It’s National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP) application season. If you’re curious whether you should dedicate time to this process, there are quite a few payoffs for the time you’ll invest. As someone who has endured the daunting fellowship application process and received an NSF GRFP, I’m offering my advice on how to prepare an application that stands out and that could earn you a fellowship.

Dana Jenkins (she/her) is a Texas BME doctoral candidate who joined the Cosgriff-Hernandez lab in 2018. She earned an NSF GRFP in her fifth year of graduate school. 

Fellowships benefit graduate students by subsidizing cost-of-living, health insurance, and/or tuition. The NSF GRFP is particularly enticing because a student can use well-known external funding as leverage to get into a graduate program or work with a specific lab. Listing this award on your resume can also help open doors to future fellowships and opportunities.

Students can apply during their final year of undergrad or first or second year of graduate school. Each fellowship provides three years of support over a five-year fellowship period. For each of the three years of support, NSF provides a $37,000 stipend and a $12,000 cost of education allowance to the graduate degree-granting institution of higher education. 

Three tips to keep in mind when crafting your application

1. Write for a scientific audience but not an expert on your specific topic in your research proposal.

NSF matches your application to people within your field. However, most research topics can range dramatically in an area of study. Think of the differences between tissue engineering and developing imaging techniques. Both are biomedical engineering, but the expertise in either topic varies significantly.

Your reviewers may not be familiar with your research focus, so try to make your proposal understandable for someone who is peripherally familiar with its concepts. If your reviewer can understand your ideas clearly, you'll be that much more favorably considered for a fellowship award.

2. Now is not the time to be modest. Take any chance to highlight yourself.

When I wrote my fellowship application, it wasn’t easy to describe my accomplishments without feeling like I was bragging, but now is the best time to brag. You are trying to convince the reviewers that you should receive thousands of dollars. It would help if you made it clear why you deserve this award.

If bragging about yourself is challenging, write like you are trying to convince someone to give an award to your best friend, or ask a trusted colleague to describe you to get an idea of what to convey—try any technique that helps you highlight why the reviewers should choose you. 

3. Welcome feedback (from several people). 

You don’t have control over who reviews your application, so it’s best to be prepared for many types of perspectives and backgrounds. Getting feedback from your principal investigator (PI) and lab mates is always recommended, but be open to input from people unfamiliar with your work as well. I would suggest reaching out to peers or mentors in your field but with a different research focus than you. They will be able to help make your statements clearer to a more general scientific audience.

There is no “right way” to write your NSF GRFP statements. Along with these tips, make sure you give yourself time to craft your application stories. Applying to fellowships is a project on its own. You wouldn’t rush through an experiment; likewise, you should not rush writing your NSF-GRFP application.

Remember that the NSF GRFP is only one option; there are other fellowships for graduate students. Look into fellowships more specific to your background or topic of research, such as the GEM fellowship or the AHA Predoctoral Fellowship, for alternatives. By doing the legwork on the NSF GRFP application, you’re also laying down a foundation to apply for other fellowships.

I hope these suggestions help you in your application process. Best of luck, and give it your best shot!

About the Author

Dana's thesis explores the development of osteoinductive polymer bone grafts for injectable and 3D printing applications and an algorithm to streamline the material characterization. As a Texas BME student, she co-founded the student organization Graduates for Underrepresented Minorities (GUM), where she is active in supporting Latinx and queer students in STEM spaces. After completing her thesis, Dana aims to apply her technical knowledge and communication skills to develop and promote biomedical innovation and policy.