Strategies and Example Essays for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

When I applied for the NSF-GRFP, I found it very helpful to read over past successful applicants’ experiences and have a look at their essays.  I told myself that if I received the fellowship, I would do the same for future applicants.  I applied twice, and got it on the second try.  I sincerely hope this post will be useful, and feel free to contact me on the form at the end of the post if you have any questions or comments.

Here’s the structure of this post.  First, I will list some reasons to apply.  Second, I will describe general strategies, both that I figured out on my own and also that I was told.  Third, I will include links to my application material, and discuss why my second application succeeded and my first one didn’t.

Before I get too far along, let me say a few words about myself.  I am a doctorate student in geophysics at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.  Right after graduating with a bachelor of arts in geology, I taught English in South Korea for a year.  Then, I worked as an environmental engineer for three years before deciding to return to school to study volcano seismology.

With that behind us, here’s some reasons to apply for the NSF-GRFP.

1.  It looks really great on your resume and/or CV, especially if you want to go into academia.  One criterion of a successful scientist is the ability to get funding.  If you get this fellowship, you demonstrate that you have this ability.

2.  You get a lot more money (approximately double what you would make as a TA or RA).

3.  Your advisor will love you, because now she or he doesn’t have to pay your salary.  That means more money for fieldwork and experiments.

4.  You don’t have to teach.

5.  Because your advisor is not funding you, you have a lot more independence and get to do what you actually want to do during your graduate school career.

6.  You get access to the NSF’s resources – like supercomputer time, for example.

7.  You get valuable experience applying for grants.

Some general strategies:

1.  Start early.  The longer you have to polish your essays, the better.  Also, you can get your essays out to the people who will be writing your letters of recommendation.  This is a big help to those of them that actually do it before the deadline!

2.  Be persistent.  If you don’t get the fellowship the first time around, read the essay reviews, take them into account, and apply again next year.  NSF strongly encourages you to do this.  Plus, it’s good practice for being a professor, where you can expect to have grant applications turned down all the time – but you try year after year until you get funded.  If you apply for the first time when you’re applying for grad school, you should have two more chances depending on when your school starts.

3.  Send your essays to lots of people for editing.  At a very minimum, make sure your advisor looks over it.  Don’t be discouraged by initial feedback: my advisor said the first draft of my Research Proposal was ‘written like a high schooler’ this year.  After liberal use of red ink, it made the cut.

4.  Canvass the internet and your university’s resources to read up on the NSF-GRFP for as much advice as possible.  My blog post describes my experience, but I am not a GRFP official and so I can only speak for my particular case.  There are lots of websites out there to check out, and my university even had a meeting for NSF-GRFP applicants that focused on strategies for success.

5.  Get a peer-reviewed paper out.  If you are doing an undergraduate thesis, whip it into manuscript form and submit it.  Also, jump on any and all opportunities to participate in meetings and professional organizations.  Show that you’re serious about your graduate school career.

6.  Contact your recommenders early, and send them a polished copy of each of your essays well before their recommendations are due.  Also, send them a brief explanation of why you are applying for the fellowship, and why you think you are a good candidate.  Remind them of work you did with them (for example, summer research, field camp, even a particular class project).  They have hundreds of students – help jog their memory by describing what you did with them, and how it reflects on you now.

7.  Don’t expect your work experience to count for much.  You will note that none of my reviews mention my work as an environmental engineer as a reason for why I should get the fellowship.  That’s because it really doesn’t matter.  You can use your job to demonstrate how focused and responsible you are, but unless it was specifically in a research setting it will probably not matter too much.

Links to application material:

The first set of links are to my first application, in Fall 2011.  This application was not successful, but I did get an honorable mention and my reviewers encouraged me to apply in 2012.

The second set of links are to my second application, in Fall 2012.  I was successful that time around.

These essays are my personal work.  If you would like to redistribute them, please contact me first.

2011 application:

Personal Essay

Research Plan

Previous Research

Response from Reviewers

2012 application:

Personal Essay

Research Plan

Previous Research

Response from Reviewers

I think my first application failed for several reasons.  First of all, I had no publications in review or in print, as the first reviewer noted.  The first reviewer also pointed out that my personal essay lacked detail.  This is a big problem, because I have read that a lot of applications are rejected because the “broader impacts” portion is not well thought out.

The second reviewer also noted that I had no manuscripts in review or in print.  She or he was concerned about the logistics of deploying ocean bottom seismometers in Antarctica.  The reviewer wanted more details on how I would communicate volcanic risk.

The third review was uniformly positive but also lacking in detail.  This probably means the reviewer did not read the application as  carefully as the other two reviewers did.

When I tried again in 2012, I referred back to these reviews to determine where my weak points were.  I pushed hard to get a manuscript in review in large part to prove that my Deception Island research was going somewhere (it is still in review, incidentally, the journal is taking forever).  I also proposed a special session at the 2013 Seismological Society of America meeting, and the session was accepted before my NSF application was due.  I noted that in my application as well, and one of the reviewers commented favorably.

I recognized that my Deception Island research proposal was unrealistically ambitious.  Even though the research proposal is not actually meant to be carried out (rather, it gives you an opportunity to show how you would propose a research project), the lack of logistical detail was a big problem.  In my 2012 research proposal to deploy infrasound microphones and a seismic network, I took care to mention specific instruments and cite previous projects that had used similar strategies.

Since two of the reviewers felt that my Personal Essay lacked focus, I made sure to include specific examples of how I would use open source software, mentor elementary, middle and high school students, and also educate communities living near volcanoes on the dangers that they pose.

The 2012 review reflected these changes.  I think the combination of getting a paper in review and providing specific examples in my essays helped me succeed.  An interesting difference this time around is that the reviewers mention recommendation letters – in 2011 they did not.

Just one final note on the personal essay.  The reviewers seemed to like the idea of engaging elementary, middle, and high school students.  I’ve found this to be an easy and rewarding way to involve the community, and I’ve attended a couple of events (one where I flew a 10′ hot air balloon with a hair dryer, and another where I sat at a table and talked about rocks).  I originally proposed to engage communities near active volcanoes as well, but I have found this to be unreasonable.  Both Guatemala and Ecuador have their own hazard programs, and they don’t need outside scientists to do their work for them.  If I could write that essay over, I would omit that section.

Thank you for reading!

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About glossarch

The word "glossarch" doesn't exist. At least, not yet. But let's pretend it does for a second. The first part is "gloss," a word that comes to us from Ancient Greek via Latin and English. It means "language." The second part also comes from Ancient Greek and can mean "having power over." So "glossarch" means simply "language controller." So what am I doing making up words? Well, I made up an entire language once. It's called Angosey. So I'm the Glossarch of Angosey. I'm currently a doctorate student in volcano seismology (a branch of geophysics). I enjoy writing fiction and poetry, launching balloons, programming, and hanging out with my lovely wife! Follow me on Twitter! Writing and language creation: @glossarch Balloons and science: @bovineaerospace
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