Demystifying the GRFP: General Information and Tips

This is the second post in our Demystifying the GRFP series. See also: Introduction, Letters of Recommendation, Research Proposal, Personal Statement

Welcome and congratulations on deciding to apply for GRFP! Although a daunting process, I personally felt I learned a lot about grant writing and that the experience was valuable no matter the outcome. By the end, I felt that I had put my best foot forward and you can too! Here is some information to keep in mind throughout the entire application.

Components of the GRFP Application

  • Basic Info
  • Personal statement: relevant background and future goals (3 page limit)
  • Proposed research statement (2 page limit)
  • Letters of recommendation (3 limit)
  • Transcripts from all institutions

Rubric for Intellectual Merit

  • Past evidence
    • Academic excellence (GPA)
    • Research participation (academic and summer)
    • Research contributions (posters, presentations, publications)
    • Leadership & innovation (beyond coursework)
    • Persistence (balancing many activities, overcoming challenges)
  • Future evidence for success (proposed research):  
    • Interesting/important question addressed
    • Knowledge within proposed area
    • Creativity and originality
    • Institutional match for studies is relevant
    • Leadership & innovation
    • Strong communication skills

Rubric for broader impacts (Highly varied – typically related to broader mission of NSF)

  • Benefits of research. Need to explain how your studies will benefit society in terms of the research knowledge (project data), tools (new software/methods), and research education (people) (NOTE: be careful here to not emphasize biomedical applications of your research)
  • Identification of a social problem (education) within the US and a description of activities that integrate research training with a solution to that challenge (outreach/service) 
  • Long-term benefits of supporting you as they relate to societal challenges. How will your outreach and service activities overcome the challenge that you describe? 
  • Potential for leadership and innovation in the future. Applicants are uniformly strong, so why are you likely to be a leader among your peers? past evidence for contributions as evidence. 
  • Note: NSF is funding individuals, not the 3 yr plan so make sure to provide evidence for sincerity/depth in your plans as they relate to broader impacts (do not just ✔ the box because required)

Reviewers You get three reviewers total, and each will rank you on a scale of ‘1-5’ for both intellectual merit and broader impacts (6 ratings total).

  • Winning applications will have scores of 5 across the board or 1-2 ‘4’s and the rest ’5’s.

How to pick your field (and subfield) The fields you choose will influence the fields of your reviewers, so think carefully about what you would like your reviewer to know in order to understand your accomplishments and ideas. Your choice should be based on what you are proposing for your project and what research experiences you already have. 

  • For example, in my proposal I talked about creating new antibiotics. My proposal involved synthesis, 2D NMR, and in vivo experiments. Although seemingly biological at the surface level, it was important to have a chemist review my application to understand the advanced NMR. 
  • Your field/subfield does not need to match your undergrad/graduate degree or department. You are just looking to find the optimal reviewer for your application!

How to list your ‘significant academic honors, fellowships, scholarships, publications and presentations’ Label each section for the ones you have and list below with dates. Make it easy for your reviewers to find these accomplishments.

Start early! My statements were edited by 10 people and went through about 3 totally different drafts before the end. 

  • I recommend you start writing seriously 4 weeks before the application is due. Write for 1 week so you have a starting point then do 3 weeks of edits with as many people as possible. Give each draft to 1-2 people at a time.
  • Write for general science audience
  • All components of your application should address both intellectual merit and broader impacts

NO mention of anything health or medicine related Big point for GRFP apps, NSF will not fund something they believe the NIH should fund instead. I have a friend who’s application got thrown out before being opened because the title of her proposal mentioned ‘human health’.

  • Phrase your healthcare related research in terms of basic science instead (look at NSF’s mission statement). Think about what fundamental discoveries are made in your project.

MORE BROADER IMPACTS This cannot be overstated enough, and it is often the difference between winning and losing the fellowship. Plenty of people will demonstrate sufficient intellectual merit, so what really makes the difference is having quality broader impacts throughout your application. If your reviewers give you ‘5’s for intellectual merit but not broader impacts, you will not be able to compete with the top applications. There’s no such thing as too much broader impacts!

Useful Resources

  • NSF GRFP solicitation (read carefully for formatting details; do not get your application disqualified!)
  • Website by Alex Hunter Lang that contains the essays of many past NSF winners 
  • Website by Mallory P. Ladd with example essays and useful tips
  • Your school! (may have department that advises on fellowships or a writing center)
  • Your PI, grad students, and postdocs (especially past fellows)!

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