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.
NSF made changes to the application process starting in
Fall 2013. I think that the overall changes are fairly minimal and are a net positive in making the review criteria more transparent.
Two major changes for Fall 2013!
- Now only two essays (5 pages total) instead of three essays (6 pages)
- Early November deadline instead of mid-November
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 deadline is usually early November, but it is never too early to start.
Basic Outline of Application Process
- You will need to write two essays:
- Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals (3 pages)
- 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
- Look through the NSF GRFP FAQ. For more detailed answers to some issues, check out this document.
- 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!).
- Philip Guo - NSF GRFP and other fellowship advice
- Jennifer Wang - lots of useful links
- DJ Strouse - advice on applying to graduate school and fellowships
- Reid Berdanier - applied multiple years and eventually got it. So don't give up!
- Jean Fan - detailed timeline to follow and a great list of other fellowships
- Erika Mesh - plenty of useful tips
- 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 2013-2014, NSF GRFP 2012-2013, and NSF GRFP 2010-2011.
- Every essay should address both Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.
- Based on the new criteria, I would recommend either a header of Intellectual Merit / Broader Impacts or bold those words in order to make it easy for the reviewer to see how you address the review criteria.
- 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.
(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
- 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
is the potential for the proposed activity to
knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different
fields (Intellectual Merit); and
society or advance desired societal outcomes (Broader Impacts)?
what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative,
original, or potentially transformative concepts?
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?
well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the
there adequate resources available to the PI (either at the home
organization or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed
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.
- How would answering this research question change science (Intellectual Merit) or society (Broader Impacts)?
- Why should I fund you specifically, and not just this research question? What innovation do you specifically bring to the table?
- Is there a detailed plan? With built in measures of success?
- What are your qualifications?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.