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...
- What is the GRFP?
- It's a US government sponsored (aka NSF) program to support graduate students early in their research careers by providing financial support in the form of
- a yearly stipend (currently $30k/yr) and
- tuition (via working with affiliated universities to waive tuition).
- A GRF is renewable for three years.
- Why is it a big deal?
- NSF GRFs are very competitive. The 2013 award rate was roughly 15% (2000/13000+).
- Being an NSF graduate fellow is like being in a club. Fellows effectively have a stamp on their heads that says "the NSF believes this person (a) has a feasible vision for valuable research that will aid our country/community and (b) has the ability to execute their plan". In NSF speak, these two qualities are referred to as "broader impacts" and "intellectual merit".
- Why should you care?
- If you are a US citizen and haven't completed two full-time years of graduate study:
- You might be eligible to apply! Do it! Just working through the process and having to critically think about yourself and your research could change your life!
- Everyone else:
- Getting an NSF GRF is a huge honor. If you know someone eligible to apply, help them. (1) It's the right thing to do. (2) Their success reflects on you.
Ok, you want to apply, what should you do?
- 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.
- Confirm your eligibility and make sure you have (or know how to get) all the basics (transcript, etc).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Don't be wishy-washy. - I got this advice from a past NSF GRF: "Don't believe you will accomplish XYZ. You will or will not. Be confident, but clear and specific." (Thanks RP!)
- Be concise. - A two-page maximum doesn't mean you have to fill 2 pages. If you can say it in 1.5, do that. Don't waste the reviewers time reading fluff. (Thanks to Dean Flores, RIT OGS)
- 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.
- 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?
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:
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!