Writing Your NSF GRFP Essays

The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP, or “the NSF”) is a national fellowship for graduate students who are US citizens/permanent residents that provides three years of full funding at an accredited institution of your choice. Although there are a number of fellowships for graduate students, the NSF is one of the most common fellowships amongst astronomy students. NSF funding allows you to conduct research with professors who could not otherwise financially support you, and relieves you from teaching duty. Here on Astrobites, we’ve already written about the NSF, why you should apply and some of our experiences with the process.

This year’s application is due October 30th, so you might want to look at your application if you haven’t already. In this post, I will outline recent changes in the essay style and offer advice on how to master the written portion of the application. Note that there are other aspects to the NSF application, including letters of recommendation and your transcripts. A strong application needs support from all of these aspects!

Changes in the Application: 3 → 2

Before 2013 (and when Astrobites last touched upon this fellowship), the NSF required 3 essays: a personal statement, a summary of past research and a proposed graduate research project.

The application now requires two essays: a personal statement (3 pages) and a proposed graduate research project (2 pages). The new personal statement is a cohesive discussion about your previous research, your interests and your future goals. The graduate research project is your chance to propose an interesting research question to explore in graduate school. These essays are judged using two primary review criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. You can read more about these criteria and the review process here.

How Do I Even Start?

It might be intimidating to even begin these essays: one requires you to summarize your passion for astronomy in just three pages, and the other asks you to present yourself as an independent scientist with creative and feasible research ideas. Many students suffer from impostor syndrome and may think “They’ll think this is a terrible idea” or “I can’t do that”.

If you’re applying for graduate school, chances are that you are completely capable of writing great essays. Believe in yourself! You’ve learned and have grown since your first day of college; let your expert knowledge shine in your essays. Even if you feel that you may not have enough experience under your belt to win this time around, writing the application will be great practice for creating an effective proposal.

No matter how strong your writer’s block may be, begin your essays by simply writing your ideas down. For your personal statement, list past research, accomplishments and outreach. Start with a bulleted list and look for common threads amongst activities. For the proposed research project, list every astrophysical idea, topic or questions which could form your eventual project. You can narrow down these ideas later. Ultimately these ideas will form the frameworks for your essays.

The Personal Statement: It’s All About You!

The personal statement is where you will describe yourself through your previous research experience, outreach activities and passions. The most common (and easiest) approach to the personal statement is to list your research experience or classes in chronological order and tack on a paragraph about outreach experience. This method can work, but it might not be the most effective way of communicating your background and growth.

Instead, try to summarize your personal aspects that you want to describe to the reviewers, and let this be a common thread throughout the essay. For example, Applicant Abby is a great communicator. Abby’s strength allowed her to explore many subfields of astrophysics by quickly picking up jargon and techniques. Additionally, she used her adeptness in communication to convey tricky astrophysical concepts to the general public as part of her outreach experience. She organized her essay by selecting experiences that highlight this strength. Use the adjectives you which describe yourself time and time again in your essay. You should even bold your keywords for the reviewers; they have a lot of applications to read!

Once you have your outline and organization settled, you’ll have to decide how you will present your research or outreach experiences. The level of detail which you should supply will vary with the number of projects you’d like to talk about. Regardless, emphasis any knowledge or experience you gained and tangible outcomes (like an AAS poster or paper) within your research. You are not a robot with a set list of technical skills, so focus on your growth rather than the exact scientific methods you used. When discussing your outreach, talk about why you are passionate about what you are doing and what you gained from the experience.

Research Statement: Think Like a Scientist

In the research statement, the reviewers want to see that you can clearly state a research question and can outline a method to answer this question. If you are awarded an NSF fellowship, you aren’t held to this project, so feel free to propose anything you want! The project can be an extension of your current research or a new idea altogether. Talk to experts about your ideas to get feedback and relevant literature.

I recommend organizing your statement into three parts: a background section, a clear plan of action and a section devoted to possible results and broader impact. In the background sections you demonstrate your expert knowledge of a subfield and explain why your proposed problem is important. Keep in mind that your reviewers are likely not experts; in fact, they may not even be astronomers! Next, explain the concrete steps you would need to take to execute your research. This can include resources you would need (telescopes, super computers, etc), or expert knowledge you would need to gain. In this section it is also useful to tie in any previous work you’ve done which would make you an ideal candidate to implement the proposed research. Don’t be afraid to spell out your plan in a number or bulleted list; again, the reviewers have a lot of application to read! Finally, put your project into context and explain how your results will impact the field as a whole, whether it be through a new discovery or a public database. This is also an excellent place to tie in outreach opportunities.

Parting Words

My final advice to you is to ask anyone and everyone to read your essays. Friends, advisors, letter writers, graduate students and past winners. Everyone. Every editor will hone in a few aspects of your application, and the collective feedback can really clarify and enhance your ideas.

Remember that the NSF is highly competitive, and it’s ok if your application is not successful. Rejection does not mean that you won’t become a successful graduate student or that your proposed project was “bad”.  Most students do not get the NSF, but they can go on to become outstanding researchers.

About Ashley Villar

I am a third year PhD student at Harvard University. I'm generally interested in optical transients, or the dramatic aftermaths of stellar eruptions, collisions and explosions. I'm also broadly interested in how astronomers can efficiently use large datasets produced in future missions. When I'm not working, I bake, exercise and try to enjoy Boston.

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1 Comment

  1. Fantastic post Ms. Villar! Hoping to leverage your advice to apply for next year’s round of applications.


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