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NSF Graduate Research Fellowships: Maximizing Chances for Success

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) offers Graduate Research Fellowships (GRF) to applicants who are beginning or about to begin a Ph.D. I’ve advised a student who has written a successful one, I’ve reviewed applications internally for people in my department, and I’ve become intimately familiar with the current review process for the NSF. There’s no magical formula for getting one that I’ve discovered, but there are definitely things you should and shouldn’t do to maximize your chances. This post seeks to capture my experiences and advice—of particular relevance to those in computer science and human-computer interaction but perhaps applicable in other fields as well.

My grad student Greg Wilson received an NSF GRF in his first year at Virginia Tech. His proposal discussed solid and interesting ideas related to mobile and ubiquitous computing, but what really appealed to the reviewers was his outreach efforts. He has a passion for K-12 education, and his application discussed that in detail. He described prior outreach efforts in his personal statement, thus demonstrating an interest and ability in similar efforts in his graduate work. Receiving this fellowship allowed Greg to pursue his own ideas and really make a difference with his work. He completed his MS at Virginia Tech and went on to a Ph.D. in education at the University of Georgia.

The Virginia Tech Computer Science Department hosts an internal review process for national and international graduate scholarships and fellowships like the NSF GRF. It is organized by faculty member T.M. Murali and includes work sessions, early reviews by fellow grad students, and reviews by faculty in the department (including myself some years). It’s a great way to get feedback both from peers and from potential committee members, and I feel like it really made a positive difference for my student Greg. If you don’t have this available to you, find a way to get feedback from a breadth of other people.

I am very familiar with the reviewing process for NSF applications. For the last couple of years, it has taken place via teleconference, in which reviewers read and comment on applications prior to a pair of online meetings. The meetings present a listing of ratings, then ask for champions of lower-rated proposals that seem particularly worthy. The 20+ person online panel breaks into smaller 3 person groups to discuss moving proposals up (or down) the ranking if a proposal’s champion makes a compelling case for why it should be moved. If you can attract a champion, you’re greatly improving your chances. The final listing serves as a recommendation to NSF program officers and other personnel, who make the final determination as to who receives an award.

A few summary thoughts and recommendations that can help with a successful submission:

  • Follow the guidelines. Yes, there are lots of them, and I’m sure you have great ideas that you might feel should carry your proposal even if you don’t pull together your application just right.  But failing to follow the guidelines can obfuscate your expected contributions. You risk annoying the reviewers and the program managers by making them dig for (or guess at) certain elements of your proposal.
  • Provide a roadmap for your proposal. Keep in mind that reviewers will be looking at lots of proposals, and secondary reviewers and program managers will be looking at even more—sometimes for very short periods of time. As such, make sure the key points of your proposal can be found at a glance. Label sections and subsections, highlight key terms, craft figures and tables that are both descriptive and easy to understand. And don’t use a tiny font just to squeeze more in—find a way to say what you want to say concisely. Of course, none of this matters if the content isn’t good, but good content that can’t be understood easily can also sink a proposal.
  • Think about intellectual merit. The NSF cares a lot about this (and the next bullet, broader impacts). Read the full description on the NSF site and specifically address ways in which your work will have intellectual merit. Even if you feel your entire proposal is all about intellectual merit, make sure to explicitly highlight your expected contributions.
  • Think about broader impacts. This one is even harder, but as with my student it really matters. It’s important to show how your work will make a difference, keeping in mind that reviewers will be generally knowledgeable about your field but not necessarily deeply knowledgeable about your topic. As such, don’t just make a laundry list; e.g., stating that your work will lead to improved interfaces for scientists, bricklayers, moms, bartenders, etc. Instead really draw the path to the future utility of your work—and if you can show yourself guiding the research down the path, all the better.
  • Get good letters. This one, to some degree, is out of your hands—but that doesn’t mean you can’t make choices that maximize your chances for good letters. The best letters are from people who BOTH know you AND know how to write good letters. A letter from someone who knows you very well but doesn’t understand NSF GRFs might be a poor choice, just as a letter from a highly regarded individual who clearly knows nothing about you and has little to say about you likely will be unhelpful. Seek to approach people who’ve been part of successful NSF GRFs in the past, and from people who will help you toward your proposed goals. But make sure these are people who can either say good things about your prior work and/or good things about your proposed work—people who have been a meaningful and integrative part of your research life.

Finally, keep in mind that, for better or worse (usually better), the NSF regularly changes the guidelines and procedures for fellowships, so make sure to verify that your submission matches the way things are done. There’s lots of other advice out there, so seek to find it and identify the path that is most promising to you. There’s always a bit of randomness to the procedure, but there are steps you can take that can increase your chances of receiving an award. Most of all, pursue interesting and important ideas that appeal to you and your collaborators. Good luck!

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