Demystifying the GRFP: Letters of Recommendation

This is the third post in our Demystifying the GRFP series. See also: Introduction, General Information and Tips, Research Proposal, Personal Statement

Reference letters are an important part of your GRFP application package. Alongside your personal statement and research proposal, the letter gives reviewers a sense of who you are as a scientist. There is tremendous variation in letters of recommendation, and this can be a disadvantage to applicants in cases where letters may not conform to the expectations of the NSF and reviewers. But, as the applicant, you can take steps to make it very straightforward for your recommenders to write solid, detailed letters of recommendation that match the expectations of proposal reviewers. 

Here are four recommendations that we give our applicants. 

1. Read the instructions. Hopefully you have already read the solicitation (describing the goals of the award, what NSF expects to see in a proposal, and how they will evaluate it). Next, read the instructions for your letter writer. The NSF is telling you exactly what they expect from letters of recommendation: “The reference letter should include comments on the applicant’s potential for contributing to a globally-engaged United States science and engineering workforce, statements about the applicant’s academic potential and prior research experiences, statements about the applicant’s proposed research, and any other information to enable reviewers to evaluate the application according to the NSF Merit Review Criteria.” You should also look at the tips and FAQ pages. 

2. Think about the whole picture. You have limited space in your application package and the opportunity to provide up to three letters. Think of these letters as a place to elaborate on aspects of your personal statement that didn’t fit into the short document. First, identify who could write you a good letter of recommendation. This might include research mentors (from summer programs, course-based research, etc.), professors (preferably those who you have interacted with), and if you are in graduate school, a current advisor.  Then, think about what unique perspective each recommender can provide. Your research mentors can speak especially well to your prior research experiences, while professors are better positioned to address your academic potential. Your current advisor can likely speak in greater depth about your proposed research and potential for impact. 

3. Outline the letter. Take a minute to write an outline of what you want to be communicated in the letter. One set of bullets should focus on academic highlights, another on research accomplishments, and a third focused on broader impact activities. For each paragraph, think of up to three examples that the letter writer could refer to that demonstrate your research acumen and commitment to broader impacts. Importantly, how will your broader impacts and motivation as a researcher contribute to your success? NSF is interested in your potential as a researcher, so don’t be modest – talk about your successes and include all honors and accolades you have received!

Academic Highlights:

  • Summarize where you went to school and your grades in college and graduate school (if applicable). If circumstances affected your grades (and you want to disclose why), you can include that here.
  • List all the academic honors that you have received – dean’s list, phi beta kappa, senior thesis, etc. 
  • State why you came to [your graduate school] or why you are pursuing graduate school. 

Research: 

  • List your prior research experience. Did you use skills from these experiences in your proposed research? If so, make a note! 
  • Summarize your current project (1 sentence). Think about what makes this project innovative or impactful and write it down. Also think about how you have contributed to advancing the project and also write that down.
  • Think about anecdotes that demonstrate your potential for success: Did you identify a new line of research for your project? Did you troubleshoot a failed experiment? Are you the go-to person for citations in your project area? Think about what qualities these anecdotes demonstrate: creativity, tenacity, curiosity, leadership, etc. 

Broader Impacts: 

  • Discuss your experience participating in broader impacts, particularly things related to the BI in your proposal. Don’t just list experiences, think about qualities that you demonstrated and how those translate into other aspects of your life as a scientist. For example, what drives you to participate in these particular broader impact activities (that you’ve shared or want to share). Did you benefit from mentors or programs that exposed you to research and want to pay it forward? Do you have a passion for teaching science to others, formally or informally? How will you use what you learn or enjoy doing from your BI activities?
  • After outlining the above, think explicitly about how your experiences contribute to your personal potential for “contributing to a globally engaged United States science and engineering workforce”. For example, do your holistic experiences make you a strong leader? An effective communicator? A person who can tailor their mentorship and leadership styles to leading initiatives? Other? Don’t forget to back everything up with specific examples!

4. Make the ask. Aim to do this early in the process – your professors get a lot of letter of rec requests, especially during GRFP season, and you want to make sure you get on their to-do list. A month or more is ideal, but give at least two weeks notice. Some professors have specific instructions for asking for letters of recommendation on their website (Schepartz Lab example, Landry Lab example) – do your due diligence and follow any instructions that are provided.  

If no instructions are provided, you should email the person and ask them to “write you a letter of recommendation that can speak to [summarize the perspective you identified in #2].” You should attach: 

  • An up-to-date CV that includes presentations, publications, awards, experience, etc. 
  • A draft or summary of your research proposal and personal statement – this will help your letter writer see how their letter contributes to your application package.
  • The outline you have generated above. You might say “I’ve put together a few key points that you might address” or something like that 
  • Instructions for submission and key deadlines. Yes, once they agree to write you a letter you will enter them into the GRFP system and it will generate some automatic emails, but don’t count on faculty reading every single email in its entirety. You want to make sure that your email includes the critical details – when the letter is due, where it can be uploaded, etc. 

Don’t be afraid to follow-up if you don’t get a response right away. (This is why it helps to ask early). You’ll be able to see what letters are submitted and what letters are outstanding in the application portal, so you should feel comfortable sending out personal reminders as the deadline approaches. You should plan on asking for at least one extra letter of recommendation to ensure that you have the required two by the deadline. 

Hopefully these suggestions will help you ask for effective and impactful letters of recommendation!

Acknowledgements: Dr. Chrissy Stachl and Prof. Alanna Schepartz reviewed early drafts of this advice. 

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