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NSF-GRFP: What you need to know


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The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program ( offers fellowships to new and incoming graduate students in the sciences. The award is very prestigious and rather competitive. However, if you are eligible (see the solicitation) it is completely worth it to apply.

This introduction to the NSF-GRFP will teach you more about the fellowship, help you decide when to apply, and give you tips on crafting a winning application.

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NSF-GRFP: What you need to know

  1. 1. WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Slides by Kelsey Wood, PhD Candidate, NSF-GRF ’14 More information at Introduction to the NSF
  2. 2. Why apply for fellowships? MONEY FREEDOM FAME You could earn a livable wage! 3 years of $34,000/year stipend+ $12,000 institutional expense Additional funding opps for international collabs (GROW) and internships (GRIP) Your PI can no longer tell you what to do You don’t have to TA Boost your CV and gain recognition Winning awards and fellowships leads to winning more awards and fellowships Also it’s good practice: writing grants and selling yourself & your research is now part of your job in academia
  3. 3. Who wins these fellowships? • Grad students with high potential to become leaders in their field • 2000 awardees out of ~13000 applicants (~15% acceptance rate) • Number of NSF-GRFP Awardees at UC Davis: • 2019: 11 • 2018: 18 • 2017: 15 • 2016: 22 • 2015: 25 • 2014: 22 Biomedical Engineering 0.7% Chemistry 11.0% Comp/IS/Eng 5.3% Engineering 25.7% Geosciences 4.0% Life Sciences 26.1% Materials Research 1.0% Math 3.8% Physics 5.8% Psychology 6.9% Social Sciences 9.0% STEM Education 0.5% NSF-GRFP Awardees 2009-2014 by Field of Study Data from Fastlane R code & clean data for analysis on
  4. 4. Who is eligible for the NSF-GRFP? • U.S. citizens, nationals, and permanent residents • Pursuing research-based MS or PhD in eligible STEM fields • Biomedical related research allowed but must be focused on basic science or advancement of engineering principles • Social sciences allowed and encouraged • No dual degrees (MD/PhD, DVM/PhD, JD/PhD, etc.) • Academic Levels: • 1: Undergrad Seniors/Pre-grad school (no graduate study) • 2: First-year graduate students • 3: Second-year grad students • – ≤ 12 months of graduate study by August • 4: >12 months graduate study • – Interruption in graduate study of 2+ years (can have MS degree)
  5. 5. When should you apply? • Undergraduate/pre-first year if: • you are definitely applying to grad school this year (need to pick *one* institution for your research statement) • First year if: • You have publications from undergrad/pre-doc research • You have joined a lab or rotating but know which lab you want to join • Receiving the fellowship would influence which lab you would join • You have something solid to write about for your research proposal • Second year if: • You will have publication(s) by next year • You don’t have any idea what lab you will join or what you will be working on if rotating • You will have preliminary results by next year
  6. 6. “But should I apply???” • Common concerns: • Poor undergrad GPA -> explain or compensate in Personal Statement • Lack of research experience -> explain in PS, or wait until 2nd year to apply • Lack of broader impacts -> use non-science examples, have a lot of planned BI • Too busy to write -> start early, use deadlines • Bottom line: • Even if you don’t win, the experience is highly valuable • You win 0% of fellowships that you don’t apply for 
  7. 7. The NSF-GRFP Application • Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement (3 pages) • Graduate Research Statement (2 pages) • Undergraduate & Graduate Transcripts • Three letters of reference • Fastlane extras: List of fellowships, scholarships, teaching and work experiences relevant to your field of study; List of significant academic honors, publications, and presentations
  8. 8. Official NSF Criteria Intellectual Merit: your potential to advance knowledge • Academic performance; grades, courses, awards, etc. • Graduate Research proposal • Research/professional experience • Reference letters Broader Impacts: your potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. • Outreach experience • Potential benefits to society of your research • Personal background • Reference letters NSF recommends a separate section with its own header for Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts in each statement
  9. 9. Personal Statement, Relevant Background, Future Goals • Introduce yourself as a scientist and as a person • Be unique and memorable without being cliché • Relevant background = your CV in paragraph format • Demonstrate that you have the experience to be successful in grad school • Future goals: include why do you want to be a professor in academia
  10. 10. How much do grades matter? • You don’t need a 4.0 GPA to win the GRFP • It really depends on the reviewer • Major GPA is more important than overall GPA • Provide explanation in personal statement – can use it to demonstrate resilience if your grades improved after a hardship • Actual evaluations from NSF reviewers: • 3.8 (science), 3.4 (overall) = “outstanding GPA” • 3.68 = “good academic record” • 3.68 = “not very competitive” • 3.46 = “kind of low” • 3.3 = “average GPA” • HOWEVER! GPA is only one minor part of the application. If you write a stellar proposal + have excellent broader impacts + glowing letters of rec, that is more important than GPA ???
  11. 11. How much do grades matter?
  12. 12. Letters of Recommendation  NSF recommends at least 3 letters of rec (applications with only 2 will be read but not likely to be as strong)  You can ask for up to 5 people to write you letters as backups  I’d recommend asking for 4 –or 3 if you are 100% sure they will all get them in on time  Give your letter writers a heads up NOW  Who should you ask?  Your current graduate advisor* ~must have as a 2nd year, should comment on originality of proposal  Former research supervisor(s)  Someone who can speak to your broader impacts  Professors that adored you  If you do have low grades to explain, have one of your letter writers vouch for your academic abilities • Send them the NSF-GRFP instructions, ask what you’d like them to emphasize, send them a copy of your personal & research statements and CV **MAKE SURE LETTER WRITERS SUBMIT THEIR LETTERS ON TIME!!!**
  13. 13. Research Statement: What should you write about?  2nd year: your research (with prelim findings)  1st year: your research  rotating: 1st rotation or the lab you want to join  ideally you already have some background knowledge  Or pick something that builds off of your undergrad/pre-doc research  Undergrad: your undergrad research or make something up (challenging)  Talk to your PI early and often!  Focus topic – don’t be vague or talk about multiple topics  Hypothesis-driven research best  Basic research (emphasize science over applications)
  14. 14. Research Statement: What should you write about? • Keep in mind: • You don’t actually have to do your proposed research • NSF funds the person not the research
  15. 15. Are broader impacts actually important? YES!YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! Sí!
  16. 16. Incorporating broader impacts • In personal statement: • highlight past/current activities • even if non science related! • any volunteer work, international work, peer tutoring, etc. • describe future plans in detail • Join a club and sign up for outreach activities NOW • In research statement:  Societal benefits – US economy, environment, climate change  Will you share results? Blog about research? Present to public/stakeholders?  Present research at conferences, publish papers, deposit data online  Train undergrads, outreach to underrep. communities  Propose a specific outreach activity to go along with your research
  17. 17. Broader impacts criteria Integrating research and education  outreach, mentoring, teaching Advancing diversity in science  gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic Enhancing scientific and technical understanding  blogging, open access, media Benefiting society  public policy, organizations
  18. 18. What are NOT broader impacts? Biomedical impacts (can mention but do not emphasize) Improving crop production (also can mention but shouldn’t be goal) Intellectual merit (advancing knowledge)
  19. 19. Example • I will study ________ (specific research topic) to learn more about _______ (broader, important topic) INTELLECTUAL MERIT • I will study ________ (specific research topic) to [help disadvantaged population]/[increase agricultural productivity]/[protect environment from climate change]/etc.. BROADER IMPACTS
  20. 20. Broader impacts ideas • Organizations you can join: • Association for Women in Science • Scientific Societies (Davis Botanical Society, Association of Plant Biologists etc.) • UC Davis Science Says and CapSciComm (Science Communication groups) • Volunteer opportunities: • Powerhouse Science Center in Sacramento • NorCal STEM Fair Mentoring • Bay Area Science Festival (coming up in October!) • Kids into Discovering Science (KiDS) program at UC Davis • and (Online mentoring)
  21. 21. Who are the NSF-GRFP reviewers?? • Types of scientists: • Academics • Industry scientists • Government scientists • Not necessarily experts in your field…(define terms, choose right “field of study”) • Trained online on how to rank GRFP applications • ~30% have evaluated before – the rest are new • All are bus – will probably only read your application ONCE • Each reviewer has 30 applications • NSF calculates Z-score for each reviewer to control for reviewer biases
  22. 22. Procrastination – the invisible roadblock
  23. 23. What causes procrastination?  Not caused by “laziness” or lack of ambition  Psychology & behavioral conditioning Immediate reward Working towards Long term goals Distractions Internet, TV, etc. Delayed reward + fear of failure + task aversivenessdelayed guilt and anxiety over not completing task vs + depression + anxiety (PHQ-9 & GAD-7 tests)
  24. 24. Techniques for dealing with procrastination • Acceptance/mindfulness • Time management (Pomodoro technique) • Peer pressure • Writing rituals & locations • Positive procrastination • “Writing stuff”
  25. 25. Suggested Timeline • August: research writing advice for GRFP. Brainstorm. Talk to advisor. • By Sept 1st: outline of Personal and Research Statement, ideas for planned broader impacts • Mid-September: drafts of PS and RS, send to peer editors and advisor • By October: Send revised draft to letter writers with CV and instructions • 10/14 – send to advisor/editors for final revisions • 10/21-ish applications are due
  26. 26. What should you do now? • Read up on resources, example essays • Contact awardees in your field from your institution • Ask for their essays and advice! • Some might offer to look over your application • Begin planning your broader impact activity – Now!