The Beast of November: Conquering the NSF GRFP Application

The NSF GRFP is one of the highest-profile fellowships in the natural sciences. Tens of thousands of students apply each year and nearly 2,000 will be awarded. As I’ve had a lot of questions from others asking how to improve their proposals, I’d like to give a quick rundown of the NSF format and what to focus on in each section. This post in no way guarantees you’ll win an NSF. It is simply a collection of anecdotes and tidbits of advice I received prior to submitting my proposal last year. Nearly every piece of advice came from my PI at the time, who produces on average one NSF winner a year from his lab. Nonetheless, the selection process is very stochastic. Your mileage may vary, no implied warranty, etc.

The NSF has four essential parts: the research proposal, the personal statement, the recommendation letters, and your curriculum vitae. By this point in the application process your fate with regards to your letters and CV is sealed, so I’ll start with the parts you can still change.

The Research Proposal:

 The research proposal should be above all else feasible. If you cannot demonstrate that you have sufficient background knowledge or that you can obtain it in your first year as a graduate student, your project is too ambitious. If your project cannot be completed in three to four years on an honest timeline and a modest budget then it simply won’t get funded. Also, make sure your objectives are largely independent - if your first one fails, you should be able to still complete two of them.

Formatting matters more than you would think on the NSF. If anything, it ensures you don’t leave anything essential out. Here is a basic outline for a proposal:

Introduction: this will set up why you think this work is necessary.

Goals and background: what your long-term goals are, why you want to do this project, why it might be important, what your overarching hypothesis is, and why your selected graduated institution is a good place to do this research. Use a sentence that clearly states your goals - “My long term goal is to… My objective for this project is to…”

Research Approach: List your objectives, one by one as individual paragraphs. Use this format: Objective 1: One Sentence Objective. Hypothesis 1: One Sentence Hypothesis. And then describe in detail what you’re going to do.

Expected Outcomes and Intellectual Merit: Why are you doing this project and what is your goal or final product? How can it be extended? Why is it novel or superior compared to existing approaches?

References: cite your sources in a proper format, if necessary.

 

Many students get hung up on the idea that "hot” areas of science perhaps do better than others. There is really no way to say with confidence if a real bias exists, but my opinion is that it shouldn't matter. You should not write your proposal on a subject just because it is in vogue. You should write about what you are passionate about and what you understand (or want to understand). If you do this, and your proposal is well-written, you will do much better than writing a lesser proposal on a sexy topic.

    Your proposal should have clear hypotheses and build experiments to test them.  You should state these hypotheses explicitly after stating your aims so that the committee knows why you’re performing each aim. Spend a lot of time making sure the aims and the hypothesis naturally align - if your aim cannot answer your hypothesis, then you should make sure you’re answering the right question and using the right experimental approach.

    You should tailor your proposal to the NSF’s goals. The NSF exists to explore basic principles of science. Proposals that are too applied to a specific field may fall outside the purview of the NSF. For example, a project that attempted to find new drug candidates is a great proposal for the NIH; however, the NSF would probably decline to fund it and instead tell you to apply to the relevant organization. This means you cannot use a proposal for another application word-for-word. Tweak your scientific approach to answer questions of first principles.

The Personal Statement:

 For some reason it seems that students really struggle with the personal statement. This is unfortunate for many, as I think the personal statement is where the NSF is won or lost (see Broader Impacts). Creating a good proposal is largely objective and can be done with the help of your PI, but the personal statement is the product of the student alone. However, there are a few tenets that helped me guide my personal statement.

 First, use a simple format. I broke mine into two sections: “Personal Statement, Relevant Background and Future Goals” and “Broader Impacts.” The first section tells a coherent story (in roughly chronological order) of how I got interested in my subject, what my research experience so far is, and how I will use my previous experience to guide my future research and realize my long-term goals. The second details how I will help the scientific community. I think this is among the best ways to write the statement: broader impacts should be separate from the background to highlight it, and any more than two sections wastes space and looks clunky.

Second, avoid cliches. Thousands of students will pen the words, “I have been interested in [some scientific field] ever since I can remember.” It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not: you simply can’t stand out if you begin that way. Try something different. I am no expert here - I used a similar cliche/motif in my proposal, but I think it would have been stronger without it.

Third - avoid humblebrag. Make sure you set a professional tone that, while explaining your accomplishments, does not overly embellish them. The sentence “At TACC, I worked for two years in the life science group on projects related to plant genomics; during that time I contributed to three publications,” is fine; the sentence “As I was the only undergraduate at TACC, it was quite an accomplishment to be on three papers,” is humblebrag. It can be easy to accidentally use such prose, but doing so can significantly degrade the quality of your statement.

Fourth, try to focus on your progression as a scientist and how you arrived at where you are. You may leave out a significant portion of your story in doing so, and that’s okay. It’s especially important that you put your experience in context in this section - don’t talk about anything that doesn’t directly impact your development as a scientist. The NSF committee doesn’t need to know about your non-science related volunteer experiences in this section because you’ll connect them to your broader impacts and they’ll appear in your CV.

The broader impacts is likely the section that wins the NSF. In this section you will describe how you plan to improve the scientific community. This is NOT where you talk about the scientific merit of your work - the NSF clarifies this every year and yet students keep misinterpreting what the committee desires. The NSF has a mandate to encourage participation in STEM fields, and they want to know how you will help to continue this mission. This is the section where you can talk about volunteer experience, travel, etc. Suggest a feasible community initiative and describe why you’re capable of getting it implemented. Describe how it will benefit the scientific community. Working with younger students is often a good starting place. I suggested that I would start a supercomputing team at UCSD. As I had already competed with one at UT for two years, I knew first-hand what made for a successful team. I also suggested that if the initiative were successful, I would attempt to start a similar initiative for high-school students. I also had a paragraph about helping coordinate software carpentry workshops that would help students from experimental backgrounds bridge into the computational side of biology, much as I had done. I included lots of specifics, which I think demonstrated that I thought my proposals were feasible.

The Letters of Recommendation:

Letters of recommendation should be stellar; simply put, a plain letter is a negative one. Make sure that the writers know you well. They should address your abilties, and you should make sure that each recommender has a draft of your proposal (or at least a short description) so that they can comment on it. If they show enthusiasm in their letter it will often carry over into the review process. A draft also gives the writer something to comment on if they do not know you well enough to comment on your abilities.

 

The CV:

    Your CV should be formatted simply, just like everything else. A single colored line or a highlighted name is about all the embellishment that you should have. The focus should be on describing your activities and accomplishments in a way that those unfamiliar with them can understand quickly.

    Order matters with your CV. A good order of sections is:

  1. Name and Contact Info

  2. Education, including current classes and GPA

  3. Honors and Awards

  4. Research Experience

  5. Publications

  6. Skills, Relevant volunteer activities, etc.

It might be okay to flip research experience and publications, but otherwise this is a safe order. You want to highlight the things that make you unique - if you put research experience first, the committee will have to dig to locate why you’re different from the other tens of thousands of applicants. If you have awards first, they can quickly see that others have recognized your potential already.

I will keep editing this page periodically as I think of relevant information. It was written rather quickly, so please excuse any errors (but please point them out in the comments). Best of luck and remember, no award defines you as a scientist - we are defined by the work we do and the contributions we make to knowledge and other people. If you aren't successful this year, it doesn't mean you won't succeed - to even be applying puts you among an elite group. Keep your chin up and your head in the books; you'll be just fine.