Fellowship Application Tips

Every year graduate students, or soon-to-be gradaute students, apply for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.  To promote transparency and provide a useful resource for future applicants, I've decided to provide samples of my own essays.  Attached are my personal and research statement for the NSF application, to which allowed me to receive the award in the spring of 2015 (achieving "excellent" ratings in each category):

Personal Statement

Research Statement

Apart from the usual information you can find online regarding the application 

process, I think there are some general trends in successful applications.  Note: there 

are plenty of awarded applicants sharing their materials online.  A simple google search is worth it.  Here are some general tips I have given in the past:

  1. A major component is prior research experience.  Publications, even if it’s just conference proceedings, will be of use.  Try and put a lot of emphasis on past research experiences.  This should take up the most room on the personal statement and it's good to separate sections in your statements.  Try and weave all your experiences together into a nice story (chronological listing of research can be tiring to the reader).  For me, I played my "big cards” first then let it trail off into research related to my current work, which ultimately continued onto my research statement.  I didn’t have to restate things in the research statement.

  2. Outreach is great, but not as important as prior research.  If you’ve been active in outreach, then it should be simple to list all your efforts and any future goals you may have.  Again, make this its own separate section and weave it together into a short story.

  3. The research statement is not something you must commit to if you receive the fellowship.  It is meant to display your ability to establish a research goal and how you’d reasonably address it.  A lot of new applicants don’t even know what graduate institute they’ll end up at.  Write it as though you’re going to the stated graduate program in your application.  For example, I wrote my research statement as if I were going to attend Cornell’s graduate program.  I ultimately didn’t go there and my current research isn’t directly following my statement.  I wrote it as I did because that is what seemed to flow best at the time.

  4. Remember that other scientists will be reading this, not necessarily from your own field.  So, they’ll have a basic knowledge of the scientific process, but will not be specialists in your field.  There may actually be some, so don’t make things up.  This is where it helps to practice communicating your work well.

  5. Finally, have others proofread your work (faculty members, advisors, etc).  Start early, I started digging up information in mid-August and began writing out drafts early-September.  If you have any friends majoring in english and/or writing, have them look it over.  It also doesn’t hurt to periodically give updated drafts to your recommendation writers to allow them to glance over your statements if they feel inclined to do so.  It'll also help them write better recommendation letters.  Also, it's good to apply to more fellowships.  They say you can't concurrenlty hold an NSF with other government fellowships, but there are private fellowships you can concurrently hold.  Check the terms and conditions of each fellowship.

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