I was fortunate enough to win the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship in 2010. I have quite a bit of friends who are applying for it this year, so it would be helpful to share some of the tips I gathered.
Here is a collection of tips and advice I obtained from when I applied to this prestigious fellowship. I got it from professors, friends and colleagues, too many to count, especially those who helped just by reading over my materials. The ones that I bothered especially are Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek, Ricardo Quintana-Castillo, Ashley Robinson, Dr. Manuel Perez-Quiniones, Dr. Doug Bowman and Dr. Francis Quek. I’ll add more as I try to dig through my emails and see who helped!
This award is quite a sum of monies for 3 years, travel and equipment money, and prestige, awarded to undergrad seniors up to 2nd year graduate students. I won it in Computer Science, specifically under Human-Computer Interaction.
Here’s some motivation:
- You’re set for funding for 3 years. The time and effort put into this application is significantly less than the reward you’d get if you went for it. It’s always worth a shot. Have the freedom to do what you like for your own research, and get prestige, and equipment/travel funding too.
- Get a research topic to pursue. After I wrote my proposal, I used it as a class project, and it’s my current research work.
- Use the components of this fellowship to help you get other fellowships. Of course, you should modify these application materials to target a specific fellowship, but it’s good to have something already written, to start.
- You can absolutely do this. The issue here is how badly you want the reward.
Some of these tips are quite generalizable to over prestigious awards.
- Talk to previous NSF winners, and read their application materials if permitted. You can learn much from these previous winners of what worked, what didn’t work, how things were organized, formatted, and have some ideas on how your application materials would look like. Email them to chat about it over lunch or something like that. Another option is to ask them to send their materials over to you.
- Try to come up with your proposed research idea on your own, not hop on to an existing research project. If NSF or other agencies are already funding an existing project in some way, why should they fund an additional person for it? They want to see original ideas. The research project is more likely developed with the research experience, sophistication, and insight that an experienced researcher such as a professor can have. It may be really noticeable to readers that a young research student could not have come up with such a project. If you must write about an existing project, make sure it’s a distinct portion from the existing project, and that you can frame that portion as your own work.
- Tie it to a real-world problem. No one wants an academic that just hides in his/her cubicle, only working in an academic silo, with no desire to make an impact in the real world. How can you or your own work be disseminated to society? No one’s background is the same, and because of your background, you can reach an audience that most people cannot. Use it to your advantage.
- Make sure your letters show a comprehensive view of you as a person, academic student, researcher, and contributing member of society. The reviewers want a full snapshot of you, and don’t want just a great researcher. The 3 recommenders you choose to write you a letter should be able to talk about some of these sides of you. Don’t be afraid to suggest your letter writers to emphasize some parts about you in their letters, it helps them as they write it too. Some aspects you want to cover are:
- Student in class
- Active participant in school clubs/activities
- Employer in a professional setting
- Volunteer work
- Your impact on your school/community
- Your personal strengths
- Show your passion. Everywhere. There’s a reason why you are where you are, and why you are applying, or have applied to grad school. Don’t let your personal statement be a laundry list of your accomplishments. Showing your passion makes you memorable, and to reviewers that look at 200+ applications, memorability is essential.
- Don’t know what you’re passionate about? Time for some soul-searching! I took a class that helped me realize that I loved creating, and this took tying in all the activities that I love doing the most, and seeing if there’s common threads.
- Connect your passion or common theme into all your application materials. One of the best applications I have read had a common theme. Makes it a powerful, focused application.
- Any approach/advice should be something you’re comfortable with. If you’re not, it’ll show in your writing. I still feel that you should be familiar with what you’re passionate about, but how much or how you want to convey that, should be something you’re comfortable with.
- Make your letter writers not only understand and give you feedback on your proposal, but also support it in their letter of recommendations. Nothing says “fund me” quite like other qualified researchers also saying “fund him/her”.
- Show your application materials (personal statement, previous research experiences, research proposal) to as many people in your discipline as possible. Remember those 200+ applications each reviewer has to read, and how yours has to stand out? It also means that in the glance that reviewer has to look at your application, it should be as clear, and as convincing as possible. Anyone can help you in those aspects of your application. I emailed a ton of people to read my application components before I turned it in. Here’s a brief (but not extensive) list of people who can review your application and give constructive feedback. I will start wit the most exclusive material first:
- Research Proposal: Anyone in your field of study, especially anyone in the same field of study group as you. Your advisor, labmates, former NSF winners in your field, other professors in the field, should be able to instantly read this, understand it, get the intellectual merit and broader impact of what you’re proposing, and be convinced that you can be an effective researcher. I was fortunate to get feedback from my advisors for each revision of my research proposal.
- Previous Research Experience: Anyone in the above group, and in your discipline, should be able to understand this. Your experiences may be varied and not necessarily tie into your discipline, but you should show your capability as a researcher in your discipline.
- Personal Statement: Anyone in the above groups should read this. You can even get feedback from friends/family who are not in your discipline to make sure your work is clear and understandable.
- Generally, keep your secondary/high school or younger stuff away from this proposal, unless it’s part of your work in college or current work, an anecdote, or something extremely amazing. They want to know you from college onward. This advice is also given for grad school admissions too.
- The shorter, the better. Don’t feel compelled to fill the space up. Remember the 200’s of applications? Your reviewers will thank you.
- Keep in mind your Research Proposal for the NSF should generally describe a Ph.D thesis. Consider this 3-5 years.
- Send friendly reminder emails to your letter writers 2 weeks, 1 week, 3 days, and 1 day before the recommendation deadline. Your letter writers have agreed to help you. They are busy people, however, and by sending them these many reminders, you’re helping them help you, not spamming them.
I will be more than happy to offer advice and help. G’luck!