A Unique Funding Opportunity For Student Scientists: The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Experience 

Oct 14, 2020
From left to right: NSF GRFP Honorary Fellow Kyle Kabasares and NSF GRFP Fellows Jessica N. Howard, Dillon Berger, and Rebecca Riley, participants in the 2019 application cycle from UC Irvine’s Physics and Astronomy department

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in fields within NSF’s mission. The GRFP provides three years of support for the graduate education of individuals who have demonstrated their potential for significant achievements in science, social sciences and engineering research. Check out the website for up-to-date deadline information. Deadlines vary by discipline.

We talked to Jessica Howard, a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine Physics and Astronomy department and current NSF Graduate Research Fellow, to learn more about the program and get some application tips.  

1. What inspired you to apply for the NSF Fellowship?

In particle physics, there are not many opportunities for research fellowships. The National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is particularly unique as NSF’s mission is to fund basic science research. Historically, many discoveries in particle physics have had profound effects on technological advances, but these effects are typically not seen until decades after the fact. For example, studying the abstract properties of light led to practical advances in technology such as radios and microwaves decades later. Such advances revolutionized many areas of our lives but were not in mind during the initial research into the properties of light.

Particle physics, as well as many other basic-science fields, seek to understand the fundamental workings of the universe. We cannot harness what we do not understand, but we also cannot predict the range of practical possibilities until we understand. To me, this is why basic science research is crucial and what attracted me to the NSF GRFP. 

Most scientific fellowships are themed around the outcomes of research, like developing a new drug or treatment for a particular disease. Such goal-oriented research is crucial and impactful to society in an obvious and direct way. On the other hand, basic science research is crucial for future advances that are not yet in our imaginations. However, it can be hard to find fellowships that are willing to invest in science that will have delayed beneficial effects. NSF is one of the only funding institutions with such patience.

The purpose of the NSF GRFP is to fund graduate students in the process of becoming future scientists. It allows graduate students to have the freedom to focus on research and their own professional development in their journey to become well-rounded researchers.

2. What are the benefits of the fellowship? 

First, a bit about how graduate school in science fields works. After getting your undergraduate degree, you decide to go to graduate school either to get your master’s or PhD. Note that it is a common misconception that you have to get your master’s degree before entering a PhD program. This is not the case in scientific fields. The majority of PhD students come into these programs after obtaining only their undergraduate degree.

The goal after getting to graduate school is to do research. Often this requires taking extra coursework to learn the prerequisite information of your field but at some point will always involve actually doing research under the supervision of an advising professor at that university. 

Graduate school costs money, but you do not have to take out loans (1). The university will make sure that your tuition and a livable stipend are funded. That’s right, you get paid to go to graduate school. However, you do not necessarily get paid to do research. If your advising professor has funding, then you typically get paid for the research that you do. However, this is often not the case. Instead, the university will make sure you are funded, but in return, you have to provide a service to the university: you have to help teach undergraduate classes. In other words, you have to be a Teacher’s Assistant (TA) which involves grading and leading discussion sections and labs. This takes up half of your time (assuming a 40 hour workweek), and the other half is left for your own studies and research.

Now, if you can get funded externally through a fellowship, you free up the time you would have spent on TA duties and can instead devote it to your research, studies, and professional development. This is a huge advantage. It allows you to be more productive, work on more projects, and frees up a lot of time to go to conferences, workshops, etc.

The NSF GRFP is attractive for all of the above reasons. If selected, you are a fellow for a 5-year period. You choose 3 out of these 5 years to be funded by this fellowship. This means you do not have to be funded for a 3-year block, which can be helpful in some cases. For example, say your advising professor has extra funds for one year only during the second year of your 5-year period. You can choose to be funded by your advisor for that year and become funded by your fellowship again the next year.

An additional advantage of the NSF GRFP comes from the fact that it is a “training grant”. This means that NSF funds the individual and not the project. Even though a project proposal is part of the application, if you are funded you are free to do other additional projects or switch to a different project entirely, as long as it remains in the same field. 

In short, the NSF GRFP allows you to spend more time on research and professional development and also have more intellectual freedom when picking research projects.

1 Note that funding for master’s programs can work somewhat differently than funding for PhD programs and can also vary more widely program to program. When searching for programs make sure you know whether you can expect to be funded as a graduate student.

3. What tips would you give others applying to the NSF Fellowship?

The NSF GRFP is meant for students who are just getting started in their graduate career. Applicants must be either matriculating to a graduate program (master’s or PhD) that year or be within their first two years of graduate school. Note that once in graduate school you can only apply once, but are free to apply as a matriculating undergraduate student (2) and then again as a graduate student. 

Therefore, it is always a good idea to submit an application as a matriculating undergraduate student. However, when applying as a graduate student it is important to assess whether you should apply in your first or second year. If applying in your second year, you will be more established in graduate school but this means the reviewers will also expect your application and research statement to be more robust.

The application itself is very straightforward and rather short: a 3-page personal statement about your background and future professional goals and a 2-page research proposal. There is also a short application with details along the lines of what you would find in a CV, but there is no interview or other requirements.

The NSF GRFP is targeted towards a wide range of scientific disciplines; however, your reviewers will be in the same general field as you. This means that you should avoid specific jargon but can expect your reviewers to be familiar with the general scientific questions and goals of your field. 

As with any fellowship, it is very important to read the program solicitation, and then read it again, and then again. Doing this helps you get in the headspace of the funding agency and the reviewers. It is important to think about their motives, what they will be looking for, and how you will be judged. The NSF GRFP has two core pillars which must be addressed throughout your application (even in the research proposal): Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact. See the program solicitation for definitions, examples, and prompting questions. When reading these, think about how you can address both pillars in every facet of your application.

A lot of people apply so it is important to be memorable. It helps to have a cohesive theme in your application which you constantly support in your application. For example, in my application I discussed how I had unified my passions for art and science in my physics studies and in my science communication and outreach efforts. Before you start crafting your application think about what makes you unique. What do you bring to the table that few others could? What unique combination of experiences and perspectives will make you the ideal person to do the research that you are proposing?

This is probably the most helpful advice that I can give: start early! You might have heard this advice elsewhere before, but let me expand on what I mean and why this is. By starting early, I do not necessarily mean putting your fingers to the keyboard to write your application. I mean start thinking about your application early, even a year in advance. The longer you are thinking about the theme of your application, the more cohesive it will become. You will start to connect your story and also work to make it stronger. This is much more effective than piecing together a story after the fact. Additionally, starting early lets you go through many drafts, and you should go through many drafts. My draft count at the end for each statement was in the 20s wherein each draft I made major revisions. 

Along these lines, get a lot of feedback from many different people. It is tempting to hold your application close to your chest until the very end once you think it is perfect. This is problematic for 2 reasons: 

  1. It makes it hard to get and implement meaningful feedback from multiple sources. When a piece of writing is mostly complete it is hard to even imagine it being structured in a different way, even if that way would ultimately work better.
  2. Critical feedback just hurts more when you have shed sweat and tears to get to what you think is the perfect draft. Therefore, critical feedback, especially major revisions, can be demoralizing, making it even harder to implement the feedback.

Instead, share your writing as you go, at every stage: your general thoughts, the outline, your introductory paragraph, this section or that section…everything! And share it with as many people as you can, inside and outside of your field. It may feel counterintuitive but this actually makes critical feedback hurt less. The more people you share it with, the more you are able to see what are outlier comments and what are common themes you need to address. Writing is very personal and stylistic so one person may hate X while another person loves it, but if they both agree that Y needs to be changed, then it likely does. This makes feedback feel a bit more objective. Additionally, when you share as you go, as opposed to waiting until you think you have a perfect and complete draft, you will also be less attached to it and therefore more open to revisions.

2 Note that you do not have to be fresh out of undergrad in order to apply. For example, it is fine to take a year off before applying to the NSF GRFP and graduate school. See the program solicitation for the specific rules.

Jessica Howard is a 4th year PhD student in the University of California, Irvine Physics and Astronomy department and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Her research is in particle physics which aims to build a mathematical understanding of the forces of the universe. She does this by studying interactions of the universe’s smallest constituents: subatomic particles. Her research has two main components: 1) developing possible mathematical models for how our universe works, 2) using methods from machine learning and big data to develop tools to help test such models. While not doing research, Jessica likes to share her passion for physics with the general public by applying her artistic skills through various outreach projects. 

Interested in applying? Bookmark the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP)  to your ProFellow account.

© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved.