GRFP advice from a funded fellow

So it’s coming up on GRFP season… what is the GRFP (Graduate Research Fellowship Program) you ask? The National Science Foundation funds about ~2000 incoming or current graduate students with 3 years’ stipend of $34,000, which is probably more generous than you’d be making otherwise, hopefully giving you a living wage and freedom from TA’ing for some years. Required are two essays (a 3 page personal statement and a 2 page research statement) and 3 letters of recommendation. You’re evaluated on two equal criteria, intellectual merit and broader impacts.

While crafting a strong application takes time, even if you aren’t funded writing these essays can be very helpful. I wrote my application in 2019 as a research assistant while applying to Ph.D. programs. My essays helped refine my ideas of what I wanted to pursue in graduate school and served as building blocks for my Ph.D. applications. You can recycle parts of these essays for other applications down the line.

Now here’s my advice:

  1. Start early. I started my application in August along with the professor I was working for. Every week during my individual meeting with her, we’d review the current state of my ideas and drafts. This gave me lots of time to develop my ideas and dive into the literature around my proposed research to identify a knowledge/technological gap. This also gave time for reviewers to read my app and get it back to me.
  2. Do your research. Read the solicitation. Yes, it seems boring and technical in places, but it has important specifications for your document formatting, the review criteria, and more. Next, I read up on others’ advice and example applications. These are some of my favorite resources:
  3. Have multiple people review your application. In addition to my PI, I shared my application with my lab group during a group meeting, a mentor at a different institution, and my partner. Each brought different insights. Someone who is an expert in your field can help improve your research statement, others that aren’t as familiar might be in a closer position to your reviewers (as there’s no guarantee your reviewer will be an exact expert in what you do), and my chemist partner helped with grammar and narrative arc. It’s scary putting your personal story and hopes and dreams out there for critique, but it’s necessary.
  4. Think critically about your broader impacts. Broader impacts isn’t just something you can slap together and call it a day. (Fellow white people, I’m speaking to you.) While there isn’t any accountability on whether you follow up on your proposed broader impacts activities, that doesn’t give you the excuse to performatively care about outreach to minoritized communities in your application. You shouldn’t just care about minoritized communities solely for this fellowship. Reviewers will want to see a prior commitment to broader impacts activities and fleshed out ideas of how you will continue should you be given this fellowship. If you’re proposing a collaboration of some sorts, speak to the relevant communities first to see if that’s something they want and are willing to support.
  5. Craft a narrative arc in your personal statement. This is your story. It shouldn’t be a dry retelling of the various research projects you’ve done, it should also be about how you’ve grown as a scientist, even through pitfalls and insecurities.
  6. Give guidance to your rec letter writers. When I was thinking about who I could ask to write my rec letters, I wanted people who could write about not only my intellectual abilities, but my past track record of broader impacts. After one of my letter writers said yes, I sent them the current drafts of my statements and told them if possible, I’d like them to highlight in their letter the broader impacts work of mine that they supervised.
  7. Readability is important. Bold or italicize important phrases throughout your work. Don’t be afraid to use a figure or two to illustrate your potential project. Have subtitles for your sections (ex. “Research experience,” “broader impacts,” etc.)

If you’re made it this far, hopefully some of this advice will be helpful to you. If you have any more questions, feel free to reach out to me. And if you’re lacking institutional/lab support in shaping an application, there are several mentoring resources out there: Ecology and Evolution Mentor MatchCientífico Latino Grad School Application Mentorship (deadline passed for 2020), Botanical Society of America GRFP Workshop and Mentoring, and crowdsourced ecology and evolution grad school application help (search the “Willing to help with” column for GRFP) to name some.