Matthew Charles Wilson
Assistant Professor of Political Science
West Virginia University







          Applying for a National Science Foundation
          Graduate Research Fellowship

Please note that this page has not been updated since 2015 and that current NSF GRFP guidelines may differ.

The National Science Foundation is a U.S. government agency that supports research and education. One of the ways that it does so is through the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which provides financial support to graduate students pursuing higher education degrees in research related to science and engineering. The GRFP awards three years of funding to graduate students who demonstrate the potential to significantly advance fields within science and engineering, including the social sciences. It is a highly prestigious—and highly competitive—award. In 2015, the NSF received over 16,000 applications and awarded fellowships to 2,000. While the success rate is fairly low (12.5 percent, or 8 to 1 odds), it is well worth the investment of an application.
Below, I provide some personal advice (based on experience) for submitting a competitive application.

First, I think there are three big lessons that I learned from attempting to get the award.

1) you are very unlikely to get it on your first attempt. I applied as an undergraduate and wrote a fairly terrible application, and getting the reviews from that rejection helped me a lot. I also have a lot of friends who did not get it the first time, but who did not try again. That said, I recommend giving the application your best effort and, if you end not getting it, learning from the reviews to make an even better second application.

2) collaboration is very important. The year that I applied, there were three of us applying. Another student and I read each other's applications repeatedly and gave each other criticism, while the third did not participate because he/she did not want to get "scooped." Two of us got the award that year.

3) multiple revisions are a necessity. It is important to ask lots of pairs of eyes for comments and revisions. At times, I really disliked my advisor for making me rewrite and rewrite my application, but it certainly paid off.

In my application, I was required to submit a personal statement, a statement of past research experience, and a proposed plan of research (in addition to letters of recommendation). I have attached these for reference, along with the reviews that they received.
Briefly, I describe each of the three documents:

Personal statement
We might be academics, but this is one place where flourish counts. You really need to "hook" your reader, and you must not be modest. Think very hard about why you went to graduate school, what you hope to do at the day's end, and what makes you demographically unique. In writing the personal statement, emphasize each of these hard and try to interrelate them. For example, if you were a Muslim woman, how did your religious upbringing influence your views about research and your opportunities to pursue it? Are Muslim women underrepresented in political science? What have you done to help fellow Muslims and women to get advanced education? How might getting the award enable you to pave a way for future Muslims, women, or Muslim women to attain higher education? In answering these questions, try a variety of different "hooks." You are likely to initially try very mundane, generic openings, and you need to get those out of your system (my first opening was something about looking at a map and wanting to learn more about the world). Remember, if an "average" reader is not piqued by your first few lines, nothing else will matter, and not all of your reviewers will be political scientists so go for a broader, "human" appeal. Additionally, I highly recommend not mentioning anything about your prior research experience or proposed plan of research in early drafts, but to pepper the close to final drafts with connections to those after you have crafted a personable and engaging personal statement. In this statement, you will need to get the reader to agree that fundamental aspects of your identity are either underrepresented or underfunded in your field, and to root for you as a protagonist that will change that, if only she had a little more money.

Previous Research/Relevant Background
This one is fairly straightforward. In a way, it involves narrating your CV, insofar as it relates to your goals as a graduate student. I would recommend drafting a paragraph that summarizes what you were focused on as an undergraduate student, what you are focused on as a graduate student, and what you will be focused on. The rest of the document is describing projects or activities in which you have been involved that reinforces those agendas. Address them in turn; describe any undergraduate activities, then past graduate activities, then current. Bring the reader along a short "timeline" of your research up-to-date. The hard part of this one, I think, is figuring out how to be succinct. You could think of it as drafting a coherent "string of abstracts." Focus on the big projects, and save the little stuff like RA-ships and GA-ships that did not yield meaningful personal results for the end. There are two important caveats to this document. The first is that you need to strongly emphasize the intellectual merits and broader impacts of your past work—literally, go through the list and try to attribute as many of them as you can to your past activities, and point out all the publication/presentation opportunities that are inherent in your projects. Second, be sure to transition to a brief description of what you need the money to do. This is a segue into the proposed plan of research, which serves to remind the reader that without critical funding, the awesome string of projects in which you are involved might suddenly come to an end.

Proposed Plan of Research
This document is clearly the more mechanical of the three, and it should be written as such. I recommend actually spelling it out for the reviewer (e.g., Title, Hypothesis, Anticipated Results). You should demonstrate (quickly) that you identify an important question that has not yet been adequately addressed in the literature, so that you can lay out how you would help to resolve it. It is important to highlight early on the motivation, and both the short-term and long-term benefits of your proposed project. Avoid making your description of "methods" overly complicated, but try to show some sophistication. Identify meaningful activity that would utilize unique features of the NSF GRF, such as the TeraGrid computing system. Moreover, in specifying how you would carry out a project, make it sound like you, and only you, could do it. That is, if you proposed to pull up someone's data and run the numbers, it is extremely unlikely to receive funding, because many people could do that. Distinguish yourself to the reviewer either in terms of methodological sophistication or data collection abilities. Be sure to connect the proposal to as many different intellectual merits and broader impacts as possible. Additionally, if you find yourself having to choose between explaining precise aspects of your research design and its contributions, remember that the reviewers are not actually expecting the fellowship recipients to carry out the project—they are looking for bright individuals who recognize problems and who can design a plan to address them, with an eye on making a more substantial contribution to the scientific community. Although it is in the context of a particular question/project, you should make sure that this document demonstrates that.

But it's also a good exercise...
A lot of the advice that I got from others was pretty overwhelming (sound smart, but not too smart; be personable, but not too personable). During my second go round, I started to see the application as an opportunity to figure out who I wanted to be as a graduate student. That is, rather than focusing on getting the personal statement done, I saw it as a time to figure out what my "story" was, and why it mattered. I saw the previous research statement as a time for me to focus on identifying why all my work up to then, even if it did not turn into anything, actually meant something. The research design was a good exercise in learning to write like an academic (precise, practical, and impactful) and to consider how I could maximize my contributions to the world. It might sound silly, but if you see the proposal as a sort of guided meditation, you are likely to end up with a more articulate idea of who you are and what you want to study, which will vastly help you whether or not you get the fellowship. Moreover, such pieces of the application are worth investing in, because they can be reused in a number of different applications. After the NSF GRFP, I applied to at least nine other competitions and won some of those as well.

This is the bulk of my advice. I sincerely hope that it helps and I wish you the best of luck on your application.

Application and Reviews

Personal statement                  Previous research                    Proposed plan of research        Reviews