NSF Fellowship

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP) is a great way to start a research career. I was a successful applicant in 2010. Below are some details about the program and some tips for applying. You will also find many examples of successful essays. Most of the examples are from the old guidelines, but I think they still serve as a useful guide.

What is it?

The NSF GRFP provides $32,000 to the student and some money to your department for three years. You have the flexibility to defer for up to two years in case you have another source of funding (but you cannot defer to take a year off).

The basic requirements are:
1. US Citizen
2. Currently a graduating Senior or First/Second year graduate student
3. Going into science research (does not apply to medical school)

Check out the official requirements at the NSF GRFP website. Here is the more detailed NSF presentation on the requirements. The deadlines for 2014 start October 29th this year, but it is never too early to start.

Basic Outline of Application Process

  • You will need to write two essays:
    1. Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals (3 pages)
    2. Graduate Research Statement (2 pages)
  • You will need to get three letters of reference
  • These essays will be reviewed on the criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.
And that's really it. The challenge is to sell yourself in 5 pages and to successful address the two criteria.

Tips for Getting Started

  • Read over the official NSF GRFP website, especially their suggestions.
  • Look through the NSF GRFP FAQ, with detailed answers here.
  • Here is a detailed website from Robin Walker, a Univ. of Missouri grad school coordinator. She has a very very thorough guide to the application that has been updated to the 2013 criteria.
  • Look at advice from past winners (but remember, they applied under the old system and might not have updated their advice!). 
  • Read an example essay. I have posted all of my essays (and others) as well as my ratings sheets at the bottom of this page. Let me know if you find a new example essay, but so far, these are every example I know of. BE CAREFUL! The old Personal Statement and Past Research has been merged to the Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals while the old Proposed Research is now the Graduate Research Statement.
  • Check out this article by actual reviewers about the criteria.
  • For current discussions on the application process, check out The Bank at The GradCafe Forums. I personally added to the discussion of NSF GRFP 2011-2012 but there are other similar threads that can be useful like NSF GRFP 2013-2014NSF GRFP 2012-2013, and NSF GRFP 2010-2011.

General Advice

  • Every essay should address both Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.
  • Following the new suggestions, place explicit headers of Intellectual Merit / Broader Impacts with subheadings for each point.
  • NSF funds the person, not the project. If you are an undergrad doing research, make your research proposal related to what you are currently researching, even if you're not sure if you want to continue it into graduate school. NSF will not force you to follow through with the research; instead they just want to see that you can actually write a proposal. I personally am not doing the research that I proposed in my essays.
  • Ask for letters of reference early and gently remind your writers of the deadline. I had my current adviser (who was doing research similar to what I proposed), a past research adviser, and my boss at a tutoring center. Therefore, I had two letters addressing my intellectual merit, while one letter addressed broader impacts.
  • Ask for help. Your current university probably has a writing center and NSF has a list of experienced people. Don't be shy, they will love to help you.

Review Criteria Details (Paraphrased from NSF)

(Below is direct text from NSF but with sentences cut and added highlights)

In considering applications, reviewers are instructed to address the two Merit Review Criteria as approved by the National Science Board - Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Therefore, applicants must include separate statements on Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts in their written statements in order to provide reviewers with the information necessary to evaluate the application with respect to both Criteria as detailed below.

Reviewers will be asked to evaluate all proposals against two criteria:

  • Intellectual Merit: the potential to advance knowledge
  • Broader Impacts: the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

The following elements should be considered in the review for both criteria:

  1. What is the potential for the proposed activity to
    1. Advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields (Intellectual Merit); and
    2. Benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes (Broader Impacts)?
  2. To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
  3. Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale? Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success?
  4. How well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities?
  5. Are there adequate resources available to the PI (either at the home organization or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed activities?

Extra details on Broader Impacts:

Broader impacts may be accomplished through the research itself, through the activities that are directly related to specific research projects, or through activities that are supported by, but are complementary to, the project. NSF values the advancement of scientific knowledge and activities that contribute to achievement of societally relevant outcomes. Such outcomes include, but are not limited to: full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); improved STEM education and educator development at any level; increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology; improved well-being of individuals in society; development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce; increased partnerships between academia, industry, and others; improved national security; increased economic competitiveness of the US; and enhanced infrastructure for research and education.

Merit Review Criteria specific to the GRFP

  • Intellectual Merit Criterion: the potential of the applicant to advance knowledge based on a holistic analysis of the complete application, including the personal statement, relevant background, future goals, graduate research statement, strength of the academic record, description of previous research experience or publication/presentations, and references. 
  • Broader Impacts Criterion: the potential of the applicant for future broader impacts as indicated by personal experiences, professional experiences, educational experiences and future plans.

Review Criteria: My Two Cents

Here is how I like to think of the review criteria, point by point.
  1. How would answering this research question change science (Intellectual Merit) or society (Broader Impacts)?
  2. Why should I fund you specifically, and not just this research question? What innovation do you specifically bring to the table?
  3. Is there a detailed plan? With built in measures of success?
  4. What are your qualifications?
  5. Can you actual carry out the needed research?
At the end of each essay, you should be able to check off how you answered each point above for BOTH Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.

Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals: Essay Prompt from NSF

Please outline your educational and professional development plans and career goals. How do you envision graduate school preparing your for a career that allows you to contribute to expanding scientific understanding as well as broadly benefit society?

Describe your personal, educational, and/or professional experiences that motivate your decision to pursue advanced study in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Include specific examples of any research and/or professional activities in which you have participated. Present a concise description of the activities, highlight the results and discuss how these activities have prepared you to seek a graduate degree. Specify your role in the activity including the extent to which you worked independently and/or as part of a team. Describe the contributions of your activity to advancing knowledge in STEM fields as well as the potential for broader impacts (See Solicitation, Section VI, for more information about Broader Impacts).

NSF Fellows are expected to become globally engaged knowledge experts and leaders who can contribute significantly to research, education, and innovations in science and engineering. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate your potential to satisfy this requirement. Your ideas and examples do not have to be confined necessarily to the discipline that you have chosen to pursue.


Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Essay: My Two Cents

I would write the essay roughly in three sections.

  1. Personal Statement (~1.25 pages). This is where you tell your unique story of how you became interested in science. Great place to mention if you had to overcome any hardships or would be adding to the diversity of the STEM field. Use this section to address the Broader Impacts criteria.
  2. Relevant Background (~1.25 pages). Hopefully you already have research experience, so explain how that has prepared you for success in graduate school and beyond. Mainly use this section for Intellectual Merit, but also highly the Broader Impacts of your research experience.
  3. Future Goals (~0.5 pages). This is where you tie your personal background and scientific background into one cohesive vision for the future. 

Graduate Research Statement: Essay Prompt from NSF

Present an original research topic that you would like to pursue in graduate school. Describe the research idea, your general approach, as well as any unique resources that may be needed for accomplishing the research goal (i.e. access to national facilities or collections, collaborations, overseas work, etc). You may choose to include important literature citations. Address the potential of the research to advance knowledge and understanding within science as well as the potential for broader impacts on society. The research discussed must be in a field listed in the Solicitation (Section X, Fields of Study).

Graduate Research Statement: My Two Cents

Here is how I would write the essay.

  • Introduce the scientific problem and its impact on society (ie address Review Criteria 1 for Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts)
  • Outline your research plan (Intellectual Merit focused)
    • Show the major steps that need to be accomplished
    • What is the creative part of your approach?
    • Have you thought of alternatives for hard or crucial steps?
    • What skills do you have to make this plan successful?
  • Conclude with impact this project will have on your field, general science, and society (address Broader Impacts).
This essay will be Intellectual Merit heavy, but still needs to address Broader Impacts. Show why the broader scientific community / society should care about your research!

Examples of Successful Essays

These are all the essays of recent winners that I could find online. If anyone finds more, or has a website with their own essays, send me an email and I'll link to it. Or if you are willing to share your essays but don't have a site, I can post them here.

Remember, the format of the essays has changed for Fall 2013! The old Personal Statement (2 pages) and Previous Research (2 pages) are merged into the new Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals (3 pages). The old Proposed Research just changed names to Graduate Research Statement.

All these essays can be accessed in one folder here.

New Format (starting award year 2014)
NameField   Year Proposed Research
 Personal Statement
 Reviewer Feedback
Ashley RichardsMicrobiology2014 
Bethany KolodyGeosciences - Marine Biology2014ProPSRF
 Tom Iadecola Physics 2014Pro PS 

Old Format (before award year 2014)
NameField   Year Proposed Research
 Past Research
 Personal Statement
 Reviewer Feedback
Alex Lang
Lorien Hayden
 DJ StrouseNeuroscience
 Rachel Smith Environmental Science
 Jean Yang Computer Science
 Tim Weninger Computer Science2009ProPastPS 
Kevin Karsch
 Computer Science
Julian Reif Economics2008Pro   
K. Aull Synthetic Engineering2010ProPast
Adrian Radocea
Materials Engineering
 Cornell  Astronomy 
 Anonymous Chemistry2011ProPastPS 
(see his site for essays that earned honorable mention)
 Mechanical Engineering2012  Pro PastPS  
 Emily Smith
 Biomedical Engineering 2011ProPastPSRF
 Jean FanBioinformatics  2013 Pro Past PS RF
 Erica Mesh Computer Science 2013 Pro Past PS RF