The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP) provides three years of graduate support to students pursuing doctorate degrees in STEM fields. Students in their first and second years of graduate education are eligible to apply. Many students tend to not consider applying until it is too late, as STEM students are often funded for the first year or sometimes first two years of graduate school, when they are eligible for the award. As a senior graduate student in neuroscience, I only now recognize the many benefits of applying and (ideally) obtaining the award:
No gaps in research funding
If you apply to the NSF-GRFP during your first year and are awarded, you will be funded for the next three years of your education. During this time, instead of focusing on teaching, you can focus on your research, given that you would have covered your stipend and tuition expenses. More time for research will also allow you more time to collect data to apply for other external fellowships later in your graduate career, such as the NIH F30/F31 awards.
Begin to think about your dissertation research interests
As part of the application, the Graduate Research Plan Statement is the opportunity for you to design and outline your research interests in graduate school. Writing this statement can help you identify the type of research you would like to conduct and what you hope to accomplish in graduate school. It also can give you valuable experience learning how to design logical experiments. For students further in their graduate education, these studies may already be a component of your dissertation research. However, the NSF-GRFP does not require that you have completed the experiments you propose, so you do not have to specifically state the results of your research.
No need to force your research to apply to a human disease!
Often, we scientists are required to relate our research to some human health issue to make it seem important and worthwhile to a general audience. This can be particularly challenging for basic scientists. In reality, most of us study what we study because it’s interesting, and we want to learn more about a particular phenomenon. The NSF-GRFP allows you the space to share your enthusiasm for your research and how it furthers your field of study.
Short application process
The NSF-GRFP application main statements are a maximum of five pages- two pages for your Graduate Research Plan Statement, including figures, and three pages for your Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement. Although the limited space requires that you be concise, which can be challenging, this could help you learn how to summarize and present your work for different audiences, as you will not have many paragraphs to elaborate on your proposed experiments. These sections can also form the foundation of other larger awards you submit later in your education.
The NSF-GRFP is a valuable award for any STEM graduate student. The process of identifying and conveying your research goals and personal attributes early in your graduate education can be immensely beneficial as you proceed through your graduate education. If you are fortunate enough to receive the award, it will provide you with an excellent foundation with which to pursue your dissertation research.