NSF GRFP FAQs for 2021 Applicants
This document consists of an informal Q & A session between an engineering faculty member/NSF GRFP reviewer and a student applicant. It is divided into three sections: 1) Written Statements, 2) Competitiveness & the Review Process, and 3) Reference Letters.
That’s a good question and it’s an important one because if you look at the list of questions that the reviewers have to answer, one of them is will the resources be available for the person to do the research that they propose. You have probably – in fact, you have – indicated which schools you would like to attend as a graduate student. Almost all of those will have the facilities that you need to do your research so if you just pick one of them and talk about it you should be fine. Talk about things like what faculty members are there and the research those faculty members are doing, what laboratories they have, what facilities might be nearby. For example, maybe the university is right next door to a national lab. There might be resources there that you could take advantage of. So make sure that you discuss all of those things.
It’s really both the idea and how it’s explained. We – the reviewers – will be looking for information on exactly what question you want to answer and how you plan to answer it. The reviewers will want to know that you have a really good plan for answering that question. So you need not only to have a good idea and to have all the right technical information, but also to write it very clearly so that people can understand it.
No, not inherently. For example, I think you’re probably asking should I write about climate change as opposed to communication systems because one is sexier than the other and that’s not the case. The reviewers are looking for a solid technical question. They want to see what contribution you can make to knowledge.
As a recipient, every year of the fellowship you will need to do a report. In this annual report you need to talk about your activities for the year: the research you’ve done, classes you've taken, projects you've worked on, broader impacts you might have had, outreach programs that you’ve worked with. But you don't have to talk about the specific research plan that you have proposed in your research application. The purpose of this application is to show that you know how to write a research plan. Whether or not you do this specific research is up to you.
That’s a good question. One of the questions that the reviewers have to answer is: Is this person prepared to do the research that s/he proposed? You cannot do the research that you’ve proposed if you have absolutely no background in that area. So you need to show that you have had some background, something that’s prepared you to do that work. You could show that you’ve taken classes in that area, you could show that you’ve maybe done some independent study in that area; there are lots of ways that you can show that, yes, I really am able to do this work. You want to be sure to put in your personal and relevant background statement exactly what it is you have done to prepare you to do your research.
Well, I want to read directly from the statement – from the solicitation. It says, “Broader impacts may be accomplished through the research itself, through the activities that are directly related to specific research projects, or through activities that are supported by, or complimentary to, the project.” So if you’ve never done anything that is humanitarian, but your work can have a major impact on people for example improving the quality of life for all of us here on Earth then it’s worthwhile and your broader impact requirements will be satisfied.
In as much detail as possible, but remember that you only have two pages. In those two pages you need to talk about what is the question you’re trying to answer, how does the work that you’re planning to do fit in the overall field – how does it fit in with the literature that you have read, the work that’s already been done – you need to say how you’re going to do the work, you need to show how it is you can prove that you have either been successful or not, you need to talk about the broader impact of your work, and about the intellectual merit of that work. So each of those things needs to be addressed. I would put most of my time on how you’re going to do the work, how you’re going to assess it, and the broader impact and intellectual merit, but you really can’t leave out the question, why it’s important, and how it fits in to the overall scheme of things.
Competitiveness & the Review Process
The short answer is no. Multiple people will review your application. Many of them will be in your field, but some may be in an interdisciplinary field. All of them, however, will likely have a Ph.D. in a technical field. So when you write your application, you need to write it in such a way that a person with a strong technical background can understand it. But you want to be sure not to use jargon or acronyms from your specific research area.
Again the answer is no, fortunately. The reviewers understand that the seniors will not have as much experience with research as the more advanced graduate students. First of all, reviewers compare all of the seniors. They read all senior applications first and rank them in order. Then they move on, and look at all the applications from first-year graduate students. Finally, the reviewers look at all the applications from the second-year graduate students. Each application is ranked within its group. At the end if the reviewers have, for example, 40% of the applications from seniors, then about 40% of the awards will go to seniors.
Yes, it is. In fact, this award is specifically for (and this is right from the solicitation): “Students who are pursuing full-time research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM fields.” So if you’re working on a master’s degree and you plan to do some research in industry, for example, where you might not need a Ph.D., and you can still be a strong leader in research and in STEM fields with a master’s degree, then that will be fine. But I would be sure to state in your personal, relevant background and future goals statement, what it is you plan to do with your research, and how you plan to become a leader in the area.
My answer to this one, like so many of these questions is, it depends. If you have had a very strong undergraduate research experience, and you’ve had a chance to do a number of activities that will allow you to show that you can have a broader impact, then go ahead and apply in your first year as a graduate student. If, however, you have not had a strong background, take that first year of graduate school to fill in the holes in your background, and you’ll be able to do a good job on the application in your second year.
The fellowship can start in the summer or the fall. So if you’re graduating in December of this year, I would apply now. The fellowship will be waiting for you then in this summer or the fall. If you apply now as a senior, and if you don’t happen to win it, you have another chance to apply as a graduate student later on.
There is no set GPA. You need at least a 3.0 GPA to get into grad school in most places. That’s sort of a bottom line. Most of the applicants reviewers see are very strong students, so they’re likely to have a GPA of say 3.5 or better. But the reviewers are specifically told that they should do a holistic review of this application, so sometimes students with a lower GPA are winning this fellowship. If you have some particular reason why your GPA is lower than you would like it to be, make sure that you say something about that in your background statement. I’ve seen cases where a student, for example, had surgery and missed several weeks of class. Or had to go to work to help support the family, and that caused him/her to have a lower GPA. That would not disqualify you.
Yes, but remember that the NSF is eager to make investments in students who are going to be excellent researchers, and hopefully, research leaders in the future. So they want reference letters from people who can evaluate your research capabilities and can make a statement about the probability that you’re going to be successful as a researcher in the future and as a graduate student. So if your employer is going to write a letter of reference, I hope that you would pick an employer who has a research background, and preferably, a graduate degree. That puts them in a much better position to write a credible letter for you.
It would be better if you had all of your reference writers be people who can talk about your technical expertise, and then also add in information on your broader impacts. If you have one person who can say a lot about your broader impacts, and that’s really all they can address, if the other two letters are from people who know your technical capabilities and can evaluate the chances of your being successful in graduate school, then I think it will be fine.
Fortunately, you’re able to check online to look at the status for your application, and it will tell you whether or not those letters have been submitted.
Well, faculty members write a lot of reference letters. Anything that you can do to help them remember the important contributions you’ve made will be useful to them in writing a good, solid reference letter. Reference letters should have a good amount of detail in them. You might want to be sure that you talk with your faculty member about the work that you’ve done with them, just to remind them. If they’re working with you right now, they know about your research and your capabilities. But if it was two years ago, a reminder would be helpful. Give them a copy of your updated resume. Because, again, if they haven't worked with you for a year or so, they might not know about the most recent things you've done. For this application, make sure that you give them a copy of the materials that you’re going to submit, the two essays that you write for the application. They need time to write this letter. I know you won’t have your essays finished until just a few days before they are due, so give them an early draft and one that you think is decent, so that they can address that.
I guess two of the most important things don't have to do with what you provide to the faculty members, but the way that you handle this situation. First, it’s always a good idea to be looking for people who could be good reference writers at an early date, long before you actually need the letter of reference. And secondly, when you’re ready to ask for a letter of reference, do it weeks in advance of when you need it. Professors are often busy, and if we’re traveling or have other responsibilities, we might not be able to get to it for a while.