Last time I quickly went into what you actually need to write the GRFP but now you’ll get details. Strap in, because this blog is going to be long and very comprehensive.
Let me preface this by saying that I’m currently enrolled in a class taught by two upper-level grad students who have both received the GRFP, and all the information below comes from the solicitation, the class, and two GRFP reviewers who’ve given us advice on what they look for and how they review the applications. I do not have a GRFP–at least not yet. This is information I’ve been given and that I’m using to write my current application. With that in mind, my advice to the reader is to also read other GRFP blogs, like Alex Lang’s and Mallory Ladd’s, both students who’ve received the GRFP and have written blogs similar to this one. I wish I could say with more confidence that what I’ve said below will guarantee funding–nobody can do that because you can’t predict what the reviewers will think. But hopefully in April I’ll be able to say that I received a GRFP using the information contained herein.
To apply for the GRFP, you need five things:
- A personal statement, officially called the “Personal, Relevant Background, and Research Goals Statement”
- A research plan, officially called the “Graduate Research Plan Statement
- 3 recommendation letters
- Fastlane account
To apply, you use a FastLane account available on the GRFP website. It’s just like filling out
an online college application. Personal background, upload boxes for transcripts and statements, rec letter page. You know the drill.
You’ll need to select which field you’re applying to. For example, here are all the Life science field options you can select. There is also the ‘inter-disciplinary’ option, in which you can say the first half of my research is ecological while the second half is environmental. Or, if you’re really, really inter-disciplinary, half of my experiment qualifies as engineering and the second half qualifies as biology. You do this by percents and can submit up to three different fields.
The field you select determines who is on your panel. Your application is reviewed by 3 people–who must have no ties to you or your university–and then people from the field will meet in a panel where the reviewers will give a summary of your proposal and decide whether they recommend you for funding or not. The panel then debates the pros and cons of your proposal, weighs you against all of the other applicants, and recommends about 10% of the applications to a grant officer. The grant officer has been sitting in the corner listening to everything and taking notes, and they have the final say in who’s funded.
If you select inter-disciplinary, you risk receiving a reviewer who thinks your project doesn’t belong in their field and might vote against you. It’s better to have 3 experts in your field who might recognize your work as inter-disciplinary than 3 people who are experts in different fields who might spend the time at panel arguing whether your project is really part of their particular fields. If your research is truly inter-disciplinary and you select only one over-arching field for your panel, the worst they might do is wonder why you didn’t select interdisciplinary.
For transcripts, unofficials work. You need to submit a transcript for every school you’ve attended, including your new grad school. Your unofficial grad school transcript won’t have any grades on it, but they’ll see that you’re currently enrolled and that’s what matters there. Also, if the transcript of one school is included in another’s, there’s a box you can check to say that and only submit one transcript for two or more schools.
For example, I studied abroad in Australia as an exchange student at UQ. The classes I took in Australia were recorded on my Georgia Tech transcript. So, I could submit just one transcript for GT and check the box that UQ was included in that transcript; I did this last year because I didn’t have a UQ transcript available on hand. I had to order one for my grad program this year, so I had the office make some scans, and I uploaded a separate UQ transcript this year. Not necessary, but thorough.
There are lots and lots of websites that explain how to ask professors for good recommendation letters, so I won’t duplicate their work. I will, however, talk about how to select which professors to ask.
You need a minimum of 3, but can submit up to 5. When you submit the letters, you rank them. So, the professor you currently work for, your PI, will probably be #1. The undergrad professor you did the most/best work for will most likely be #2. If you’ve worked for more than one professor, you can ask them to write as well. But be strategic. If you have 3 letters that all say the same exact thing, you just wasted two letters. Try to select letter writers who can talk on a variety of your best attributes.
Most professors want some input before they start writing–they’ll ask you to write down some bullet points they can talk about, or ask you to flat out write a draft. You’ve been handed a magical gift: the ability to orchestrate what your letters say.
For example, you can get your PI to write about qualities A, B, C, and your undergrad professor to talk about B, C, D, and your third writer to talk about D, E, F. For example: out-going, creative, hard working – creative, diligent, productive – independent, curious, creative. If all three letters talk about your creativity, the reviewers will probably come away with the idea that you’re a creative person. You have the opportunity to decide which of your qualities will be discussed, and how hard each of them will be reinforced.
Last year, I had three research professors write letters, and I was able to successfully use the above strategy. They all asked me to draft bullet points for them, so I was able to play mix and match with the qualities I thought the NSF most wanted to see in an applicant.
I also asked George Lauder to write me one saying that my research plan was worth pursuing, saying there was merit in my idea, since none of my other rec writers could do that. Surprisingly, he did! I didn’t ask him to write anything about me. How could he, when we’d only conversed through maybe five emails at that point? I asked him to write a recommendation for the research. I didn’t expect him to agree even to that, but he did, and it helped a lot. That’s why getting your current PI to write a letter is important: even if you’ve only been there for a few months, they can write a letter discussing why they hired you and why your research is useful; why your plan has merit.
This year, I’m only using three letter writers, and I’m using a slightly different strategy. Even though I don’t know exactly what he’ll say, I’m using my PI–he understands my research plan and would, of course, benefit if I were to get funding. I had the professor I worked for the longest, Dr. Ballantyne, submit a letter. It was most likely easier for him since he could piggyback off what he wrote last year and just update it. It’s generally a good idea to have someone who wrote you a good letter before write one again, as long as it suits the situation. So, I have two fairly strong research-oriented letters nailed down. I decided to mix it up and get the third letter from someone I didn’t do research for. I took two classes with Dr. JC Gumbart at GT and have done science outreach with him, so I asked him to write an outreach-oriented letter for me.
The research plan is a 2-page grant proposal. That’s all you get: two pages for title, background, experiment, expected results (if you can manage that), intellectual merit, broader impacts, and references. When you factor in the fact that you need 12pt font and 1″ margins on all sides, that is not a lot of space. Throw in a figure and that space reduces even more. On the plus side, table/figure captions and the reference section can be footnote-sized font (about 10pt), so there’s that.
This one is always so much fun to write. Who doesn’t love awkwardly trying to boast about their accomplishments and appear humble at the same time, while cherry-picking parts of their past to tell complete strangers? The key to writing the personal statement is getting people to want to read the personal statement. Write something that draws the reader in and make them want to learn about you.
You get 3 pages with the aforementioned font and margin criteria to do an intro (and most people like to relate that one trip they took as a kid to a museum or the space center that sparked their never-ending love for science, so please only choose that approach out of necessity), academic achievements, undergrad/industrial research experience, and another round of intellectual merit and broader impacts. Yes, you need both sections in both statements. Obviously these are important, so that brings us to our next section…
Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts
What do I mean by ‘intellectual merit’ (IM) and ‘broader impacts’ (BI)? In both your research plan (RP) and personal statement (PS), the NSF GRFP wants you to explicitly address IM and BI, so heads up.
IM is defined as a criterion that encompasses the potential to advance knowledge. (From the solicitation)
In other words: is your research useful? Is the research scientifically sound and well-reasoned? Is the research using novel methods and moving your field forward? Are you qualified to do this research? Will the research advance the field? Is your research timely? This one is a little weird, but essentially, is it a current topic in the field, or was it an interesting question 100 years ago? Are you using up-to-date methods, or is the method you’re using very old and outdated? Are you in the right lab to do the research? If you’re a grad student in a lab that does comparative biomechanics and you are proposing an astrophysics study, you are not in the right lab and the reviewers will notice this. Tailor your research plan to the lab you currently work in or want to work in. Does your lab do something unique from other labs in the field? Does it have its own tested or new method for doing something? Use that.
In the RP, talk about why this research is useful not only to your field (which you should have also addressed in the intro somewhere, but reinforcing it is a good thing) but also to the rest of the scientific community and/or society. Can people in other fields or industry use your research in a meaningful way? If you’re doing research on cancer genetics, this box is an easy one to check. If you do research on the function and development of a toad’s little toe, you might need to be a little creative here.
The PS tends to be formulaic, though the details differ. People will talk about their undergrad research experience and why they’re in that specific field. Then in the IM, they’ll talk about how their research experience uniquely qualifies them to do this particular research. IOr if you changed fields between undergrad and grad (which is not uncommon), you can talk about what skills you gained in undergrad research that you’ll use in the current research plan. The NSF wants to know why you’re doing this research and what qualifies you to do this research. You’re going to have problems if you and the research you’re doing don’t match up. Hopefully this won’t be the case for a lot of people who want to write the GRFP, because they ideally already know which field they’re in, why they’re in it, and why they are qualified to do the research.
Last year, because I didn’t have any work in biomechanics, I phrased it this way, essentially:
“I’m the perfect person to do this biomechanics project because it is an inter-disciplinary project and I have physics training, biology training, computational experience, data mining experience, electronics experience, animal experimentation experience, and field experience. I can bring the skills I’ve learned in all these various areas of research to work on the biomechanics project I propose here which has an animal experimentation component, a computational component, and data analysis.”
My connection between myself and my proposed research was rather lengthy, but it worked.
Like I said above, having your new PI write a letter is important. They can talk about why your research plan has merit and reinforce what you say in your statements (which they’ve probably read).
BI encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. (From the solicitation)
Broader impacts is generally the area people have the most difficulty writing, so I’ll take a bit of time to walk through this.
Here are some questions to help you start thinking:
How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g. gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?
It’s best to touch on several of these questions, but you don’t need to address all of them.
You might be thinking, didn’t we already cover how your research would be beneficial to society in the IM? Yes, we did. You need to talk about it a second time, but from a different perspective. And again, you can address certain questions in the RP and others in the PS.
Will you disseminate your findings? How will you spread the good word? For example, you can say you’ll spread the results of your research via presentations, publications, conferences, articles, blog posts, or youtube videos. The buzzword here is “dissemination.” This one feels like a waste of space because you’re either in grad school or plan to be in grad school, and why would you do all this work to not publish at the end? Of course you’re going to publish. They know this, you know this. Unfortunately, this is just one of the boxes you need to check for the reviewers to be happy. They want you to explicitly say you’ll disseminate your work into the scientific community.
How will you contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes? Or, how well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g. gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? Or phrased another way, how will you contribute to the modern push to include minorities in STEM research? Try to use one if not multiple of the following buzzwords: “under-represented”, “female”, “STEM”, “minority”.
To give you an idea of why this is important, I’m currently in a biology department with 100+ graduate students, two of which are black males. One of the graduate students in my lab came in with a cohort of 18 people, which included 8 women. Five years later, only four women are still in the program. That’s a 50% attrition rate. These are some of the statistics that NSF wants to change, and saying you’re doing something to help change them is important. Unfortunately, these aren’t just buzzwords; these are actual problems.
Some people say they’ll do outreach at an all-girls school helping to teach science classes. Some people say they’ll tutor at inner-city or underprivileged schools. Women who are applying have an advantage. Simply saying you’re a woman in a STEM PhD field is already garnering you points because you yourself are helping the statistics. The same holds true with other minority applicants. Just by being in STEM, you’re already helping to change it.
How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? An easy way to satisfy this it so say you’ll include high-school and/or undergrads in your research project. Get the young’ins interested in research early. Adjectives like “minority” or “female” in front of “undergraduates” helps tick two boxes with one sentence.
I think I’ll mentor students most interested in the research, putting a preference on neither gender nor ethnicity, so I said I would focus instead on mentoring undergrads interested in inter-disciplinary work. And yes, multi-/inter-disciplinary is another of NSF’s buzzwords.
You can also say you’ll include your research in classes you’re TAing/teaching.
To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Checking this box is hard and most of the time you won’t need to address this one. If you can, though, go for it. An easy example is working with a program to bring schools/classes/students into your lab so they can see research. You’re fostering both a partnership between your grad program and the visiting schools and contributing to the education of youngsters about research. Bam.
Lastly, how will you help bring science to society? Can you incorporate your research into the outreach? This is why writing BI is a pain. Coming up with outreach ideas for the future is hard. Trying to incorporate your research into outreach is harder, and I can’t offer much advice about how to do that. Definitely talk to other people in the field, they’ll most likely have experience with how to accomplish this.
One RP I’ve read focused on doing research in another country, and they were going to enlist local scientists in their research and help train them to keep the research going while they were back in the states. They were able incorporate BI straight into their research, which is pretty impressive and stands out.
One of the reviewers said that unique and specific BIs are significantly better. Be able to point to something specific you did in your past (e.g., helped orchestrate a multi-school science fair) or something specific now (e.g., working as grad mentor in a program helping black undergrad students succeed in STEM programs).
The reviewer also said one the worst things you can do is not be creative with your BIs. There are the standard BIs everybody includes (dissemination, undergrads, TAing), but not going beyond that comes across as a lack of passion for outreach and a lack of creativity.
Again, be strategic about what you talk about in the RP and PS. In the RP BI, you’ll want to address dissemination, undergrads, and incorporating research into outreach. In the PS BI, you’ll discuss your past outreach experiences and your current/future outreach projects. Use one section to reinforce the other.For example, there’s one student here who runs a science youtube channel. In her RP, she said she’ll include her research in her youtube channel. In the PS, she talked at great length on what videos she’s already made, how she has a grant to travel and make the videos at important labs and locales, and what’s she planned for the future.
Having to come up with two relatively different BI sections can be a pain, but if you use the space creatively, you can make your BIs stand out among the pack.
As I said, last year I had 3 letters that focused on my research experience and one letter addressing the intellectual merit of my plan. This year, I have one intellectual merit/research letter, one entire letter for research, and one letter addressing my passion for science communication and outreach. Because the reviewers place equal weight on IM and BI, I felt it worth asking for a letter to specifically address my BI. Again, I’m playing mix and match with the qualities and aspects the NSF wants to see, just over both sections this time.
Alex Lang has a google drive with the RPs and PSs of a lot of applicants. I highly recommend reading a variety and looking at how the writers incorporated their BIs in both the RP and PS. There is a significant amount of “monkey-see, monkey-do” in writing the GRFP, so don’t worry too much about borrowing and adapting a good idea to your particular situation if you find one.
The NSF’s side of things
You might have noticed throughout my writing I’ve used the phrase “They say they will do…” What you write in your RP and PS isn’t binding. You don’t have to do exactly what you say you will. You may write one research plan, but then between submitting the GRFP and receiving it, you decided to go in another direction. That is completely okay. You might say you’ll get involved with outreach program A but then decide you like B better. That is also okay.
The reason for this flexibility is that the NSF isn’t funding your project. They are funding you. They are selecting people they think will be successful. This entire application allows the reviewers and panel to compare people against people, not research plans against research plans. I mean, if your research plan sucks and the science quality isn’t up to snuff, you’ll feel the pain. The RP is there to see what type of scientist you are. Can you come up with a useful, well-thought-out project, are you a creative thinker, how well do you communicate your ideas?
Another thing you might have noticed was the phrase “checking a box.” This was to try to impart the idea that there’s a checklist you need to follow and complete to the utmost of your ability. One of the reviewers made the unfortunate observation that the NSF will choose to fund the application that has the most boxes checked over the application that has a really amazing research plan or BI but is missing half of the other things they’re looking for.
So, in order to be competitive, you have to check the boxes. Creative, novel, useful research? Check. Dissemination? Check. Undergrads? Check. Minority-focused BI? Check. Minority Undergrads? Double check. Past outreach experience? Check. Uses buzzwords? Check. Writes passionately about outreach? Check. Benefit to society? Check. And the list goes on…
Now, write a good RP and PS in 5 pages while checking all these boxes, being creative and unique, communicating your ideas well, detailing your life story in a way that makes people actually want to read your life story, and expressing your personality. Yeah, this is hard.
While you’re writing your RP, you will most likely have your PI review and edit it. Be very, very careful that the PI doesn’t write it for you. There’s a keyword reviewers use in panels to say they think the professor wrote the RP for the student: “distinct disconnect.” If they don’t think the same person wrote the RP and PS, then they’ll say there’s a distinct disconnect and they’ll think very carefully about funding that person, if not out-right tossing the application into the “nope” pile. In your PS, you’ll try to show your personality in your writing, be more colloquial, while your RP will be very formal. There will be a natural shift in the tone and style. However, there are still certain words and phrases that people use that let the reader know it’s the same person behind the keyboard.
In the same line of thinking, you will probably have numerous people read your RP–the professor, fellow grads/undergrads, friends and family to see if people outside the field understand it. Your RP will come out very polished, organized, concise, and free of typos. Your PS probably won’t go through such rigorous proofing. Reviewers notice when the RP is polished and shiny and perfect and the PS is not, which might make them think that the professor wrote the RP. Reviewers have noted that PSs tend to be less concise and organized, gushy, and have typos (of which I’m guilty). It may be awkward having people read your PS, but make sure it is read by other people. If you have jokes, see how the jokes are received by different audiences. Have them check to see if you’re too braggy about past accomplishments, which is another turn-off for the reviewers, apparently. Make sure you pay just as much attention to the PS as you do the RP.
Oh my god my fingers hurt. I hope whoever had the stamina to read all the way to the end of this blog finds the information useful. As always, please let me know if I said something wrong and inaccurate. Feedback is always appreciated.