The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is a highly competitive national fellowship. If you get it, it's a fantastic way to provide your own funding and gain independence in your PhD program.

While the NSF GRFP lasts for 5 years, the stipend is ~$34,000/year for 3 out of the 5 years. This allows you to manage the funding with other funding sources – for example, I came into Texas A&M University with a Graduate Diversity Excellence Fellowship (3 years funding) so I was able to defer my NSF GRFP for 2 years so that its funding could kick in once my first fellowship ended.

NOTE: READ THE GRFP SOLICITATION FIRST. They change things every year and the advice you read may not reflect the newest changes. Reading the soliciation is the best way to ensure that your application isn't just immediately thrown out (because it didn't follow the format, text size, etc.).

Basic Requirements

  • — Must be a US Citizen, US National, or permanent resident
  • — Senior Undergraduate or First/Second Year Grad Student
  • — If applying as a grad student, can only apply one of the two years
  • — Will be doing scientific research

If you apply as a senior in undergrad and get it, the funding will go with you to the grad school of your choice (of the ones where you received acceptance). If you apply as a grad student, this funding replaces the funding you would currently have. As there are restrictions on applying as a grad student (can only do this once), you need to think about which year you want to apply. I applied in my second year, and can explain my reasoning below, but for the most part this will heavily depend upon if you will have funding coming into grad school or not (however this dips into my philosophy that no grad student should ever have to pay for school).

Why I applied in my second year: Coming into grad school, I didn't feel that I had a strong enough case based upon my work up to that point to apply in my first year. I reasoned that after my first year, I would have better rapport with my advisor and anyone else who I may want to ask to be a letter writer, I would have established myself more in the department, and I would have a better idea of the research I would want to do for the remainder of my PhD program. All of these things proved true, and I was even able to ask a collaborator I had met that past year on an observing run to write one of my letters of recommendation.

Application Requirements

  • — Personal Statement, Relevant Background, & Future Goals (3 pages)
  • — Research Statement (2 pages)
  • — 3 Letters of Recommendation

I have many tips and suggestions relevant for writing these statements, but at this point I would like to point you to the fantastic work written up by past/other NSF Graduate Research Fellows. Start with these people's sites, and then refer back here for other tips & suggestions.

Alex Lang's website is a fantastic starting point for anyone who just decided to apply or would like to learn more before deciding when to apply. The website has detailed information for the different statements, advice, links to other people's websites, and a massive table at the end sharing the statements & reviewer feedback for past winners (an invaluable resource).

Some of My Recommendations

Since the people listed above (and everyone they cite on their websites) have done fantastic work writing up advice and recommendations, I'm only going to list a few of the things that I think are really important that I didn't necessarily see on other sites.

However, first I wanted to address something that I hear a lot (and that I was told by people when I applied) is "why even bother, the odds are very low so it's not worth it to apply, waste of your time". First of all, don't listen to people who say that. That's not constructive advice and that kind of "advice" prevents so many people from trying for these amazing opportunities. Applying for the GRFP was a lot of work and took time, BUT I did this because regardless of the outcome, I wanted:

    1. the practice applying for a national fellowship
    2. more practice writing persuasively for funding
    3. the opportunity to define early on in my graduate career what I planned to do for my entire PhD program
    4. the ability to develop more rapport with my advisor
    5. the opportunity to clearly define mine & my advisor's expectations for my PhD program and science
    6. THE PRACTICE (I know I said this 3 times)

Choosing your research topic

As an astrophysicist, this advice may not be useful to other sciences (but I hope it is!): if you are having trouble coming up with a research topic for your research statement, I recommend finding the review articles in your subfield (ex., my subfield is high-redshift astronomy). Review articles are incredibly helpful — not only do they give you a fantastic summary of the field up to that point, with references, they also will point out the open questions still in your subfield. Take advantage of this, use it to find your own research question.

Once you have an idea of what you're interested in, read some of the references listed in the review article, write out your thoughts, then you could meet with your advisor to walk through a more detailed approach (they can also help you determine the feasibility of the project).

Writing your statements

Okay, so you've decided to apply and now you have to write the statements. Congrats! This is a big step. Writing isn't something that comes easy to most people, so here are some general tips that will help you in this process:

  • create an outline — if this helps you, bullet-pointing a brief outline (or going even more detailed) can help you think through the structure and flow of your statements
  • talk through your story — this is especially helpful with the personal statement. Sit down with a friend, colleague, or family member and record yourself talking to them about what you would like to include, how to connect it all into one coherent piece, etc.; listen back to the recording later and start writing notes or drafting your outline
  • word-vomit first, edit later — essentially, when you're writing your first draft just keep writing; don't stop to edit or rephrase something, just keep writing. Once you get all of your thoughts out, then you can go back and reorder text, edit sentences, etc.
  • ask a friend/colleague to read it — when you have reached a reasonable first draft, share it with a friend or colleague and ask for feedback (you can do this before sharing it with your advisor, which I recommend). Get as many people to read it as you can so that you can sculpt it into the best possible statement(s).
  • read it out loud — read all of your statements out loud, to yourself, and you'll be surprised at how much better you'll be able to tell if a sentence flows or not, if there's a grammatical error, or if there's a typo.
  • set aside & rewrite — something that I did & it improved my statements SO MUCH. Essentially, once you have iterated over your statements, gotten feedback, edited, and are happy with them... set them aside and open new documents and completely rewrite them. This may sound bizarre, but in doing all of the work up to that point you've been creating this picture of the story in your mind – by rewriting the statement from scratch, you'll find that the story will flow better than it ever had before. You don't have to keep the second version of your statements, but at least use them to do the final edits on the originals (although I bet you'll like them more).

Directing your letter writers

So you've found 3 people to write your letters of recommendation, fantastic. Now, chances are these people are very busy and so they will appreciate you providing as much information and direction as possible. In general, I recommend sharing your CV with your letter writers (for reference) and send along your 2 statements as well once you've finished so that they can reference particular things from the statements in their letter.

Additionally, after confirmation that they would write a letter for me, I sent all of this information in one email to each letter writer. In my email for each writer, I listed the recommended talking points from the NSF GRFP solicitation letter, and then highlighted the specific points I thought that writer would be best in addressing. Below is an example of the email I sent to one of my letter writers, someone I met for the first time that year on a telescope observing run (specific details are redacted & replaced with square brackets):

Hi [name],

Thank you again for agreeing to be one of my letter of recommendation writers for my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) application. It means a lot to me that you feel comfortable writing one.

In order to make your life easier in writing, I've attached my CV to this email. I have also listed key points from which you can choose to focus on below, as well as additional information which may be useful.

Aside from the points listed below, if you are comfortable with this I would appreciate it if you would highlight your experience with me during our [telescope] run and afterwards, as well as your thoughts on the merit of the work I'm doing. I believe that you are one of the strongest of my letter writers for potentially addressing both the broader impact and intellectual merit sections of this application through expressing your impression of me.

Feel free to pick any (or all) of the following to include in your letter:

    • Comment on my leadership potential in astronomy
    • Comment on any specific positive experience that you've had with me
    • Comment on my potential to:
        1. succeed in graduate school
        2. conduct original research
        3. communicate effectively
        4. work cooperatively with others
        5. make unique contributions to astronomy
        6. make unique contributions to society at large
In addition to what you choose above, please be sure to indicate your department, how long you have known me, and in what capacity (ie. Mentor, Advisor, Collaboration, etc).

Additional NSF reference writer requirements include:
    1. Institutional letterhead, if available
    2. Two (2) page limit
    3. 12-point Times New Roman in body of letter
    4. Name and title of reference writer
    5. Department & Institution or organization
    6. Submitted by: Thursday, November 2, 2017
Closer to my deadline (Friday, 27 October 2017), I plan to send out my two statements (1. Personal, Relevant Background, & Future Goals Statement; 2. Research Statement) to all of my letter of reference writers for everyone to read. This is both so everyone is very familiar with my application and purpose, but also in case there is anything in the two statements that you would like to address in your letter.

Please let me know if you have any questions!


Below is a link to a Google Doc version of this email, in case anyone would like to use it. As a note, the things I ask each letter writer to focus on are tailored specifically for them, such that the combination of the 3 letters will address the intellectual merit & broader impacts of both myself as a scientist & of my science itself.

example email to letter writer

My statements & reviewer feedback

Below are links to my NSF GRFP application statements as well as the review sheet returned by the NSF from my 3 GRFP reviewers.

Personal Statement

research statement

Application review