The NSF GRFP is a trial-by-fire rite of passage for many graduate students. It is a five-year fellowship that comes with three years of funding and some other perks, including the GROW (international research exchange) and GRIP (national research internships) programs. It can open a lot of doors – allowing you freedom in what you research and helping gain entrance into programs that may not have otherwise have promised full funding. I applied twice – first, as an incoming student, and then a first-year student in my first attempt at a PhD (more on that later). I’ve been a fellow since 2016, and have edited many statements since. This post is a compilation of that experience. Here are links to: personal statement and research statement. Feel free to share these.
Here we’re going to focus on the personal statement, which is all about building yourself up. Some notes on the research statement will follow soon. And if you need any help, feel free to reach out to me by email or on twitter: @elizabeth_case.
You are the future
Your goal is to make reviewers think you are a “future STEM leader”. To put it transactionally, your goal is to convince NSF of a return-on-investment. You need to show a proven record of success, clear access to resources, and the discipline, enthusiasm, and clarity to put that experience and those resources toward answering your field’s biggest questions.
Tons of applicants are qualified, but they are only vaguely qualified
The best way to convince NSF that you are all these things is by being explicit. By explicit, I mean you need to quantify your successes, exchange adjectives for specific examples, name names, and write your non-linear, messy life into a clean, obvious narrative. Each sentence should have a purpose — state an achievement, summarize the coming paragraph, provide vivid imagery or examples to draw in readers and remember you by, etc. Especially in the research statement, each sentence should relate back to one of the five criteria used to assess you.
You also show NSF how “future STEM leader” you are by paying really close attention to what NSF wants. What they say they want is: 2 pages for your research statement and 3 pages for your personal statement. Don’t exceed this. For your research statement, title or bold sections about intellectual merit and broader impact. Look up what these statements mean to NSF; they’re laid out in the call for applications (the “program solicitation ← read this!”). For your personal statement, you also need intellectual merit and broader impact references, as well as sections about “personal, relevant background, and future goals”. Just make it easy on the reviewers, who are going to be exhausted and bored by the time they read your application, by creating headings with those words.
Build yourself up. You don’t have a knack for something, you have excelled at it. You don’t love what you do, you have spent every summer sweating in 100 degree humidity chewed by mosquitoes to collect sedimentary samples that have never been looked at before. You haven’t changed your mind, each step you took led you directly to the next step. Is life this clean? No. Should we have to turn our lives into an easy narrative? No. Unfortunately, though, that’s the game we play right now. Also, remember that everything in your essay should be there to convince NSF that you have already succeeded (and show remarkable promise), and so are a safe bet.
Talk the talk. Know the vocabulary of your field, and of academia. This is where (I hope) your adviser (or potential adviser) can come in with help. The most bullshit review of my NSF GRFP application was that I needed to learn “the (insert field) culture”. This is totally unquantifiable and not at all what reviewers are supposed to be looking for but my point is that if you nail the vocabulary, reviewers won’t have to work to understand you, and that gives you an advantage because they can spend more time thinking about how great you are.
Don’t give reviewers any reason to doubt you. Lots of super qualified students are applying for this fellowship. Don’t seed readers with a reason to weed you out. So: don’t self-deprecate, don’t talk not enjoying something, don’t take things smaller than they are (e.g. “stints” are jobs) & rework your failures as stepping stones. There are, of course, exceptions — if for some reason, these are key to your personal story — but in my experience, almost everything can be reworked into a positive attribute, experience, etc.
Finally, this is your personal statement. Don’t spend it talking about how great other people are. Other people are great, and collaborations and advisers are key to success and should be highlighted — but you really are writing this to convince people of your worth, and three pages is not a lot of time to do that. Focus on you.