Applying for the NSF predoctoral fellowship

This article is about what I have learned from applying to the National Science Foundation (NSF) pre-doctoral fellowship (three times!), sitting on panels, reading many winning and losing applications, talking with NSF reviewers, and eventually being awarded one.

Reasons for applying for the NSF Pre-doctoral fellowship

Winning: Overall the benefit is the money. Graduate school in STEM sciences is usually free, but somewhere money is being spent on attendance. Money is needed for tuition, school fees, research, travel, and of course a stipend. NSF will help with tuition, school fees ($14,000 a year, 2015) and your stipend ($34,000, 2015) for three years. Depending on your institution, this means you could end up making more than other students in your program and guarantees you don’t have to TA. This helps your PI handle all but the research costs for the work in the lab. It also allows more freedom on the research projects you pursue. You get all of this, plus the honor of being a NSF fellow. The fellowship is also a great addition to your CV - being capable of supporting yourself is always admired in academia.

Losing The whole process of applying for the NSF fellowship is beneficial - even if you lose. Take this time to really flesh out your ideas of what you want from graduate school. The personal statement is an excellent exercise in tracing your motivations on what you want from graduate school. Find patterns in how you made your decisions and learn to better shape your intentions and turn them into actions while finishing your degree.

Writing fellowships and grants will help you build a skill that is indispensable in academia - grantsmanship. Grantsmanship is your ability to write in a way that convinces others to fund your work. The best part is that writing grants and applying for fellowships becomes easier and easier the more you do it and you can recycle ideas from one application to another. The earlier you start applying for fellowships the better your chance to get more funding in the future.

Lastly, writing about science is fun. If you are writing for the pre-doctoral fellowship you have either been already accepted to go to graduate school or have decided to apply, so the fascination for your field is already there, harness it. Researching for your research statement is basically allowing you the time to nerd out and dive into your favorite topic.

So whether you win or lose, you gain skills that you will need later. The only way to truly lose is by not applying at all.

Keep your reviewer in mind

You have to realize that each reviewers is reading around 30 of these packets, that is around 150 pages of essays. Yours might be the 27th and by that point may be sick of reading them. Always have this in the back of your mind. You need to stand out in that group. Talk with others in your field, what is their story? Find what separates you from everyone else and really emphasize these differences.

Tell a story, avoid listing: You want your essays to be enjoyable to read. Structure your essay like a story. Add themes, maintain a writing style, describe your settings, and develop characters, especially the protagonist of this story - you. Try to explain your motivations clearly and make them root for you. Make them like you.

There are two main ways in which you can do this:

  1. Highlight your passion for your research and graduate school. Every winning essay I have read has this and it is the easiest content to build, you are passionate or you wouldn’t have gotten this far.

  2. Don’t put anyone down. I have read many essays which put down their school or a mentor who let them down, trying to highlight how they overcame obstacles, but it can easily make them seem whiny or ungrateful.

Don’t be repetitive: You have two essays, that is it. You want every sentence to count. Do not mention the same program where you mentored inner city high school youth in both essays. Mentioning the same thing twice will not give you bonus points. Instead opt to explain something really well once and use the rest of the room for something else.

Broader Impacts

Use Key words, make it easy to score you: Each reviewer reads your essay then they are asked to score you on only two criteria; Broader Impacts and Intellectual Merit. That means you have to be excellent at both! You want them to be able to briefly scan throughout the document for proof of this. Clearly use important words to grab them, especially with broader impacts, which sometimes can be hard to convey. Make sure you read and re-read what the definition of broader impacts really means to fully understand what they are looking for.

For example: advance discovery, promoting teaching, training and learning, broaden participation of underrepresented groups, enhance infrastructure, disseminated research broadly. Use these exact words. Be explicit.

Be specific and clearly explain your history of outreach and be specific on future projects. Do not just mention you will have undergraduate interns; that is a given. Explain a project that you would actually like to do, research it and articulate you can and will make this project happen. Talk with your advisor and fellow graduate students, create a project together, then do the project even if you don’t get the fellowship. Broader impacts and outreach is important for every scientist.

Research Statement

Be creative: This is the time to propose something that no one else is doing. If you have to choose between an old technique or a brand new one, choose the newer one. Try to be multi-disciplined, combine techniques from other fields. Do all this, but make sure you can back up that the project is possible. They want to see that you are doing something novel, but also that you have extensively researched your ideas.

Hypothesis Driven: Make sure you are presenting research that is hypothesis driven, ideally a hypothesis where either rejection or support gives results. State hypothesis clearly and make your experimental set-up directly test your hypotheses.

Illustrate that the project is the best fit for you, the lab, and school you are part of/applying to: Address your interest in this field through your personal statement. Make sure your project fits the school/department and the lab you are in. If you have an aspect of your project that aligns well with another lab, contact them and ask if they would be willing to help you on that aspect. This shows you can collaborate and take charge of your research while also illustrating that the project will succeed.

Speak to a general audience: You do not know who will be reviewing your application, so make sure your project is easy to understand to a general scientist. Explain everything and address new terminology immediately upon using the term, even if you explain it later in the paper in more detail. Often people use scientific jargon to prove intellect, but it never works. When someone doesn’t understand something they become frustrated, this is not a feeling you want to give any audience, let alone someone who is deciding to support you. I know, they do not give much room to give a lot of background, but your ability to convey a complex topic in a short amount of time is a skill that is not only admired in academia but something you will constantly need in graduate school.

Write, show others, and repeat: Most early career scientists are bad at writing, get over it. Many times you may feel super uncomfortable writing an essay about how amazing and special you are. Then you have to show others? This can be embarrassing, but again, get over it. The sooner you get over it, the faster and better your writing will be. So let every one you know read your drafts, even people in your life who are not in biology, especially the people who are outside biology. These are the people who will let you know if you are being too technical and in most cases, if you are selling yourself short.

Give yourself plenty of time: To get the most out of the time spent writing your application start at least two months before the deadline. Read the literature and talk with people about the project the second you learn you want to apply. The more time you have the more you will enjoy the process.

Feel free to ask me anything else and good luck!

comments powered by Disqus