Nsf Proposed Plan Of Research Essay

​Advice to Applicants of the NSF's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP)

​2017-2018 Deadlines: by 5 pm Local Time

Monday, October 23, 2017 - Geosciences, Life Sciences
Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Engineering, Materials Research
Thursday, October 26, 2017 - Social Sciences; Psychology; STEM Education and Learning
Friday, October 27, 2017 - Chemistry, Mathematical Sciences, Physics, and Astronomy

Thursday, November 2, 2017 - References letters for all fields of study
What do I need to complete to apply?

2 essays
3 recommendation letters
Fastlane (online submission system) requirements
Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement (3 pages maximum)

This is how your review panel will get to know the real you. Sure, they'll have your transcripts and list of awards or whatnot (see Fastlane extras below), but that won't be as important as what they will find in this essay. In a presentation by the program director, Dr. Gisele Muller-Parker, she said "the GRFP program funds people, not projects." They want to know that whoever they fund will be an autonomous, self-motivated researcher. They want to find someone who has significant potential to advance scientific knowledge (intellectual merit), AND benefit society (broader impacts). That's why they are now requiring separate sections for each of these criteria in bothessays (more on these in the Advice section below).

Here is how I decided to break down this first essay: 

1.5 pages: Previous research experience (relevant background)
1.0 page: Intellectual merit and broader impacts (personal statement)
0.5 page: Current research and future goals

But composition will vary based on how much research experience you have and what you want to highlight about yourself. I have read some successfully funded essays where the authors speak very little of their previous research (some applicants don't have much previous research experience), but they instead decided to focus on something that made them stand out from the crowd. These are the 3 pages that will help the reviewers remember you. What makes you unique? Why are you the better choice than all the rest of the applicants? Get your confidence hat out and brag away! This is also the place where you will make a case for why you will succeed at graduate research. What have you learned? How do you know this is what you want to do? And, finally, they want to find someone who has the capacity to be a leader. Talk about specific experiences where you had to take charge, face adversity, and grow, and how those experiences will help you succeed in the future.
Graduate Research Plan Statement (2 pages maximum)

This is the meat and potatoes for what you plan to research (yes, I'm from the Midwest). This is how the review panel will determine if you are able to comb through the literature, find a 'knowledge gap', and then propose a way to fill that gap. This needs to be the clearest and most concrete part of your application (no vague statements of action). It should be easy to read, and should link to your Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement somehow. Reviewers like to see how your previous experiences have led you, or motivated you, to pursue this particular line of research.

Here's how I broke mine down the second time around: single spaced, some bold and italicized words to highlight sections or important information, and as many specific details as I could fit into each sentence as possible. 2 pages runs out quickly, so every sentence, and every word is important. The feedback from my first review panel in 2013 recommended I have a defined set of hypotheses, and that my experimental approach should clearly answer the scientific aims or research objectives (see Examples at the bottom of this page).

Research Objectives
Preliminary Results (if you have any from previous research)
Study Site (if proposed research has a field work component)
Experimental Approach
Intellectual Merit
Broader Impacts
Recommendation Letters (3)

You've probably heard it before, but I'll say it again, these need to be people who know you. Make sure they have 1) read both of your statements, 2) know where you are applying or going to graduate school, 3) have a copy of your CV so they can reference awards and past activities, and 4) have a clear idea of what your goals for the future are. One of the questions I get asked a lot is 'What type of information should referees include in their GRFP reference letter?' I recommend emailing your references the list below, along with a description of the intellectual merit and broader impacts criteria. You'll want each of your references to be able to speak to both. Don't be afraid to ask each of them to include specific points you would like to highlight. They'll actually probably appreciate the direction with how busy their schedules can be.

A reference letter-writer should:

- indicate department and institution, how long they have known you, and in what capacity
- comment on your potential to:
              + succeed in graduate school
              + conduct original research
              + communicate effectively
              + work cooperatively with peers and supervisors
              + make unique contributions to your chosen discipline and to society in general
- comment on your leadership potential both in your chosen field, and as a member of the scientific community
- discuss a specific positive experience or interaction they have had with you
- Note: if you referee is your research supervisor, they should comment on the originality of your proposal, and communicate what role she or he played in assisting you with your proposal.
Fastlane Application Extras

1) Transcripts (note: they do NOT need your GRE scores)
2) Proposed MS or PhD program and collegiate education experiences
3) List of fellowships, scholarships, teaching and work experiences relevant to your field of study
4) List of significant academic honors, publications, and presentations
5) Field of Study (this helps determine your panel; more on that below)
6) Proposed research title and keywords
Suggested Timeline

Alright, so I know scientists wait 'til the last minute to do everything, but if you start super early, you'll have plenty of time to have multiple people read your essays, write your recommendations letters, etc. Also, if you're finishing up your senior year of undergrad, or just getting started in grad school, you're going to have a million other things going on, so by spreading it out, it doesn't become such a burden! Here's the schedule I tried to stick to both times I applied:

June: Find out as much information as you can about the program. After you're done here, check the NSF GRFP website, thegradcafe  forum, and some of the resources I have listed below.

July: Start reading the literature and combing through the discussion/conclusions sections for potential 'knowledge gaps' you could propose to 'fill in' with your Graduate Research Plan Statement. Reach out to potential advisers (if you're an undergraduate student), or meet with your current research adviser (if you're a graduate student) to discuss potential topics for your proposal.

August: Outline & draft Graduate Research Plan Statement, contact recommendation letter writers and set up a brief meeting with each

September: Outline & draft Personal, Relevant Background, & Future Goals Statement, send to reference letter writers for review/editing

October: Revise/edit statements to fit within page limits, check in with reference letter writers

End of October: Submit a day early!

Wait for what will seem like FOREVER............

March/April: Hear back from NSF!

May 1st: Decide!
My Advice

1. Read the ENTIRE solicitation.
This one may seem obvious, but I think every applicant has good intentions when they start reading it, and then they realize how long it is. It's a list of instructions, and the language is pretty dry, so it's easy to lose focus and start thinking about all the great stuff you're going to write, but the solicitation tells you exactly what you need to do in order to win. Read it carefully, and then reread it.

2. Research what has worked for others in the past.
There are a bunch of great resources out there, so go ahead and use them! More and more often, successful applicants are posting their proposals online, sometimes along with reviewer comments. It's helpful to see what others have done, and you'll have a better idea of what the reviewers are looking for. You can also join the conversation now, on Twitter (@NSFGRFP), on LinkedIn, or at thegradcafe forum.

3. Pick your field of study before you start writing.

Don't make this decision lightly! There are a lot of options for which field of study your proposed research may fall under (a list can be found at the end of the solicitation). There is also an interdisciplinary option (where you can pick more than one field), and an 'other' option where you fill in your own. These alternative options can be risky in my opinion though. The NSF uses your choice to inform their decision on who your review panel will be (which consists of 3 reviewers usually). If you choose the interdisciplinary or other option, you are probably going to get 1 or 2 reviewers from one field, and 1 or 2 from another field. Not 3 that are fluent in your interdisciplinary or specialized field. So, one or more of your reviewers may not have a knowledge base for the state of the field, or know what the standard practices are to be able to effectively evaluate the originality of your proposed research. You want them to find you impressive. In order to do that, they need to easily understand and identify with every word in your application. Also, choosing multiple or alternative fields makes it harder for you (see #6).
4. Find a knowledge gap.
Even though the GRFP program is constantly reminding applicants that they "fund people, not projects", I think reviewers have a hard time not making a judgement about whether they think the research is relevant/novel or not. Even if you don't know what it is exactly that you want to research in graduate school, pick a general field, and start reading about what's been done.

​There are two ways you can get started:

1) Pick a school you're interested in, choose an adviser you could see yourself working with, read their publications.

I went with option 1 the first year, because I was an undergraduate and wasn't totally sure what I wanted to research yet. I knew that I wanted to combine chemistry and the environment, so I started searching Web of Science (check with your university library for how to log in) and came to atmospheric chemistry. I started reading the articles and writing down the authors' names. I looked up where they were located (university, government lab, etc.) and decided if that was a school/program I might want to attend. If all those things matched up, I emailed each of them and asked to set up a phone call to discuss their future research directions. Here's a sample email you could send to break the ice.


2) Pick a general area of research you're interested in, and hit the literature.

If you are already in graduate school, you might want to go with option 2. Start with review articles, and look in the Discussion or Conclusions for 'future research directions' or 'knowledge gaps'. Take note of the authors that keep popping up, and take a look at what else they've done to get an idea of where the field is heading. Talk to your adviser and other researchers in your department/field too. Sometimes, the state of the field is well beyond what has recently been published, so it helps to talk to people and visit their websites (if they keep them updated).

5. Start with an outline.

After you've read the literature, taken some notes on your ideas for a project, and chosen a field of study, make an outline for what your 2-page proposal is going to look like. I would definitely start with a broad, impactful statement that relates to everyone who may read it (see examples essays). Then, throughout your introduction or background paragraph, start to narrow in (rather quickly) to your specific area of research and how it relates to that first statement. In this first paragraph, you should point out the knowledge gap you found too, so then you can transition into your specific research aims and hypotheses. Describe in detail your experimental design and how that will answer your science questions, and make sure to have both an intellectual merit and broader impacts section. See #9 for what the solicitation has to say about those.

Here are some hints I picked up from Writing Science by Dr. Josh Schimel:

                    1. Use the ABDCE structure: Action first, then Background, Development, Climax, and finish up with a strong Ending
                    2. Remember the SUCCES model: keep it Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and tell a Story
                    3. Goals: Create curiosity, define WHY knowledge gap is important, focus on science questions (not objectives)
                    4. Endings are power positions; end of sentence, end of paragraph, end of proposal; make them count
                    5. Paragraphs should be L-D structure: Lead-Development; make your point first, then describe
                    6. Sentences should have a opening (topic), an action (strong verb), and a resolution (stress)
Also write an outline for what you want to highlight in your 3-page personal statement. Here are some questions I asked myself (and answered) before I started to write. 

                    1. Why are you fascinated by your research area?
                    2. When did you become interested in your research area, and what have you learned about it so far?
                    3. How have you learned about your research area; classes, research experience, work, seminars, reading, etc?
                    4. If you have work or research experience, what did you learn (specific skills acquired)?
                    5. What is unique and distinctive about you and/or your life story? What makes you, you?
                    6. What are some specific examples of your leadership skills? Have you had to work on a team before?
                    7. Are there any gaps, discrepancies, or blemishes in your academic record?
                    8. Have you had to overcome any unique obstacles or hardships (economic, familial, physical, etc)?
                    9. What personal characteristics would others describe you as having (integrity, compassion, persistence, etc)? How
                        have you demonstrated these characteristics?
                    10. What are your personal and individual strengths? What are your weaknesses and how are you overcoming them?
                    11. How has scientific research helped you better understand society, the environment, etc?
                    12. What are your career goals? How will this fellowship help you achieve those goals?
                    13. Why might you be a stronger, and possibly more successful, candidate than other applicants?
                    14. What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the review panel to choose your proposal? 

6. Write for the review panel.

You want to make sure that whoever reads your essays completely, and easily, understands everything you say. You want to be memorable. If I've learned anything from transitioning from a disciplinary field to an interdisciplinary one, is that each field has its own culture and language. For example, when you think about a chemist, what comes to mind? How about when you think of an engineer? A physicist, a psychologist, or a biologist? The list goes on and on, but each one has a history, and a culture that has developed over the years. I think it's helpful to keep this in mind when you're writing, and when you choose the most appropriate panel for your proposed research. You could be a physicist applying to an chemistry panel, or a geographer applying to an engineering panel. Just like knowing your audience before a presentation helps you tailor your slides, think about who you are writing for before you even start writing.

How the panel works: The NSF will receive your application, run a compliance check that looks for completeness (missing reference letters, etc), separate it based on what year you are (undergraduate, first year graduate student, nontraditional student, etc.) and then send it on to 3 reviewers in the field of study you selected. Each reviewer gets about 30 applications to read individually. Then, they meet with the other 2 reviewers (oftentimes in a virtual meeting) and decide together who the top candidates are that they want to recommend for funding. You want to make sure your proposal ends up in the 'fund' pile. Some things that could land you in the 'reject' pile are:

                       1. Not following directions: exceeding page limits, not addressing intellectual merit and broader impacts, etc.
                       2. Making it hard to read: large blocks of text with no headings, not writing FOR your reviewer
                       3. Repeating yourself: you want your essays to be connected but separate; use every sentence to tell the reviewer   
                           something new about your potential to succeed
                       4. Writing style and content: don't be negative, dishonest, or use slang/abbreviations that aren't well known; check
                            your spelling and grammar too (a few mishaps are okay - see examples below - but do your best to proofread)
                       5. Plagiarism: make sure what you write is your own, you'll have to sign a certification to it before you submit
                       6. Vague statements: don't say you want to help humanity unless you can say specifically how, and don't say your
                            research is going to develop new methods, instruments, or data unless you say what kind (I made the latter
                            mistake the first time around)

7. Keep it clear, concrete, and concise.

Find your own voice and writing style. Stay away from jargon, prepositional phrases, and the long French or Latin versions of words when, in conversation, we normally use the short, Anglo-Saxon version instead (utilize vs use, initiate vs start, attempt vs try, methodology vs method, etc). They take up space, and it definitely doesn't make it any easier for your reviewer to read. Thanks again to Writing Science for those hints! Finally, the reviewer should be able to skim over your proposal and quickly be able to answer the following questions:

                        1. What is/are the science question(s)?
                        2. What are the objectives of the proposal?
                        3. What are the hypotheses?
                        4. How is the applicant testing those hypotheses?
                        5. Does this applicant/proposal have the potential to advance our scientific knowledge?
                        6. How will this applicant/proposal benefit society?

8. Choose your reference letter writers carefully.

This should be one of the first things you do, but take your time in deciding. Generally, whoever you think is going to be overseeing/advising your research plan, she or he should be one of your letter writers. The other two could be a mentor, a professor you had in class, a previous supervisor, or research adviser for example. They should know you well, and be able to comment on specific encounters they have had with you (see reference letter section). Once you have decided on who you will ask, email them early, and attach a description of the fellowship, and review criteria. Don't be afraid to tell them what you would like them to write about. This will ensure that your references are all writing about a different positive aspect about you, and your reviewers get a new piece of information with each letter. Send them your CV/resume and tell them what you have been up to lately. Schedule a lunch meeting and stay in touch throughout the application process.

Note: You can select up to 5 letter writers. Only 3 will be submitted to the review panel, and you get to choose which 3 those are in the Fastlane system. It's good to have 2 extras in case the others forget or get too busy, and end up not turning in their letters on time. Also, you might feel like you're nagging, but they usually appreciate a reminder email or two so they're not hurrying to write your letter the day before it's due.

9. Explicitly highlight intellectual merit and broader impacts.

These are the only 2 criteria the reviewers have to comment on (see reviewer feedback in Examples section below), so you want to make sure they stand out. Here's the description from the solicitation this year:
"The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge; and the Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. The following elements should be considered in the review for both criteria:

1. What is the potential for the proposed activity to:
            a. Advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields; and
            b. Benefit society or advance desired society outcomes?
2. To what extent do the proposed activities suggest & explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
3. Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale? Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success?
4. How well-qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities?
5. Are there adequate resources available to the PI (either at the home organization or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed activities?

The NSF values the advancement of scientific knowledge and activities that contribute to achievement of societally relevant outcomes. Such outcomes include, but are not limited to: full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); improved STEM education and educator development at any level; increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology; improved well-being of individuals in society; development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce; increased partnerships between academia, industry, and others; improved national security; increased economic competitiveness of the US; and enhanced infrastructure for research and education."

10. Plan to be done a day early.

If you've done it right, one extra day is not enough time to really add anything substantial to your application. You'll feel more relaxed if you're ready to submit a day early. Also, the system converts your word docs (or PDFs for that matter) into their own PDF format. The second time around, I submitted on the last day, and when the system converted my PDF application to their format, it pushed my personal statement onto the next page! I had to drop FOUR lines. I totally lost my cool. It wasn't a good feeling and it totally stressed me out. If you finish a day early though, you'll have plenty of time to rework that essay and make sure you submit under no duress. :) Just be sure that when you submit, it is completely finished because once you submit, that's it! No changes.
Insights from the NSF

1. Research what the NSF has recently funded: Go to the NSF website, click on 'awards', 'search awards', and type in keywords related to your field of study.
2. Sign up for emails from the NSF: They send out promotional and informational emails about the GRFP as well as other job or internship opportunities.
3. Underrepresented fields/people are encouraged to apply: the social sciences are supported but not that many people apply! So, spread the word! The award has been revised to be more inclusive of nontraditional graduate students too, such as those who have been in the military/peace corps, or had to take time off school to work in order to provide for a family for example.  
4. If you get honorable mention, don't get discouraged, they offer ~50 awards each year to the honorable mentions after offers are sent out and declinations sent back.
5. On average, ~800 applications are returned without review because of missing reference letters, not meeting page requirements, etc. You definitely don't want to be one of those!
6. NSF treats the intellectual merit and broader impacts as the most important aspects of the proposal, and equally important. Don't treat them as an afterthought.
7. Remember: You don't necessarily have to research exactly what you propose. If you decide to attend a different program than the one you talk about in your essays, or study in a different field, they have simple procedures for that.
8. In your personal statement, talk about what you have had to overcome to get to where you are today; what makes you different/stand out?
9. Contact a previous GRFP winner in your field by email to ask about their experience!
10. Hey faculty members! Want one of your graduate students to win a GRFP? Serve on a review panel! The best way to know a good application from a not-so-good one, is to read a whole bunch of them, right? :)

Essay Examples

If you would like to share your essays here, either with your name attached or anonymously, please send them to mallory.ladd(at)gmail(dot)com with the following information:

The field you applied to
The year you applied
What year in school you were when you applied
PDFs of your two essays and reviewer feedback if you'd like to share that as well

If you have a website or blog of your own you'd like me to link to, please include that too! :)

Annual Activities Report Examples

Additional Resources

The Graduate Mentor - Preparing your NSF Graduate Fellowship 
General advice, link to a helpful 'self-scoring rubric', and some sample essays (includes reviewer comments)

A Guide to NSF Success
AAAS publication with general advice when applying to NSF, list of common mistakes

GRFP Essay Insights from Robin G. Walker 
U Missouri website with lots of great information and advice

Advice from former review panel members
History of program, some statistics and trends, description of intellectual merit and broader impacts

Jennifer Wang - Assistant professor at Fairhaven College (PhD at University of Washington)
Great list of more sites to visit for advice and samples

Rachel C. Smith - Awardee from UC Berkeley
Example essays from multiple fields

Michael Kiparsky - Awardee from UC Berkeley
General advice and list of other possible fellowships to apply to 

Jean Fan - Awardee and PhD candidate at Harvard University
Background on program, list of other fellowship programs, sample essays, great blog on her research too

Alex Lang - Awardee and former PhD candidate at Boston University
Outline of program, tips for getting started, links to more advice, lots of sample essays and reviewer feedback

Philip Guo - Assistant professor at University of Rochester (PhD at Stanford)
Detailed description of program, advice for GRFP, NDSEG, and Hertz fellowships (also check out his memoir, The Ph.D. Grind)

Claire M.Bowen - Awardee and PhD candidate at Notre Dame
Lots of great advice about writing, with examples of what not to do too
Good luck to this year's applicants!

Below you'll find an overview of the program, tips and advice on writing the essays, and some examples from past winners. But if you have another question I haven't answered here, please feel free to send me an email.

Due to the volume of requests I get each year to review essays, I have had to start limiting which ones I am able to review. But I will do my best to review as many as I can on a first-come, first-served basis.

Good luck to all!

Important note: As of 2016, you may now only apply to the program once as a undergraduate and once as a graduate student. If you applied in 2015 as a grad student and did not win, you are 'grandfathered' into the old rules and may apply once more.

The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program is the oldest fellowship of its kind, and has acceptance rates on par with some of the most prestigious fellowships in the country. Since the start of the program in 1952, there have been over 500,000 applicants, and more than 46,500 proposals funded. 40 of those awardees have gone on to become Nobel laureates, and over 400 are now a part of the National Academy of Sciences.
The fellowship offers a 3-year, annual $34,000 stipend, and $12,000 cost of education allowance which goes toward tuition and fees. If accepted to the program, you are also offered opportunities for international research experience, professional development, and access to XSEDE; not to mention... no more TA-ing, and no more restrictions on what you're allowed to research because the grant your adviser is funding you on doesn't cover that area. You are free to work on your own research.

For more details on which disciplines are supported and who can apply, here is the NSF's summary of the program.
Geoscience, Atmospheric Chemistry - Krystal Vasquez (2017)
Topic: Isoprene chemistry by GC-HR-TOF analysis
Written as a second-year graduate student (Funded)
Essays and her own advice here

Security and Sociology (Interdisciplinary) - Elissa Redmiles (2017)
Topic: Individual security behavior
Written as a second-year graduate student (Funded)
Essays here

Life Sciences, Evolutionary Biology - Jenna Pruett (2017)
Topic: Maternal effects on genetics in painted turtles
Written as a first-year graduate student (Funded​)
Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement
Graduate Research Plan Statement

Life Sciences, Biochemistry - Tyler Couch (2017)
Topic: Mechanisms behind selective gene silencing, cell type specification and differentiation (Funded)
Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement
Graduate Research Plan Statement
Reviewer Feedback

Chemistry - Anonymous (2017)
​Topic: Tissue engineering, electrochemistry, cardiac mechanisms
Written as an undergraduate senior (Funded)
Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement
Graduate Research Plan Statement

Life Sciences, Physiology - Lillian Horin (2017)
Topic: Hormonal regulation in elephant seal pups
Written as an undergraduate senior (Funded)
Essays here

Geosciences, Geomorphology - Kelly Kochanski (2016)
​Topic: Glaciology, geometry and evolution of aeolian snow bedforms
Written as a second-year graduate student (Award Offered)
Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement
Graduate Research Plan Statement
Reviewer Feedback

Astrophysics - Carl Fields (2016)
Topic: Stellar structure of massive stars and core collapse supernovae explosion mechanisms
Written as an undergraduate senior (Funded)
Essays here
Neuroscience - Christian Cazeres (2016)
Topic: Endogenous opioid system and its role in stress-induced cognitive impairments
Written as a post-baccalaureate (Funded)
Essays here

Chemical Engineering -
 Anonymous (2015)
Topic: Degradation and regeneration of aminosilica adsorbents in CO2 capture
Written as a senior undergraduate student (Funded)
Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement
Graduate Research Statement
Reviewer Feedback

Psychology - Anonymous (2015)
Topic: Implementation and dissemination of Bayesian bias mitigation methods
Written as a post-baccalaureate (Funded)
Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement
Graduate Research Statement
Reviewer Feedback

Genetics - Anonymous (2015)
Topic: Plant breeding and genetics, systems biology, and metabolic models for improved genotype-phenotype mapping
Written as a post-baccalaureate (Funded)
Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement
Graduate Research Statement

Psychology - Nicholas Coles (2015)
Topic: Core effect structure, facial expressions, and emotion
Written as a first year PhDstudent (Funded)
Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement
Graduate Research Statement 

Chemistry - Anonymous (2014)
Topic: Porous, breathing MOF's for CO2 capture 
Written as a first year PhD student (Funded)
Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement
Graduate Research Statement

Biogeochemistry - Mallory Ladd (2014)
Topic: Organic matter-mineral interactions in permafrost soils 
Written as a first year PhD student (Funded)
Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement
Graduate Research Statement
Reviewer Feedback

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Resources

If you would like more information on attending one of our NSF Support Series workshops, please consult our Professional Development events calendar. Students who interested in the GRFP or are actively working on the application can contact the Office of Grants and Fellowships at gradgrants@nd.edu for more information.

Applying for the NSFGRFP

Applicants should first explore the user-friendly NSFGRFP applicant website.
Familiarize yourself with the official NSF solicitation.
Read the NSF Guide to Proposal Writing.
Create a Fastlane user account and read the Applicant Guide.

The Graduate Research Statement (PDF)

You must convince the readers that your plan of research:

  • is worthwhile.
  • is feasible within the grant parameters.
  • should be undertaken by you.

Choosing a project:

  • Begin with an area with which you are familiar. You should be comfortable with the concepts and vocabulary pertinent to the field.
  • Complete a literature review to get an idea of what questions are being asked in your area, and what still remains to be done.
  • Imagine the “next question” to ask of the work being done in the lab you work in (or have worked in).
  • Frame your interest in a hypothesis driven manner.
  • Brainstorm the experiments you will complete and outline what the results would mean one way or another for your hypothesis.
  • Discuss your research plan with a faculty member. Verify that your program has the resources to complete your project and that your intellectual merit and broader impact are realistic within its scope.

Drafting your proposal:

Your project proposal must demonstrate:

  • the significance of your research.
  • the originality and creativity of your idea.
  • the soundness and rigor of your methodology.
  • that you are in the right institution to pursue your plan.

Proposal components:

Title: Create a clear, concise but descriptive title.

Key Words: list several descriptors that best describe or categorize your study

Introduction: State the nature and scope of the specific problem(s). Cite key findings from literature that demonstrate the scope of the problem and the gap your research fills.

Hypotheses or Research Questions: List 2-3 specific hypotheses.

Research Plan: Describe your methods, connecting specific methods with specific hypotheses. Explain your timeline, any compliance issues, how you will monitor and evaluate progress, what limitations may exist, and what your contingency plan may be. Note anticipated results and give a rationale for these expectations. If your plan is part of a larger team effort, clearly explain your specific responsibilities and the role of your work in the larger project.

Intellectual Merit & Broader Impact: Restate the significance of the problem. Describe the potential outcome of the research, and who will benefit and how. Explain how you will communicate your findings.

References: Include key citations. References do count within the two-page limit.

The NSFGRFP Research Guide may be helpful in planning your proposed research essay.

Questions to ask of your completed first draft:

Intellectual Merit:

  • How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
  • How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project?
  • To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
  • How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity?
  • Is there sufficient access to resources?

Broader Impacts:

  • 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?


  • Is there sufficient documentation of the background and justification for the study?
  • Does the plan address a significant need or problem?
  • Does the plan address NSF funding priorities?
  • Are the proposed methods rigorous and appropriate for the hypothesis? Are the steps or the process clear? Are potential pitfalls addressed and a contingency plan been outlined? Is the plan doable in the time allotted?
  • Are the intellectual merits and broader impact suggested realistic for this project?
  • Does the project proposal address the aims of the NSF, and the GRFP specifically?

The Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement (PDF)

This essay will work to demonstrate your ability to successfully undertake your proposed project and your potential to be a leader in science and/or education.

Like your research proposal, it must address the intellectual merit and broader impact criteria. It should be an integrated narrative that motivates, both personally and professionally, your choice of graduate study, and indicates how your future goals stem from your past experience.

This essay should show readers how well prepared you are to conduct research and how likely you are to complete your proposed project. You should give concrete examples of experiences in which you demonstrated characteristics like ingenuity, resourcefulness, determination, flexibility, reliability, etc.

Possible topics:

  • Experience on faculty-led research projects, research assistantships, leadership on student research teams
  • Experience during internships, field research, study abroad, or employment
  • Experience in coursework, lab work, or scholarship.

For each experience describe your role, your contribution, the outcomes, what you learned, and skills you gained.

  • Describe how the experience will be useful to your future research, and how it has influenced your perspective and/or determination.
  • Describe how the experience helped you improve your analytical skills, self-direction, time management, creativity, resourcefulness, etc.
  • Describe the methods or technical skills acquired: research design, data collection, field research, data analysis, data protection, responsible conduct of research, grant proposal writing, presentation skills, etc.

Remember that reviewers are looking for students who are highly engaged, will encourage diversity, and will advance scientific knowledge that benefits society. You should demonstrate cultural competence, respect for other disciplines and other people, global awareness, and a willingness to integrate science and education.

Possible topics:

  • Research with international faculty and/or on interdisciplinary research projects.
  • Reaching diverse audiences through teaching, scholarship, presentations, public outreach, media, etc.
  • Leadership in field organizations, membership in professional societies, attendance at conferences.

If appears that your proposed research plan would be a challenge given your current ability, you should demonstrate your eagerness to learn the skills necessary to complete it. Give examples of your willingness to seek out and accept feedback and explain your plans to gain the necessary training.

This essay should also demonstrate your potential in a more personal manner: your motivations, your goals, your abilities, your character.

Ideas to address:

Intellectual Merit:

  • How motivated are you to pursue your studies, and this project? What motivates you?
  • What efforts have you undertaken to improve your skills and knowledge, inside and outside the classroom?
  • Can you demonstrate a willingness to challenge assumptions, test new ideas, learn from mistakes, overcome barriers, think creatively, find resources, act independently, etc.?
  • What qualities do you possess that will make you a leader in your field?

Broader Impact:

  • Do you demonstrate an understanding of local and global challenges, and a passion to make a difference in the lives of people in the US and abroad?
  • What are your career aspirations, and how will you contribute to your field?
  • Do you demonstrate leadership qualities as well as the ability to be a collaborative team member?
  • What are/will be your personal contributions to society?


  • What key experiences made you who you are today?
  • What are you passionate about? Why is your research important to you?
  • How have you helped others?
  • How will you adapt to advances in the future?

Steps to writing your essay:

  1. Brainstorm notes about experiences that best demonstrate your research qualifications, your personal strengths, and the motivation for your professional goals.
  2. Reflect on these experiences and decide which best demonstrate your knowledge, skills, and the characteristics that demonstrate potential. Reflect on which experiences best reflect the intellectual merit and broader impact criteria.
  3. Select concrete examples that make your skills, strengths, and motivations clear to your audience.
  4. Choose a writing structure. You might describe your experiences chronologically, or write about your most meaningful experiences first. You might also list skills you have acquired, and give a concrete example of how you applied that skill.
  5. Write a draft of your essay. Don’t be initially concerned if you go over the 3-page limit – it is generally easier and more effective to cut material than to add it. After you’ve included all your relevant experiences, try to identify an overall theme and use this to create a compelling introductory paragraph.
  6. Create a compelling introduction and conclusion that bring your ideas full circle.
  7. Share your essay with the fellowships advisor, writing tutors, family, friends, etc. to get feedback.
  8. Set aside your essay for a few days, and then revise with fresh eyes.

Questions to ask of your draft:

  • Did you provide evidence of your intellectual merit and broader impact with concrete examples?
  • Have you accurately represented your research experiences?
  • Is your past experience connected with your future research and professional goals?
  • Will a reader believe that you have the necessary skills and drive to undertake your proposed research?
  • Does this essay reflect the real you? Does it feel sincere?
  • Is the writing clear, compelling, and detailed?
  • What sets your essay apart from other applications?

Sample essays:

Students interested in studying sample essays for the NSFGRFP should contact the Office of Grants and Fellowships at gradgrants@nd.edu. The sample essays cover most fields and disciplines.

Sample reviewer comments

By analyzing reviewers’ comments on both successful and unsuccessful applications, you can determine what to include in your essays. Elements highlighted in blue will help boost your score, and elements in red should be avoided.


Much of the above material was adapted from GRFP learning materials created by Dr. Robin G. Walker, University of Missouri – Columbia. Visit her GRFP Essay Insights website for more information.

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