ecology graduate students (aka eco-grads) told me to give it my best shot, and if I didn’t get it, I could always apply next year. Despite putting a lot of energy into revising my application (with the help of nine kind people), I did not receive the award in 2015.

However, the NSF reviewers’ critiques specific to my application were invaluable for strengthening my research plan and personal statement. So I followed the eco-grads’ advice and applied again. Like many fellows before me, I was awarded the GRFP on my second attempt in 2016. I regret to say that this path is no longer possible. The NSF recently decided to limit graduate students to one application in either their first or second year for the GRFP (See News Post or NSF’s Dear Colleague Letter). This raises the stakes for graduate students and especially impacts non-traditional students like myself. Since future graduate students only get one shot, I hope to pass along some ideas about how to make a winning application on the first try.

Make it personal. More emphasis is placed on you and your background than you may expect. This focus is reflected in the application guidelines. You submit two essays; the “Graduate Research Plan” which is limited to two pages and the “Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals” which can be up to three pages.

Writing a personal statement didn’t come easy to me after years conditioning to the stereotype of detached, objective science writing. In my first attempt I got the criticism that my personal statement read like a CV and didn’t reflect my “individual path or passion”. This criticism was on point; I was treating it like a job application where you avoid discussing your personal journey and focus on your qualifications. In my opinion, the NSF reviewers seem keen to invest in you and your ambitions, rather than hiring any employee to help them meet a research goal. For example, all of my reviews from both years focused on my personal history and experiences first and foremost, and only mentioned the proposed research. Of course you must demonstrate that you have the skills to graduate and complete the research, but do so while telling a story.

Telling my story involved enlisting an acquaintance that was a middle school English and Drama teacher. I brought dark chocolate and brew to her house and we spent hours transforming my “CV” into a tale of a personal journey. Uncharacteristically decorative, my opening statement read: “If my life could have a theme it would be satisfying my insatiable curiosity.”

Make it easy for your reviewers. Make the key merits of your research proposal explicit and prominent so it’s easy for your reviewers to remember and reference. They should not have to infer why your proposal is novel. You should tell them directly why it is unique and valuable. I used statements like “the species-level approach is exciting because…”, “Perhaps most compelling…”, and even “my research is novel because” followed by enumerated statements. I also italicized key statements in my proposal.

Similarly, your research plan should be clear and concise. Have you had multiple people review your application, including people outside of your area of expertise? People who are already familiar with your work may “read between the lines” in places that are unclear, filling in missing links with information they already know about your research. Think of editing as a process of distillation, filtering out murky muck until you extract the essential elements of your research. After all, you only get two pages to explain three years worth of research!

Appeal to a broad audience. You can expect that the review panel will be composed of researchers from different disciplines, so your proposal needs to have general appeal. Tell them why your work matters at a grand scale – societal and global impacts. Your proposal also needs to be comprehensible to a wide audience so avoid unnecessary jargon in your text. Some technical terms must be included to describe the details of your research, but give preference to scientific terms more generally recognized. Have someone review your proposal that does not have a science background (maybe an English teacher!). If they cannot paraphrase what your study is about and why it matters, talk it out with them until you discover better wording.

Give thanks. If you follow these suggestions then many people will help create your application. Remember to thank them, and if possible, return the favor! I took out my reviewers, committee, and lab mates for happy hour after I won my award. It was a great way to say thanks and celebrate at the same time.

Special thanks to Ben Poulter, Jia Hu, Katie Renwick, and Emilie Joetzer at Montana State University, Doug Shinneman at USGS, Jay Tuttle at Utah State University, and Maria Munro-Schuster at Headwaters Academy for support of my 2015 GRFP application. 

Kristen Emmett is an Ecology PhD student at Montana State University and NSF Graduate Research Fellow. Her research interests include vegetation, climate, and fire interactions, climate impact modeling, biogeography, citizen science, and science communication.

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