Tips For Faculty

Advising Students Applying for

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) 

 

Faculty members who recently reviewed NSF GRF applications thought these tips might be helpful to faculty members advising students who are applying for the NSF GRF.

  • NSF is investing in the student – not the research project. Application must show that the student has demonstrated promise and is a good investment.

  • Specific instructions for the application change from year to year. Find program description at
    www.nsf.gov.

Criteria for evaluating the application

  • There are only 2 criteria – intellectual merit and broader impact.

  • “Intellectual merit” is straightforward. Reviewers look for demonstrated intellectual ability and other characteristics required for outstanding scholarly work.

  • Under “broader impact” reviewers look for ability to
  1. Integrate research and education
  2. Share the excitement of discovery
  3. Communicate results to a broad audience
  4. Encourage diversity and broad participation in science and research
  5. Contribute to the community – both social and scholarly communities 
  • In past years, reviewers were told to give each criterion equal weight. More recently, reviewers can decide how much weight to give each criterion. Students who are successful address both criteria effectively.

  • Students prepare 2 essays – (1) personal, relevant background and future goals statement and (2) graduate research plan statement. Reviewers look for intellectual merit and broader impact in both  essays. A clearly labeled paragraph on each criterion at the end of each essay makes it easy for the reviewer to find the information he or she needs.

General information

  • Reviewers have about 10 minutes to review and comment on an entire application package. They cannot read every word. Essays must be organized and written in a way that makes them easy to scan for information.  Bold headings or words help.

  • Review the student’s essays in 10 minutes or less and see what image of the student emerges. If it isn’t a clear and accurate picture, the essays need to be revised.

  • Use the two essays to convey different facets of the same person. There should be little repetition of information. They must have a common thread and build on one another.Be sure student gives writers of reference letters copies of the essays and a resume. 
  • Be sure student gives writers of reference letters copies of the essays and a resume.

  • Applicant is expected to have guidance from the advisor or other faculty members. However, the essays, including the research proposal, are expected to be the student’s work.

  • All applicants are extremely strong. All are very likely to be top researchers. Reviewers need to identify those top researchers who will be leaders and will make a difference.

Personal, relevant background and future goals statement (3 pages)

  • Students should convey passion for the research area and explain what experiences (personal, professional, educational) contributed to the excitement.
  • Students should describe how they developed skills in the area in which they will be conducting research.
  • Students should talk about previous experiences that had broad impact. It is hard to make the case that they will be leaders, contribute to diversity, or encourage others to study science in the future if they haven’t done it in the past.
  • Career goals should be discussed.
  • Provide evidence of experience with the entire research process – e.g. define question, conduct literature review, plan the work, gather data, analyze data, write a report, give a presentation.
  • Examples of previous research might include co-op experience, internships, undergraduate research, honors thesis, design projects, team projects, etc.
  • If a student has no formal research experience, a description of a case in which the student was curious about something and developed a systematic approach to exploring that topic will help.

Graduate research plan statement (2 pages)

  • Must be solid – clear, complete, innovative, focused, possible, and related to the student’s demonstrated area of expertise.
  • Must demonstrate a good knowledge of the literature. References, usually 3 or 4, should be cited in the plan. Use at least some references not written by the advisor or his or her group.
  • Good, crisp introduction is important.
  • Just describing the research project isn’t enough. Must talk about the importance of the problem and the anticipated impact of the research.
  • Reviewers have a broad spectrum of backgrounds. Essays should be written so that people intimately familiar with the student’s research area and those unfamiliar with it can understand and appreciate the value of the proposed research.
     

Tips for Faculty Writing Reference Letters for Students

Applying for NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF)

Faculty members who recently reviewed NSF GRF applications thought these tips might be helpful to faculty members asked to write NSF GRF reference letters.

  • Be sure to ask the student for his or her application essays and a resume.
  • Write about your personal connection to the student. Spend a little time talking with the student when she or he asks for the letter of reference. Ask the student to talk about his or her background, some major accomplishments, and plans for the future.
  • Find characteristics of the student that make him or her different – make him or her a worthwhile investment for the nation. All of the applicants are outstanding. Why is it important to invest in this one? Be as specific as possible about the student’s strengths.
  • Letter should be no more than 2 pages long but at least one full page. In general, a half-page letter indicates little enthusiasm for the student.
  • Pay attention to the structure of the letter. Paragraphs shouldn’t be really long. The first sentence of each paragraph should be the topic sentence. Reviewers do not have time to read the entire letter. They will read the topic sentences and maybe a full paragraph here and there. Usually, topic sentences must convey the message.
  • Address the criteria – intellectual merit and broader impact (see back of this card).
  • Submit the letter on time. An application without all three letters of reference will not be reviewed.

Letter writers should be familiar with (and be sure to address) criteria used to evaluate the application

  • There are only 2 criteria – intellectual merit and broader impact.
  • “Intellectual merit” is straightforward. Reviewers look for demonstrated intellectual ability and other characteristics required for outstanding scholarly work.
  • Under “broader impact” reviewers look for ability to
  1. Integrate research and education
  2. Share the excitement of discovery
  3. Communicate results to a broad audience
  4. Encourage diversity and broad participation in science and research
  5. Contribute to the community – both social and scholarly communities
  • In past years, reviewers were told to give each criterion equal weight. More recently, reviewers can decide how much weight to give each criterion. Successful applications (including reference letters) address both criteria effectively. 

 

Tips for Faculty Working with Young Students

Who May Apply for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in the Future

Faculty members who recently reviewed NSF GRF applications recorded some thoughts on what experiences seem to make students strong candidates for NSF Graduate Research Fellowships. They thought this list might be useful to faculty members helping young undergraduates build the skill set and resume that will make them competitive for graduate school and fellowships.

  • Broad research experience – from problem formulation through planning and conducting research, gathering and analyzing data, writing and presenting the results
  • Being author or co-author on a paper
  • Presenting research results at a conference or symposium
  • Involvement in proposal writing
  • Leadership in a variety of settings
  • Professional development
  • Tutoring, outreach, teaching
  • Participation in professional associations – local and national activities
  • Giving tours of labs, serving as ambassador for the school or college
  • International experience
  • Interdisciplinary experience
  • Participation in EPICS or other community service activities
  • Global design team experience
  • Teaching and mentoring younger students or making presentations to peers
  • Contributing to diversity – though MEP, WIE, SWE, or work with high school or junior high students, especially in urban or rural areas where students are less likely to have access to role models in science or engineering. Involvement with pre-college students in summer camps or SURF is a plus. Anyone can have a huge impact on diversity. The student does not have to be a member of an underrepresented group to make a difference.