If you’re reading this, chances are you’re either a senior undergrad, a first year, or a second year grad student, and you want to apply for the NSF GRFP because of the following reasons: your stipend is below $34,000 (who doesn’t love having extra money?), you want the accolades, you’re being encouraged to apply for something by your department, or all of the above.
In my case, it’s reasons B and C. Last year I applied and received Honorable Mention, which is really quite astounding considering I did nearly everything wrong. This year, I’m actually taking a class on applying for the NSF GRFP, so things are extremely different. For instance, I know I’m applying more than 2 weeks before the deadline. But let’s back up.
What is the GRFP?
The NSF GRFP is the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Technically, you’re applying for the “GRF” but it sounds awkward without the ‘P’ for some reason, so everybody tacks it on there. The GRFP is one of the more prestigious and well-known fellowships a graduate student can get. Even people who receive Honorable Mention put it on their CV–it’s a consolation prize worth noting.
In terms of mula, fellows are awarded $12,000 for tuition and $34,000/yr personal stipend for three years. Along with the money, fellows get “opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.” (From the GRFP’s about section.) That last part is a real bonus, because it basically gives you a license to go to any institution you want and do research. Chances are you won’t leave your current institution, but it certainly gives you additional income and freedom from TAing duties for a huge chunk of time.
Fellows can also select how they want to receive the money. The rule is any 3 years within a 5 year span. And a year is a 12-month period starting in either the fall or the spring. So you can do the 1st, 3rd, and 5th year. You can skip the first two and do the last three, which is something a lot of OEB students have done in the past because teaching requirements become heavier later in the program.
So, if you tally up all the pages you actually end up writing for the GRFP (5 pages yourself, plus 2 pages per rec writer and at least 3 rec writers) and the money you get in return ($138,000), you essentially receive $12,550/page. That’s not too shabby. This is also the reason you shouldn’t wait until the last minute to write this. You want to make sure everything is perfect.
Additionally, if you’re in a really awesome program where your normal TA/RA stipend is above $34,000, the departments should make up the difference. I believe. It’s that way at my university, but always double check with finaid people–solid rule of thumb.
If you are awarded the NSF GRFP and *accept it*, it is the only Federal fellowship you are allowed to accept. Say you are currently on a DOE (department of energy) fellowship, and you applied for the GRFP and received it. Before you could accept the GRFP money, you would have to cancel your DOE fellowship, or you would have turn down the GRFP. You also couldn’t accept another federal fellowship until you had used all the GRFP money and were no longer a fellow. Private foundation money is a bit of a grey area and needs to be approved on a case-by-case basis. You can also apply for and receive research grants, assistantships, traineeships, and those things with no problem.
In terms of percentages, 2000 students are funded and about another 10% get Honorable Mention. Roughly, another tenth of the applications don’t even get reviewed because they’re missing components (e.g. rec letters were turned in late), their statements were over the page limits, they weren’t eligible, etc. The number of students applying is increasing, from ~16,000 in 2014 to ~17,500 in 2015. In both years, only 2000 students received the fellowship. So, competition is fierce.
Btw, let me say now that this is not meant to be an entirely comprehensive thing. The things I mention above are some of the more important points. Here’s the GRFP solicitation. Go give it a read. It tells you everything you need to know, like how to know if you’re eligible or not. If you are indeed eligible, come back and continue reading.
How I Applied the First Time–I.E., What not to do.
In all honestly, I wasn’t going to. I had decided not to write an application because at the time, I had no idea what I was going to do in graduate school, let alone what type of program I was going to apply to. I was going through daily flip-flopping of astrophysics programs, zoology programs, biophysics programs, and biomechanics programs. I was prepping for the biology and the physics GRE and was considering the MCAT, on top of the regular GRE. I was a complete and utter mess. No clue what I wanted to do with my life.
To be fair, deciding the course of the next 5-7 years of your life is a big thing. I’m very curious, which in general is considered a plus. However, my curiosity isn’t limited to a specific field. I want to learn about everything. There wasn’t a semester that went by where I wasn’t absolutely captivated by some area of research, but in the next semester it would be completely different. I became aware of this in my later years and could begin to pinpoint the moments where I would change directions. Dr. Adam Summers refers to these moments as ‘Oh look, a squirrel’ moments. I clearly remember having a conversation with my mom in my sophomore year, telling her I was thinking of adding a biochemistry major because I was so in love with my Orgo class. Didn’t do it, but I was pretty close. I think I went through that process with math and bioengineering as well.
I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the fields of science the way I did and I would advise anybody who doesn’t know what they want to do to just starting exploring and pursuing things that sound fun to them. However, it was terribly hard trying to pick a specific field in which to spend the rest of my life, knowing that my interests very well could change in the next year. Thus, the deciding to not write a GRFP–it requires commitment to a field and that was something I didn’t think I could do.
Exactly 2 weeks before the GRFP was due (which was October 30th, making this October 19th), a friend/mentor/professor finally convinced me to write one. I don’t know why, but I said okay. First, I needed some rec letter writers! I emailed all the professors I figured could write a recommendation letter for me (about four professors), and all of them said yes. I ended up drafting the letters or putting a list of topics together for them, but that’s pretty common, so I’ve learned. But they wrote it with 3 weeks’ notice, which is great, because standard protocol is at least a 6 weeks’ notice.
Then came the hard part: picking out a topic. I printed out papers from all sorts of fields, and nothing was grabbing my interest until a fish biomechanics paper. I was like, “Aha! This is cool and I can easily think of a project stemming from this paper!” I printed out about 25 more recent research papers and 2 book chapters on the subject and read those all over about a day, planned for a few hours, and then wrote the actual research plan in two more days. This might simply be a ‘me’ thing, but before I write anything, I feel like I need to know a lot of background info. Some people write and then go looking for sources to cite, I’m the other way around. As I read all those papers, I was extracting bits and pieces from each one and weaving together a general outline in my head.
Between when I decided to write the GRFP and when it was due, my sleep schedule was all sorts of messed up, you have no idea. I had so much work to do, so many things to read that there was no way I could get it all done during a normal day when I had classes and homework and distractions. So, I made a few changes. I went to bed at 8pm, woke up at 12am so I could get to the deserted physics lounge and work undisturbed for a solid 8 hours, and continued working throughout my day until 6pm at which point I’d go home and repeat the entire thing. For about a week and a half straight. I had a meeting with Ballantyne sometime during the first week and (I think) that was the one and only time he ever asked me if I was okay and expressed concerned about my well-being without me saying something first. I must have looked half-dead and close to collapsing, and I felt even worse.
Also, I should point out, I was writing this alone. I didn’t talk to any grad students or professors in the field until after I had finished it. I won’t say it’s ‘wrong’, per se, but that process definitely isn’t normal or likely to be as good as having help. Normally, you’d consult with your undergrad or grad PI and devise a project, and they’d help you set it up, fill in the gaps, and make sure it’s a complete plan. There was nobody at Tech who did fish biomechanics, so I couldn’t talk to anyone about the science.
Once I had finished the research plan and my friends and a few mentors had read it (helping me clean up the grammar and organization), I decided to contact the professor who did most of the research on the topic. I wrote him an email on the 23rd saying (roughly) “Hi, you don’t know me but I’ve written this fellowship grant based on your work. Would you mind reading it over and seeing if the science is sound?” That professor was George Lauder, and now I’m working for him. Life is weird.
But, word to the wise: DON’T PROCRASTINATE on this thing. I understand that ‘last minute panic’ is sometimes the only way to get things done (definitely the case with me the majority of the time) but please, please don’t go through what I went through. My ‘procrastination’ wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t healthy and ultimately it’s why I received honorable mention. I was so exhausted at the end of it that I missed a few typos in my personal statement. The reviews I got back said if it wasn’t for those, I probably would’ve been selected for funding. That’s how competitive this thing is–typos got me tossed out of the running.
And essentially, that boils down to the fact that the reviewers have a lot of good students writing grants and their decision to pick only a few to fund is an incredibly hard one. If your application has typos and another student’s doesn’t, you just made the decision easier for them. Don’t give them reasons to toss you into the ‘nope’ pile. Don’t do what I did.
Now, this has turned into a rather long post and I feel like the division between what I did the first time and what I am doing this time is a great point to break it up into two parts. So….stay tuned! It’ll be out sometime in the next week and I’ll go into a lot more information about what you actually need to write to apply for the GRFP and some expert advice from reviewers.