Tips for applying to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP)

Written by Marie Lilly, 2020 NSF GRFP Awardee

There are thousands of different graduate schools, programs, and lab groups to choose from when thinking about pursuing an M.S. or PhD in the sciences. Yet there is one thing nearly all of them have in common: somewhere on the university or potential advisor’s website there is a section devoted to encouraging applicants to apply for the NSF GRFP.


I learned about the NSF GRFP several years back when one of my friends was applying for graduate school and told me about the opportunity. She warned me that the application is a lot of work and, “your chances of getting it are literally dismal” because so many qualified people apply and there simply aren’t enough grants. However, she also advised me that regardless of the official outcome, it’s a great experience learning how to write a research grant proposal and shows potential advisors that you are serious about graduate school. So, with the encouragement of my mentor, lab-mates, and peers, I decided to apply last year (fall 2019) during my first year as a master’s student at San Francisco State University.


So...what exactly is the NSF GRFP?

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) is a highly competitive and prestigious fellowship program that funds approximately 2,000 students per application cycle pursuing a research based graduate degree in the natural, social, or engineering sciences at a U.S. based institution.


The award provides students with a guaranteed annual stipend of $34,000 plus an additional $12,000 towards tuition fees. More information can be found here. Pretty sweet.


But wait… don’t most PhD programs in the U.S. fund graduate students with a similar stipend? Why go through the application when there may not actually be much of a financial incentive?

The application process was indeed a lot of work, but it was ultimately very rewarding. The project proposal forced me to sit down and think about as well as verbalize a research question that I am interested in and how I would go about answering that question--which is an important part of the research process.


Additionally, a very rewarding part of the application process was that several of my peers and friends applied at the same time and we all helped each other through the experience. Academia can feel very cutthroat and competitive but sitting at the same table as my friends, providing feedback on each other’s proposals, and just encouraging the heck out of each other contributed to a wonderfully supportive environment and built a foundation for my own little STEM community.


Now that you’ve decided to apply, let’s get started!

Step 1: Read through the entire NSF program solicitation document. The information is dense, but there are a lot of details about eligibility, application components, criteria, etc. that you need to know and that I might miss in this post.


Step 2: Decide when is best for you to apply. If you haven’t yet started graduate school, you’re in luck because you are eligible to apply twice. You can apply once before entering a graduate degree program and once during your first or second year of graduate school. If you have already begun your graduate school path, you only get one shot at applying. You can apply during your first or second year, but not both.


I chose to apply in my first year of my Master’s degree since I thought the process would be helpful for me in narrowing down my research focus--and it was! I also knew that if I were accepted into the program, I would probably have a much higher chance of acceptance into my preferred PhD program later on. What university is going to say no to a student coming in with a couple years of funding already? I guess I’ll find out.


That being said, the application is no small endeavor and you really do need to devote some time to your essays, so choose to apply based on the right time for you.


Step 3: Begin your application! The application breakdown is essentially:

  • Two essays

1. Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals (3 pages)

2. Graduate Research Statement (2 pages)

  • Three letters of reference (Ask your reference writers early! In my experience, most professors want at least 2 weeks notice)

  • Personal information input directly into the NSF GRFP application portal.


What should I write about?


Not much information is given on what to include in your essays. However, the essays are reviewed on the criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts and there is a VERY important sentence hidden in the solicitation document regarding how to format this:

“Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts must be addressed individually under separate

headings in both Personal and Research Plan statements to provide reviewers with the

information necessary to evaluate the application with respect to both Criteria.

Applications in which Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts are not addressed

separately under separate headings will be returned without review.”


These sections should not be an afterthought as they are just as important as the proposed research question! All of the comments from my reviewers noted positively that my proposal included detailed and specific plans for community engagement / broader impact. For example, I wrote about a citizen science project related to my research that I had just started with my advisor.


For the 2020 application cycle, the NSF added a section to the solicitation about encouraging proposals that incorporate artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and computationally intensive research. This change initially raised some alarm within the scientific community. Admittedly, upon hearing about this update for 2020 and I immediately thought “glad I applied last year…” Nevertheless, the NSF has defended their decision and claimed that these new emphasis groups will not impact the application review process.


Even with all of this information from the solicitation document, I would have been lost on how to start my essays without the advice of another NSF GRFP awardee, Alex Lang, who put together a spreadsheet compiling publicly shared essays of previous NSF GRFP applicants. This is a wonderful resource that you should absolutely take advantage of!!


Before you submit your application…

Your peers and mentors are the greatest resources you have. Ask if some of your classmates/friends/family or your advisor is willing to read over and provide feedback on your essays. Proofread your essays! I would recommend checking your grammar and phrasing through grammarly to make sure you didn’t miss any small errors. Sometimes we get so caught up in our science that a comma or spelling mistake escapes us--there is no shame in that but it’s important to correct any errors before submission.


Submit your application at least a day early. Don’t wait until the last few minutes… if COVID-19 has taught me anything, it’s that technology can be a great tool but is not always my friend. Imagine spending hours putting together an application you’re proud of and then having your internet fail. Don’t let that happen.


Important deadlines


For the 2020 application cycle, the deadlines are fast approaching.

Applications Must Be Received by 5:00 p.m. Local Time of applicant's mailing address on the following dates for the specified fields:


October 19, 2020 (Monday): Life Sciences

October 20, 2020 (Tuesday): Computer and Information Science and Engineering

October 20, 2020 (Tuesday): Materials Research

October 20, 2020 (Tuesday): Psychology

October 20, 2020 (Tuesday): Social Sciences

October 20, 2020 (Tuesday): STEM Education and Learning

October 21, 2020 (Wednesday): Engineering

October 22, 2020 (Thursday): Chemistry

October 22, 2020 (Thursday): Geosciences

October 22, 2020 (Thursday): Mathematical Sciences

October 22, 2020 (Thursday): Physics and Astronomy


The aftermath...


After submitting your application, you will wait a really long time (about 5 months) to hear about the outcome. MANY deserving applicants apply and are not awarded a fellowship. While you should remain positive and hopeful, know that there are many factors out of your control that contribute to the decision process. Realistically, the decisions may be in part due to randomness such as whether or not your reviewers had a cup of coffee that morning and felt extra compelled by your proposal, or due to more deep rooted issues of implicit bias in STEM and academia (which deserves its own separate blog post). Regardless of the outcome, you should be proud of yourself for applying.


Remember that prestigious fellowships are NOT the only option and now you have a polished personal essay and research proposal ready to adapt for other applications.


Other resources

Program information:

Advice blogs:

A few other fellowships you might consider:

This is an advice post based on the author's personal experience and does not represent San Francisco State University