The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRF) is an excellent opportunity for all early-career graduate students in STEM fields, including the social sciences. This prestigious fellowship offers a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees (paid to the institution), and opportunities for international research and professional development. I encourage all eligible students to apply for the NSF GRF during their first two years of graduate school. The goal of this post is to address the timing of your application and provide some recommendations to guide the development of your application essays.
When should I apply?
Since 2016, graduate students may only apply one time for the NSF GRF. Prior to 2016, it was wise for students to apply for the NSF GRF in their first year because they could receive feedback on their applications and reapply. However, that is no longer an option, and graduate students may only apply one time in their first two years of graduate school. Students may interpret this as a sign that they must always wait and apply in their second year. Given the early fall deadline for the NSF GRF, students in programs that require multiple lab/professor rotations may not have the depth of experience yet to write a good research statement. Consequently, these students would probably benefit from waiting to apply until their second year.
On the other hand, there are a few good reasons why students may be better served by applying in their first year. Students who have a head start on their graduate research (from the summer), already know which professor they will be working with, or have completed extensive research in the past may be ready to apply for the NSF GRF in their first year of graduate school. When allocating awards, the reviewers take into account stage of graduate study, which means that when comparing two roughly equivalent applications, the reviewers will show preference to the application submitted by a first year graduate student over one submitted by a second year graduate student. In addition, students who have no other mechanism of obtaining funding for their second year in graduate school should apply for the GRF in their first year.
I highly encourage students to seek advice on when to apply for the NSF GRF from their advisor. GradFund can also help you determine if you are ready to apply in your first year. I suggest preparing for the NSF GRF as if you were going to apply in your first year. Then, as October rolls around, assess the state of your application and consider if another year of experience would improve it significantly.
How should I write the research statement?
New graduate students often have difficulty in finding the right tone when discussing their research. I would advise against having the mentality of trying to impress the reviewers with grandiose and hyperbolic language. Rather, your goal should be to show a strong grasp of the foundational concepts in your field by providing a clear, jargon-free explanation of your research. Remember, the NSF GRF funds individuals rather than projects. In fact, it is possible for an applicant to change their project after winning the NSF GRF but still maintain their funding. Show the NSF that you will grow into a productive, articulate scientist by clearly showing them how you will employ a scientific method to expand scientific knowledge in your field.
The best way to check your essay for clarity, readability, and organization is to get feedback from both peers and faculty mentors. GradFund is also a great resource for helping you strike the right tone when discussing your research. The fellowship advisors at GradFund will take the role of a reviewer while evaluating your application and provide suggestions on how to improve your essays.
How should I talk about making a broader impact?
One of the best ways to make your application stand out is to discuss a unique plan for having a broader impact. Creativity is key when discussing broader impacts, as the application guidelines state: “The NSF expects their fellows to grow into globally engaged experts and leaders who can significantly contribute to research, education, and innovations in science and engineering.” Further, the application instructions encourage students to be creative with their ideas beyond the discipline they have chosen. This call to creativity is how you can differentiate yourself from other candidates when discussing broader impacts. To help you think of ideas for addressing this criterion, I recommend reading a post by a former fellowship advisor on “The Challenge with Broader Imapcts”: https://gradfund.rutgers.edu/blog/challenge-broader-impacts/
Best of luck with the writing process, and let us know how we can help! You can schedule a meeting with GradFund to get your NSF GRF application started here: https://gradfund.rutgers.edu/individual-consultations/