How to get an NSF-GRFP without really trying

grfp logoOne of my student volunteers is writing an National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship proposal this year, which got me thinking about the proposal process again. Two years out, I am still so grateful and excited to have received the award. However, I managed to avoid a lot of the associated angst, since I was applying as a senior undergraduate and was mostly thinking of my application as good practice for the next two years. Apparently, I was the right combination of qualified and lucky, because I received the award in 2014. In thinking back, there are a bunch of important little things that simplified the process.

At the bottom of this post, you can find PDFs of my application materials (spot the typo!), but without further ado, I present the rules for getting an NSF-GRF (with as little pain as possible–the title about not trying is probably a lie*):

General Advice:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide Rule: Don’t Panic.
  • The Anti-Fight Club Rule: Talk about the GRFP with faculty and peers early and often. Don’t let the veil of secrecy fall at any point.
  • The Golden Rule: Give unto the GRFP committee the kind of application that you yourself would like to read. Be personable, but only as witty as you actually are.

Writing the personal statement:

  • The Futurama Rule: This is a story about you, but not your past. You probably don’t actually have any major scientific achievements yet. This is a story about what you WILL do for science. Use what you have done to project into the future rather than dwelling in the past.

Writing the research statement:

  • The “the cake is a lie” Rule: Pick a proposal topic you’re passionate about, but don’t feel like you have to follow through with this project for your PhD if you decide later you don’t want to, or shouldn’t. Writing a GRFP isn’t a contract, and you aren’t promising anyone anything.

Revising before submission:

  • Newton’s rule: Climb up the foundations built by others. If you have access to previous award winners or submitters, ask them what they think. They will have seen the application reviews that are released online and will have a better idea of what the committee is looking for.
  • Voltaire’s rule: Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. As I mentioned above, my application contained a couple of typos, and I still got the award. That won’t hold you back if the rest of your application is still good. Embrace your application for what it is.

After submission:

  • Orpheus’ rule: Are you tempted to look back at your application? Don’t do it! You’ll probably just find typos you missed and be filled with anxiety. Put the whole thing out of your mind until late March. It will make you feel a lot better, I promise.

After the results are released:

  • The Damn Spam Rule: Check your spam folder! My award email went there instead of my inbox, so I actually found out from one of the PIs whose lab I was applying to (now my adviser).
  • The Anti-Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence Rule: Make sure to download your reviews from the application committee, regardless of whether or not you get the award. Learn something from the feedback, and fix your mistakes! But beware, they disappear off the NSF server after a few months!

If you’re interested in another take on this process, you can reference my fantastic cohort-mate Theadora’s post HERE about her thoughts on her application and eventual award.

My personal statement

My research proposal

*I only somewhat regret engaging in clickbaiting

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