NSF GRFP 2011-2012

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Posted

While the applications aren't due for a few months, it is never too early to start writing your essays for fellowship applications.

Here is a quick overview of the NSF GRFP from the NSF GRFP official site

Fellows share in the prestige and opportunities that become available when they are selected. Fellows benefit from a three-year annual stipend of $30,000 along with a $10,500 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.

I was a successful applicant in 2010, and the thing that was most helpful was reading example essays from award winners. In the spirit of giving back, I have posted mine online on my website and found others who have done the same.

List of example essays:

Physics

Environmental Science

Computer Science

Engineering

Economics

Synthetic Engineering

If anyone else knows of example essays, please post a link below and/or let me know and I'll add a link to my website.

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Posted

Thank you so much for this! This is incredibly helpful to me.

I'm starting graduate school this fall, and I am starting to really think about applying for fellowships. However, I am incredibly nervous. I had a really rough time applying to graduate schools, and although I was accepted eventually, all of the rejection kind of made my self-esteem plummet, haha.

I guess I have some questions for you, if you wouldn't mind answering! First, how did you create your research proposal? To enter graduate school for neuroscience, I didn't have to know what project I would be working on.. I just needed to know the general area that I was interested in. Did you work on this with your advisor, or is it something that you knew you wanted to do beforehand?

I also noticed that NSF didn't take GRE scores for 2010-2011. Do you know why they decided not to take them?

Thanks again for this post!

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Posted

By and large, the more of "your own" idea it is, the stronger the app can be. To this end, I'd try to come up with the proposal as much on your own as you can.

The NSF only took GRE scoresnas optional additions in 09-10, then completely phased them out this year. They won't be coming back at all, from what I understand, mostly because they just aren't relevant to what the NSF is looking for in this. They want to find capable, self-directed researchers with a track record of, and a plan for working in th community.

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Posted

So when they say "broader impacts" (this seems to be the most vague part) are they looking for things such as community service done in the past related to the research, and planned service for the future? I don't really have a lot of teaching experience, so I don't know if I could write about that, but I have a ton of related community service and I assume that this fits. I just don't know if they are looking for fulfillment of all of the categories under broader impacts or a few.

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Posted

So first, maybe I should describe more about how I did my application, and then I'll answer specific questions.

I applied to the NSF GRFP in November 2009, the same time I was applying to graduate programs. I was doing research as an undergrad, so I worked with my adviser at the time on my research proposal. The research proposal was an extension of what I was doing at the time. So it was original, but it was a logical extension of our work, so it wasn't too original. Below are the intellectual merit criteria and you can see that they focus on new research that is doable.

Intellectual Merit
    • How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
    • How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project? (If appropriate, the reviewer will comment on the quality of prior work.)
    • To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
    • How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity?
    • Is there sufficient access to resources?


    • Broader Impacts* – Activities and projects that:
      • How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?
      • How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?
      • To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships?
      • Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
      • What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

    So it is an advantage if you have done some teaching / tutoring previously, but it is not a requirement. The last three criteria can all be satisfied by research that recognizes its own place in society, meaning, that one can explain that this research will have a broader impact outside of this one project.

    Here is roughly how I think I devoted my essays towards each criteria:

    Personal Statement: Intellectual Merit 50%, Broader Impacts 50%

    Previous Research: Intellectual Merit 90%, Broader Impacts 10%

    Research Proposal: Intellectual Merit 75%, Broader Impacts 25%

    So for me, it was definitely tougher to spend a lot of time addressing Broader Impacts, but it is important to address it, even if only a little, in every essay.

    I should note that since getting the NSF GRFP I have changed research interests twice (still within physics) and that has been no issue. As others have put very well, the NSF GRFP funds a person, not a research proposal.

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Posted

I'm starting graduate school this fall, and I am starting to really think about applying for fellowships... First, how did you create your research proposal? To enter graduate school for neuroscience, I didn't have to know what project I would be working on.. I just needed to know the general area that I was interested in. Did you work on this with your advisor, or is it something that you knew you wanted to do beforehand?

When I applied, I was an undergrad so I focused on the research I had done. Since you will just be starting graduate school, you now have two options. First, you could base your proposal on research you had done as an undergrad and discuss how you could continue this with Professor X now that you are in graduate school. Second, you could start talking to professors you are interested in doing research with and see what types of projects they have available.

Personally, I would take the second option. Applying for the GRFP gives you reason to talk to these professors about their ongoing research and it will make it easier for you to choose a research group eventually.

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Posted

So when they say "broader impacts" (this seems to be the most vague part) are they looking for things such as community service done in the past related to the research, and planned service for the future? I don't really have a lot of teaching experience, so I don't know if I could write about that, but I have a ton of related community service and I assume that this fits. I just don't know if they are looking for fulfillment of all of the categories under broader impacts or a few.

Another comment on broader impacts. This is the toughest part of the application for everyone, so don't worry too much about having a perfect record in the past. Everyone is struggling just as much with this criteria.

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Posted

Another really important tip: Get lots of opinions! I am talking about what I did and it was successful for me, but there are many possible paths to take.

And on that note, if you have applied in the past and are reading this thread, please offer your opinion. You probably did something different than I did, and that could be helpful.

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Posted

I think a lot of it is playing to your strengths as well- I focused more on broader impacts, because my research hadn't yielded the results I wanted for the last year- so it left my proposal a little light on preliminary results for a second year application.

For broader impacts, on the other hand, I had 3 semesters of work in science education in local minority high schools, several undergraduates I was mentoring, graduate student association positions, etc.

I think a lot of people focus way more energy on their proposal than the broader impacts, but both are equally important- you need a good research proposal, but outstanding broader impacts can put you over the top... And less impressive broader impacts can really kill an otherwise good application- something that I think happened to at least one of my friends that applied.

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Posted (edited)

<div>(There's something very wrong with the formatting - I will repost below.)</div>

Edited by BlueRose

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Posted

My essay is one of those above (the last one). I was awarded a fellowship, in the undergrad / not-yet-grad category.

For Broader Impacts especially, I would point out that it's not a good citizenship prize; they want to know if funding your PhD will make the world a better place. This means that your history of good behavior (and good science) is just an indicator that you will continue to behave this way in the future, and be a good scientist / teacher / communicator / role model / etc. It's a fine distinction, but you shouldn't forget to connect your past with your future.

Anyway. Things I did right:

* I hammered the Broader Impacts. My personal statement was at least 85% BI...there was a short anecdote about how I got interested in my field, a sentence each about my research interests and career goals, and then I went straight to BI. I actually used each of the BI criteria as headings, so I could break down exactly why I was awesome in each one. In my research proposal, I had an extra aim devoted to outreach. Seriously, BI BI BI. This is how I managed to sneak in, despite a thoroughly mediocre undergrad record.

* I listed my top choice school as the one where the proposal fit best, even though I genuinely wasn't sure where I wanted to go.

* I wrote about something I knew. In my research proposal, I could say that I had experience with the ideas, techniques and methods. Not that I had a whole lot of choice, because...

Things I did wrong:

* I decided that I was applying to grad school eleven days before the final NSF deadline. In that time, I had to pick schools, beg for letters, and oh yeah - write a proposal. And I was going out of town during that time, so I was actually on a plane at the deadline. Let's just say this earned me a few grey hairs. START EARLY.

* As a result, I didn't have anyone read my stuff. I'm sure it would have been better with more editing...or less sleep deprivation.

* I included my proposal with my grad school applications, even for schools where it wouldn't have been suitable. I included a disclaimer at the top saying it was just a writing sample, not something I had my heart set on, and even removed the part about the facilities at my "top choice school". Still, the school that rejected me told me during the interview that they were worried I wouldn't find a match for my ideas. Perhaps a blessing in disguise, but something to be aware of.

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Posted (edited)

I'll throw in a few suggestions about the research proposal here, in lieu of my actual proposal:

  • Include timelines
  • Have a specific BI section at the end
  • Use figures- 1 picture really can be worth 1000 words
  • Remember that not all of your readers will be very familiar with your area
  • Make good use of references- not too many, not to few

I think the first point is really quite helpful- after a general overview, I broke my project down into 3 specific aims, discussed how I would approach each portion, and how long it would take.

The use of figures can be really helpful- I was discussing rather complex supramolecular motifs, and it saved me a ton of space to draw a really good figure, and refer to it, rather than to try to explain it all in the text. This can be especially beneficial if your figure works as a graphic abstract of sorts for your proposal. The reviewers take 15 minutes on average to read the proposal, you want it to be immediately apparent what you're trying to do.

You need good references- but they also take away from your space (references have to fit in the same 2 pages as your proposal). So choose a few strong ones over a lot of weaker ones.

I know it can seem over the top, but specifically spell out both the intellectual merits and broader impacts of your work. It's how you do it when you write full grants for the NIH or NSF (bold, italics, underlines) and it works here. Don't rely on implicit descriptions of these criteria- be explicit and spell them out.

For reference, I was awarded a fellowship this last cycle, applying as a 2nd year graduate student. I'll also note that the competition gets a lot stiffer (and the expectations higher) as you go up- so apply early if you can.

Edited by Eigen

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Posted

You need good references- but they also take away from your space (references have to fit in the same 2 pages as your proposal). So choose a few strong ones over a lot of weaker ones.

Yes, references can eat space. I stole a ridiculously compact format from one of the proposals on Rachel Smith's site: superscripted numbers in the text, and for the citations, no carriage returns and not much more than the first author's name, journal abbreviation, and year. Nobody complained, and I managed to squeeze in 15 references.

I know it can seem over the top, but specifically spell out both the intellectual merits and broader impacts of your work. It's how you do it when you write full grants for the NIH or NSF (bold, italics, underlines) and it works here. Don't rely on implicit descriptions of these criteria- be explicit and spell them out.

This. Remember they are speed-reading your application, and they have probably read an unholy quantity of applications before they get to yours. Spell it out. Heck, one of my reviewers thought I was a guy - that's after three reference letters with correct pronouns, the obligatory "hey look I'm a girl I mentor girls" paragraph, and a really feminine name on the review sheet. So really, don't be subtle, because it won't work.

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Posted

Remember they are speed-reading your application, and they have probably read an unholy quantity of applications before they get to yours. Spell it out.

This is a really good point and something that I did not do as well as I could have. I did not use the specific titles for Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts, but I have seen that in several essays and it can be very beneficial. I wrote my essays and then saw that, and I didn't know how to divide my essays up without completely rewriting. But, if you start off thinking only in terms of those two categories, that would work well.

And yes, the reviewers are speed reading. I don't know how much time they spend on one applicant, but I would guess only a couple of minutes. So this means that the introduction and conclusion are really important as well as writing in clear, concise language that can be understood in a quick read.

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Posted

For reference, I was awarded a fellowship this last cycle, applying as a 2nd year graduate student. I'll also note that the competition gets a lot stiffer (and the expectations higher) as you go up- so apply early if you can.

This is definitely true. The reviewers judge you against you fellow "classmates." So after your first year of grad school they expect you to have a better grasp of research than a senior undergrad would.

So yes, it is easier to apply early. And also, if you do not get it your first time, you can try again. They do NOT hold it against you if you are a multiple year applicant. So learn from reviewers comments and try again!

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Posted

I started very early--had my idea in January, talked casually about it with people for the next nine months and wrote draft one of my proposal in September. I went through six revisions, getting feedback from 7 professors in different areas of concentration. I wanted it to be appealing and understandable to a variety of readers. I didn't have anyone but another grad student read my other essays, and wrote them in 2 weeks.

I received the fellowship, and each of my NSF reviewers commented on the strength of the proposal, so I'm guessing my work on it paid off :)

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Posted

Thank you all for the advice. This is an incredibly helpful and encouraging post for me. Is there any way that I could get some of you to read some of my application materials after I've written them? It might take me a little while, but I figure what better way to give myself a better chance than to ask those who have been succesful?

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Posted

Thank you all for the advice. This is an incredibly helpful and encouraging post for me. Is there any way that I could get some of you to read some of my application materials after I've written them? It might take me a little while, but I figure what better way to give myself a better chance than to ask those who have been succesful?

I would be willing to do some reading, though my knowledge of neuroscience is on par with the average zombie's (mmm, brains...).

Something else I forgot to mention - reading sample essays was really, really helpful. I read through everything I could get my hands on, including all of the Rachel Smith archives and around 60 pages of Google results for "NSF fellow biology". It gave me a lot of ideas for how to present information, and also gave me a good sense for what worked and what didn't.

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Posted

I just submitted a grant proposal that is like a mini NSF GRFP. :) I'm hoping the feedback on that proposal helps me when I write the NSF one!!

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Posted

I would also be willing to read some essays, but I may end up saying no if I get bombarded with lots of requests. Google me to find my email.

I am a physics grad student doing research in theoretical biophysics. The farther away your topic is from my research, the less I could comment on actual scientific merit, but I can help with the rest of it.

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Posted

Here are some other reference essays:

Astronomy

Bioengineering

I'll do my best to keep posting new essays I find to this forum, but my website will be my most up-to-date information.

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Posted

How important is it to show that research you've done in the past is similar to the research you are proposing? or that your advisor has done research in this area?

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Posted

I"d say it"s pretty important that you both have some background in the area. For any grant, they want to see that you"re basing it off if something reasonable, and with no personal experience, it's a hard sell. Your PI should also have experience in the area, since that's what will show younhave the facilities and guidance to complete the project.

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Posted (edited)

I"d say it"s pretty important that you both have some background in the area. For any grant, they want to see that you"re basing it off if something reasonable, and with no personal experience, it's a hard sell. Your PI should also have experience in the area, since that's what will show younhave the facilities and guidance to complete the project.

:( not what I wanted to hear. How narrowly defined is this "area" that I need to stay in? I'm trying to do something different from undergrad in grad school (continuing to work with insects, but otherwise everything else is different), and my advisor works with insects, but her/his areas of research are pretty broad.

Edited by eco_env

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Posted

There are no specific guidelines. If you want to go outside your past experience, you need to be able to tie how your previous work prepared you for the proposed project. Your PI should at least have done something similar enough that he would be considered able to advise you on your proposed project, as well as have the facilities necessary for what you're proposing to do.

Since you aren't tied to what you propose, it's sometimes better to write a proposal based on something in your and your proposed advisors wheelhouses, instead of something more difficult to support that's more far flung. Then you can just do that project when you get to grad school.

Some of this may be a bit off the mark for an undergraduate applicant, but from what I understand most still applies. Just like any grant, your proposal can't be so far outside of what you've done in the past that they question your ability to pull it off.

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