The NSF GRFP recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited US institutions. The five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support including an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution.
The NSF GRFP funds people, not projects. Unlike other scholarship or fellowship programs, here they’re specifically looking to fund independent, motivated students who have the potential to both advance scientific knowledge and benefit society. Your application package should clearly communicate why you fit these criteria.
Read the entire GRFP program solicitation prior to starting to work on your application.
NSF reviews applications based on both Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. As you can see in my NSF statements below, both my personal statement and my research proposal contain sections specifically titled “Broader Impacts” which detailed the anticipated outcomes of my research and how they will benefit society and the broader scientific community as well as my leadership experience and future goals.
As with all fellowship and graduate school applications, reference letters are very important. Make sure your reference letter writers have plenty of time to write you a strong letter (ideally at least 6 weeks) and ensure that they know what the GRFP is looking for and how to communicate that you are a strong applicant.
In 2016, NSF changed the rules about eligibility for the fellowship, meaning that once you enroll in graduate school, you can only apply once for the scholarship (you can still apply before you start graduate school, and then apply once while in graduate school). When you start graduate school, you should discuss with your advisor whether you think you’d be a stronger applicant in the first or second year of your graduate program.
This change in eligibility means it is especially important to apply prior to starting graduate school. For many students intending to go straight into graduate school, this means applying during your senior year of undergrad.
Applying while still in undergrad/prior to starting graduate school is beneficial for many reasons:
If you receive the fellowship, it will likely increase your options for graduate school (most advisors are thrilled to have a student who arrives with the GRFP in hand!) and it will allow you to make a more informed decision about where to attend without worrying about funding.
Applying for the GRFP demonstrates your commitment to the field to your prospective advisor and shows them that you are highly motivated. Many supervisors are excited that a prospective student wants to apply for a GRFP and will help you with your application or discuss potential projects with you. Just reach out and ask!
If you receive the fellowship prior to starting graduate school, you will not have to spend much of your first year applying for fellowships! This will allow you to dive into research more quickly and will likely save you some stress.
Gaining experience applying for fellowships will not only likely help with your graduate school applications, but it also will in itself help prepare you for graduate school. Furthermore, as part of the application process, you receive feedback on your application, which can help lead to successful applications in the future.
While it is a lot of work, the worst case scenario here is that you do not get it and still have a chance to try again!
Once you arrive in graduate school, you are under no obligation to complete the research you proposed to accomplish. As you can see below, my proposal is about modeling a tidewater glacier, which is nothing like the research I actually did during my PhD! They’re looking to see if you can write a strong proposal and defend your research, but the actual type of research you propose to do is less important than the complete package of you as a scientist.
If you’re struggling to come up with ideas for a proposal while still in undergrad, you might consider writing your proposal on something related to your undergrad research or reaching out to a prospective advisor at your top choice institution and asking if they’d be willing to discuss ideas with you.