My lab hosted a Q&A for people on November 5, 2021. Part of that included an FAQ we pulled together of "not-so-obvious" things about graduate school. While it doesn't say much about graduate school applications, I think it covers some things about grad school that are helpful to think about as you apply. For questions about applications about graduate school, please feel free to ping me. I don't have a written out resource right now but I'm happy to chat with people.
Many other people have written better and wiser guides for applying to the NSF GRFP (Mallory Ladd and Alex Lang have very good guides/resources on the GRFP), the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program. But a few people have reached out about applying, so I'm writing down here some tips that I find myself repeating. Unfortunately, these are just based off of my own experience but hopefully it is helpful for anyone reading?
Some background: I received the 2020 Award in the Computer and Information Science and Engineering division; I applied in 2019 during the first quarter of my PhD program (in other words, my application was in the first year PhD student pool).
- The first thing is to carefully read the ENTIRE fellowship program solicitation, whatever latest version is applicable. There are a lot of requirements in the application process, and you must be aware of all of them + some change in small but important ways.
- It might seem like overkill, but it is really helpful to start working on the application the summer before the deadline you plan to apply to (at least 2 months!), particularly for the research statement. I started drafting up ideas early in the summer, making drafts of the research statement that I continuously revised (I had 10+ saved versions of both the research and personal statements by the end...). I hadn't started my program yet but my advisor and research groupmates were kind enough to start mentoring me and give me feedback on things.
- I asked a lot of different people for feedback, as appropriate, and iterated through many versions to refine the statements. Obviously you don't want to bother someone to read your draft every week, but it's important to get feedback throughout (even if it feels intimidating). My strategy was to get feedback from my advisor at critical iterations and then get feedback in the in-between from more senior PhD students (mostly from my research group). Some research group members gave me really in-depth feedback which was immensely helpful. For a little bit I also did swaps each week with another student in my program who was applying.
- I think there is a tendency to focus on refining the Intellectual Merit part of the research and personal statements (e.g. coming up with a solid research plan and demonstrating you have the skills to do it), but the Broader Impacts section is also very important. Mine was not particularly strong, in part I think because I don't think I really understood what it meant at the time. If I were to write it again, I'd try to answer (a) what are things I'll *do* e.g. community outreach, mentoring, whatever, and (b) why is answering my research questions useful + good for society (and reflect personally on why it might not be)?
- It is quite likely that your school/institution (if you are a student) has a career development / fellowships office or something similar. I recommend checking out if they hold information sessions or workshops for fellowship applications. A lot of the time, these offices are meant to actually to help you write effective applications. Northwestern has an office of fellowships, and I received at least 2 rounds of very useful feedback from an advisor there.
- Early on I read the research statements of successful applications in disciplines/on topics similar to mine. I found these in two ways: (1) on the NSF GRFP pages of Mallory Ladd and Alex Lang's sites; (2) from people who were willing to share their successful apps + I reached out to. While reading, I noted what made their structure effective, how they made their research goals clear, etc. I even modeled my structure after one that fit well with what I was doing.
- The research statements are short, so it's important to ask yourself while editing: What is the purpose of each paragraph? How does each sentence build up to that purpose? Then, cut out the useless bits or make clarifications accordingly. I once read an New York Times Op-Ed by Viet Thanh Nguyen and was struck by how well-crafted it was — not a single word that didn't have to be there! That is the vibe we are going for. This is something that also helps for good writing in general + applies to the personal statement too.
- Similarly, you want to use your citations in the research statement strategically. There's space to cite maybe 4 pieces in your research statement. Consider what group of researchers you want to appeal to (that is, the research community who will *get* it), because citations are in a sense a signal for assigning reviewers.
- I also read personal statements of the apps I looked at. This is a little less helpful because the NSF GRFP is about funding you as a person (so it makes less sense to try to model after others' personal statements; also your background and experiences will generally differ quite a bit from previous applicants), but still serves as a general benchmark for how to effectively structure the thing. What I actually did was adapt my graduate school applications for my GRFP personal statement (it got me into grad school, after all c:).
- An fellowship advisor in the Office of Fellowships at my institution read an earlier version of my personal statement and mentioned it was very boring (grad school app personal statements are kind of dry sometimes, and mine was on the drier end). I tried to make it less so by shifting towards some more personal things that had motivated my academic interests and things I care about doing with/through my work.