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Where Storytelling Meets Science

Helpful hints for students applying to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

September 23, 2014

This is Grant-Writing Week at GradHacker. Check back every day for a new post on applying to some of the major research and professional development grants open to graduate students.

Lesley McCollum is a PhD student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and applied for an NSF GRFP as a first-year graduate student. Michelle Lavery is a graduate student at the University of New Brunswick, and she hopes to interact with NSF in the future.

The challenge is to assign each grant application to the appropriate reviewers.

The yearly specifics and official details of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) can be found on the website—this post is meant only as a helpful resource. Please consult NSF directly for any deadlines, requirements, application information, etc., or speak with an Experienced Resource Person at your home institution.

What do a funded fellowship application and a best-selling novel have in common?

They tell a good story—one worth putting money down for (whether it’s to fund the research or buy the book). We’ve put together some tips from the NSF and from a past NSF fellowship reviewer, Dr. Ernest Stokely, to help you turn your application for the NSF GRFP into a compelling story.

Pieces of the Story


Unlike a typical grant application that would be submitted by your research advisor, the NSF GRFP seeks to fund the student, not the science. Thus, use your three-page Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement to sell yourself to the reviewers. Dr. Stokely says that while good GRE scores and a high GPA are necessary, they are not sufficient; you also need to demonstrate an ongoing involvement and interest in science. Things like early research experience and publications you may have acquired during your undergraduate studies speak highly to this. Reviewers will also be interested in your involvement in activities related to your work, but outside the academic sphere. For example, tell them about the organization you’ve been volunteering at for the past couple years, or your work tutoring students in math at a nearby school. These types of activities demonstrate the broader impacts you have on society, one of the key review criteria for the application. Most importantly, communicate your excitement about science. Getting your passion across in the application is vital to capturing the reviewer’s attention.  

Your research

If you are feeling stressed that you don’t have a fully developed plan of your graduate research when you apply, don’t worry. Since the application is limited to college seniors and first-year graduate students, it’s likely that your research will come to deviate from what you write about in your two-page Research Proposal, similar to the NSERC awards discussed in yesterday’s post. What reviewers want to see is your ability to formulate a logical plan to test a research question that will advance knowledge in your field (intellectual merit) and in society (broader impacts). Both of the Merit Review Criteria should be explicitly addressed here. Separate sections with bold headers are not overkill—clear organization will direct readers to these key aspects of the review with ease.

Your application will be reviewed by panelists with a connection to your discipline. That being said, they may not have extensive knowledge of your specific field of study, so effective communication is essential. Avoid using technical jargon when describing your proposed research unless it is generally accepted in your discipline (i.e. “Darwinian evolution” in biology) or absolutely necessary. Make your hypotheses and predictions clear, and your methods reasonable and realistic. The context of your research at a discipline-specific level and a societal level should be well-developed and explained explicitly. However, be careful about over-inflating the importance of your research. You are probably not going to cure cancer with a new technique for spawning salmon or a discovery about metal shear strength… Although you might revolutionize your field!

Your letters of reference

The letters of reference are an important part of your application and can be used to highlight why you—not just your research—are worth investing in. While letters from community leaders are accepted, recommendations from professors or lab supervisors carry the most weight. Someone whose lab you have worked in, or the professor of a tough course you took, can speak to your technical and analytical abilities, says Stokely. These points are important since they indicate to reviewers your potential to succeed in graduate school and future research.

Before seeking out these higher-level academics, you should think carefully about what kind of recommendation you are likely to receive from them. Do they have first-hand knowledge of your work ethic? What will they write about your scientific abilities? Where do they know you from, and what experiences have you shared? Choosing different reference writers who can speak to your various facets as a scientist—work ethic, technical abilities, personality, etc.—will help present you as a well-rounded and promising candidate.

Your potential reference writers are probably very busy. Once they’ve agreed, be sure to inform them of the recommendation requirements (there are helpful tips and FAQs for your reference writers on the NSF website). They must address every required point in their letters, especially those that pertain to the merit review criteria. Letters of reference that provide detail about your ongoing contributions to science and society will build a stronger and more convincing narrative about your potential to affect these areas in the future. Therefore, it is vital that you provide reference writers with all the necessary information, since they may not have time to verify details. Providing your reference writers with a self-summary—your CV, transcripts, and an overview of what you plan to include in your NSF application—is often a helpful and considerate gesture. Making their lives easier can only help your recommendation, and it ensures that the information they include in their letters is correct.  

Forming a Cohesive Narrative

When writing your application, think about how each of the elements above can work together to form your story. Now this is where the fellowship application and the best-selling novel diverge; check out an interesting article about what storytelling in science looks like, or hear from well-known science communicators here and here. Advice from the NSF GRFP website says that “Many compelling applications include components that work well together—the information is consistent without being repetitive; each component offers different information about the applicant as a researcher and a person.” So use the pieces of your story to support and build on each other in a way that communicates how you meet the merit review criteria clearly and consistently throughout your application. How did your background and your interests lead you to the research area where you are working now? How does your dedication to your research project and the impact it will have on your field shape the narrative? Early in your writing, grab the interest of the reviewer, says Stokely. He explains that a compelling story that excites the reviewer about you, and the science, can be just as important as the technical details of the application.

If you are unsure whether your application is competitive, or need answers to more in-depth questions, the NSF website provides a list of Experienced Resource People who can assist you at your home institution. Some other helpful resources include GRFP Essay Insights from the University of Missouri, Graduate Mentor from Cornell University,  and the GradCafe GFRP Forums. However, a thorough read-through of the NSF GRFP Website should be your first priority—they have some helpful videos on the logistics of applying (as well as some hilarious “acting”). Good luck!

If you’ve applied for a GRFP award and have tips from that experience, share them with readers in the comments below!

[Image used with permission, Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation]

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