What is the NSF GRFP?

So before I go any further, I want to start by explaining the long acronym that is the title of this post and that is used ONLY in acronym form throughout academia. The NSF GRFP is: The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program. There, I hope you caught that... because I'm not typing it all out again. Now that that is covered, some basic info/opinions...

Ok, you want to apply, what should you do?

  1. Go to the NSF website and read about how to apply. -- Even if it isn't due for a long time, just go read about it and work out a plan for what you'll need and when. Having plenty of time to think about your essays and refine them makes a HUGE difference.
  2. Confirm your eligibility and make sure you have (or know how to get) all the basics (transcript, etc).
  3. Decide on the overall theme of your application. Yes, the NSF provides specific guidelines for each of essays required, but having a unifying theme and vision for yourself as a graduate student will go a long way. You may not even explicitly write this in the essays, but if you have it for yourself BEFORE you start writing, it will show through and your essays will be that much more cohesive and interesting.
  4. Contact your references. -Once you have your overall vision and know how you want to present yourself, ask people that you think can help support that description of you to write your letters of recommendation. Consider your adviser (duh), someone that has known you a long time and can speak to your ability to execute, and someone that can speak to your commitment and understanding of your current goals.
  5. WRITE! -- Write. A lot. The essays should be cohesive and concise in the end, but begin by just writing what you feel. You may cut a lot of it, but you'll be glad to have explored the options. For example, a lot of what I wrote for my proposed research essay I cut -- but I later used it in a paper that I published and it's become the foundation work for my PhD research.
  6. Leverage anyone willing to review your essays. -- This is NOT like writing for a conference. While the reviewers will be in your broad area of study, it is highly likely they won't know anything about your specific area(s) of expertise. Have a wide variety of people read all three of your essays. My mom helped me remember dates and details for my personal statement, but was also able to help me refine my research essays by helping me keep things understandable (her background is English composition). Similarly, my advisor and other colleagues had great technical/content insight, but could also give me a different perspective on my personal statement.
  7. Be honest! -- This seems obvious, but I mean it in more than the "don't lie/cheat" sense. Be open and honest about who you are, your goals, and your ability to acheive them. Don't be cocky or emotional, but do be clear and confident. Consider it this way, why should a reviewer that has maybe 15 minutes to review your ENTIRE packet (essays, letters, everything) believe in you if you don't believe in yourself?

Other Resources

In addition to the actual NSF GRFP website, I found Alex Lang's web page to be invaluable. He covers the entire process in a lot of depth and links to several other resources and examples of essays from awardees in different fields. If it helps, you are also welcome to review my essays and the comments I received from the reviewers:

Final Thoughts

I will forever be grateful to all of my friends, family, and colleagues who supported me while I was completing my GRFP application. I am thrilled to have been awarded a fellowship and am very honored that the NSF reviewers believed in my vision for myself and the future of scientific software. It's an amazing program with a real vision for advancing high-level research in this country. I strongly encourage anyone eligible to apply. Even if you think you're a long shot, the process itself is worth it - and if you don't try, you'll never know!