NSF GRFP Advice
Not sure how to start your application essays? In this post, I've compiled a list of tips and techniques that I personally use when applying to fellowships and scholarships.
Disclaimer: This advice is probably mostly bullshit and definitely noncomprehensive. Seek advice from people who actually know you and want you to get this fellowship! I applied to the fellowship in 2014 as a rotation student back when you could apply as many times as you wanted. Now, you can only apply once in grad school. If you are currently an undergraduate, I highly encourage you to apply. Not only is it your only chance to apply more than once, the practice will be valuable.
BEFORE YOU START WRITING:
Know that while science is often labeled a meritocracy, your success hinges on your scientific potential and your ability to convince others of it. Your goal will be to use essays to convince the reader that you deserve and need funding to achieve your highest potential. Writing clearly and persuasively is of utmost importance.
To create the most compelling argument of your potential, you must first understand what sets you apart and makes you worth funding. Remember that your essays will be reviewed by people who have been in academia for a long time and have read lots of applications. Your reviewers decide the fate of your application, but you won’t know if they have read Kimberle Crenshaw or if they call intersectionality "oppression olympics". Instead of using labels and adjectives to describe yourself, use stories to evoke a deeper understanding of your perspective and potential. The sooner you accept the fact that grant proposals are an exercise in branding yourself, the better you will be at it. You want the reviewer to enjoy reading your essays and make it a compelling story, not a boring list of accomplishments that resembles an annotated CV. When they finish your essays, they should feel like they’ve reached the end of a chapter in a compelling book and funding your application will guarantee that you may begin writing the next.
It's not easy to enter a mental space where stories flow freely from your memory, especially if you will have to revisit painful parts of your life. After all, there is a reason why some people call fellowship essays "trauma porn". Sometimes demonstrating resilience in tough situations requires revealing personal and difficult pieces of your life you may not want to be used to define you, yet are extremely important in showing what you have overcome. Take some time to visit a sunny cafe, listen to your favorite music, and fill out the workbook I've created to help you.
WORKBOOK WILL BE LINKED HERE. sorry i just wanted to post the blog post anyway in case i never finished the workbook and just let this post sit and rot...
TIPS FOR WRITING THE ESSAYS FOR THE NSF GRFP APPLICATION
- Update your CV. Reflect on how awesome research is and all the things you've learned since you started.
- Skim the entire Program Solicitation. These are basically the full instructions. Understand what they want from you before you spend all your time crafting documents that don't satisfy the assessment criteria. Here's an example of how plainly they spell out exactly what they're looking for in your proposal:
Intellectual Merit: The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge; and
Broader Impacts: The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.
The following elements should be considered in the review for both criteria:
1. What is the potential for the proposed activity to:
a. Advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields (Intellectual Merit); and
b. Benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes (Broader Impacts)?
2. To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
3. Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale? Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success?
4. How well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities?
5. Are there adequate resources available to the PI (either at the home organization or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed activities?
- Copy and paste important portions of the solicitation (including margin and font requirements) for the essay into a blank document. You can start outlining your essay in this document while keeping a close eye on the instructions. Use google drive, or anything else that will guarantee you don’t lose your progress even if you spill coffee all over your computer. It's good to have the instructions saved...the year before I applied, there was a government shut down and people couldn't access the NSF website.
- Write, write, write, write, and then edit, edit, write, edit, write, edit, edit, edit. Your first draft will be terrible. Get as many eyes on your drafts as possible and each edit will improve your essays.
TIPS FOR WRITING THE RESEARCH STATEMENT
Choose a project that can be completed in about 3 years that you would be highly qualified to conduct. You are not bound to doing the actual research, so choose a research topic where you have experience, a deep understanding of the methods, and/or the best resources available. For me, this meant writing a proposal about investigating multisensory integration between auditory and visual cortex due to my undergraduate experience in the auditory cortex and my rotation at the time in a lab studying visual cortex. The proposal is about showcasing your understanding of what it takes to design a reasonable, valuable, and elegant study. Make sure you do a thorough literature search to confirm that this is a project that has not been done and is a direction that the field wants to go. If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, read papers in your field and look closely at the “next steps” or “gaps” that the authors suggest in the discussion section.
Before you begin writing your proposal, figure out the question you are asking and the experiments you must do. Write down your hypothesis and 2 or 3 specific aims that each contain a few experiments to address your question. The specific aims should be independent - Aim 2 should not depend on getting certain results in Aim 1. In other words, you should be able to run experiments for these aims at the same time. If you are proposing an experiment that depends on the results of another, these two experiments probably belong under the same aim.
For each aim, briefly describe the experiments that you will conduct. More important than the details of the experiment are why you chose certain methods and what the results will tell us. Make sure to include a statement on what it means if you end up getting data that does not directly support your hypothesis. Try to design at least one experiment in your aims that has meaningful results no matter the outcome. Address any shortcomings for each aim. Your study will not be perfect. Being able to see your proposal through a critical eye shows that you are a thoughtful scientist.
You don't have a lot of words to use in your background section. Make it as concise as possible while establishing the rationale and necessity of answering your research question. Make sure to cite relevant literature. You can use very abbreviated citations. You may include a figure if it truly helps communicate your research plan or background information. Do not waste the space otherwise. If you include a figure, include a legend and a description of the figure in the text. Make sure your figure is understandable when printed in black and white. Highlight (by bolding or underlining) the key points in your essay like your hypothesis, specific aims, and impact of the work. Use this sparingly.
Conclude your essay with the broader impacts of your research. How will your work inform the field? Don’t make vague or overreaching statements or use platitudes like “results from this study will open doors for future research” (which is basically a direct quote from my proposal that received fair criticism). Contextualizing the impact of your work is another skill that shows you are a critical thinker and not overly brazen. You may also discuss how your research can have a broader impact by your intentions to mentor students or communicate the results publicly. You should also write briefly about your lab environment. Is the lab you’re in, rotating in, or applying to join the best lab to do this because of the PI, the equipment, the campus, or all of the above? Finally, end with a brief statement on why the funding will enhance your research.
TIPS FOR WRITING THE PERSONAL ESSAY
Start with an outline. This is why you should have updated your CV first. Paste the items you want to make sure to include in your essay. Condense the items as much as possible e.g. “3 years of research in the X lab earned me 3 conference presentations, 2 authorships, and the Undergraduate Research Fellowship.” Then, structure your essay chronologically around those core points. I typically outline my research/academic accomplishments first, then describe my outreach/broader impacts chronologically subsequently. Don’t worry about length. Always write your first draft with the knowledge that it will be crappy and that you will edit 10+ times.
Once you have gotten all of your accomplishments into the essay, figure out if there is an overall theme to your trajectory. It doesn’t have to be anything majestic or clever or original, just anything to help the reader understand the choices you've made. Make sure every paragraph has a topic sentence that tells the reader what kind of information is coming in the paragraph. Every paragraph should end with a reflection on what your experiences taught you and should transition to the next paragraph. If someone read only the first and last sentences of each paragraph in your essay, they should be able to extract a fairly coherent story of your progress.
You may also highlight (by bolding or underlining) the key points in your essay. Make it easy on the reviewers to identify the main things that make you stand out when they write your reviews.
PERSONAL ESSAY OUTLINE:
Hook, interesting story. Keep it brief and not a cliche. It is an inevitable truth that many neuroscientists were inspired to study the brain after watching a loved one struggle with brain disorders. It is now a common cliche amongst senior academics who have now reviewed hundreds, if not thousands of essays. But just because the topic is common doesn’t mean your writing needs to be cliche. Instead of “I first became interested in neuroscience at a young age when my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.” try “First it was where the car keys were, then my sister’s name, my mother’s face, and finally her favorite song -- these were the memories that slipped away as my grandma’s brain filled with plaques.” (Yeah okay, I know the sentence structure is terrible but that's what editing is for and getting down an original idea is what's important in your first draft.)
You may have a story that pops out immediately as the one you want to use as your hook, but if not, no worries. I often don’t choose a story until after I’ve filled out the outline and decided on the core narrative of my essay, then I go back to write a story that grabs attention and transitions nicely into the theme.
Chronological description of your research experiences:
Write about how you got your first research position. Oftentimes even getting into the lab requires a level of ambition and opportunity-seeking that you can highlight. Maybe you had to be brave, take a risk, or be persistent. This might be a good time for a story.
For every research experience, describe briefly what you did (1-2 sentences) and more importantly, what you learned from it. Did you become fascinated with your model organism? Did it lead you to pursue a different field? Tell us how these experiences shaped your path forward.
Include all accomplishments you have earned from doing research including poster presentations, acknowledgements, authorships, fellowships, awards, and if you have any papers currently being submitted etc. It seems that more and more people are receiving negative feedback on their lack of publications. If you’ve got anything related to a publication, try to incorporate it!
Chronological description of your broader impacts/outreach efforts:
The transition between research and broader impacts can be difficult, but do the same thing as before where you write out all of the work you have done and try to find a connecting narrative. Maybe it’s the background you grew up in, a moment where you realized your privilege and duty to your community, or how each outreach experience informed you on the kind of work you wanted to do. Describe your role in each position and what you learned from each experience.
End with a paragraph on how you hope to continue to make a broader impact in your future, and use it as a transition to the conclusion paragraphs. Your ability, potential, and likelihood of making a broader impact is very important for your application. You should be writing with conviction.
By now you should have established yourself as an ambitious, resilient, considerate, and promising scholar. Spend the next few sentences summarizing the key points that exemplify those attributes.
Write about what your hope is for the future and how you hope to get there. E.g. “My hope is to be able to lead a lab one day, investigating the molecular mechanisms of plaque formation, while simultaneously communicating my science publicly and acting as a mentor for marginalized scientists.” (You definitely don't need to be this specific, I still don't know what my lab's research focus would be if I lead one someday. I just wanted to weave it back to my bad grandma Alzheimer's example.)
Make sure to end with why you need the funding e.g. “Being awarded the NSF GRFP will not only allow me to conduct my research at a competitive university with stable funding, it will lend legitimacy to my outreach efforts, strengthening my ability to do good research and make a broader impact.” Don't plagiarize me lol.
While editing, make sure you do at least one round where you have the instructions side by side with your essay and make sure your essay satisfies the components requested in the instructions. You should incorporate the key words they use in the review criteria to make it plain as day what parts of your essay directly address those criteria.
The most important things you can do are to read successful application essays and get your essays reviewed by faculty, successful applicants, and your peers. If you aren't able to get this from people in your program, reach out to people on the internet. There's a lot of nice folks on twitter that would be happy to share their proposals with you, myself included. If you email me and ask for a copy of my proposal, I will probably agree, especially if you include a photo of ramen noodles.
Have any questions or want to share additional resources? Leave a comment! I will update this post with more resources whenever I have the energy...but don't hold your breath.