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.

grad school search- cold emails

Inspired by fellow twitter user @itatiVCS‘s #GradSchoolSearch blog series, I’ve decided to attempt documenting my grad school search process! Coming from a small liberal arts college (even an elite one!), it still took me doing summer research experiences at R1s and mentorship there to understand the hidden workings of admissions for ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) PhD programs.

For those who aren’t well-versed, EEB PhD programs mostly are not umbrella programs, where you’re admitted to a department and after some amount of rotations in your first year, you choose who your primary PhD advisor will be. Cell and molecular biology programs tend to be like that.

Instead in EEB, you generally specify who you’d like to be your primary PhD advisor in your application. Before you do this, it is “highly encouraged” you contact your prospective advisors and seek their encouragement of your application. From what I’ve heard, without this pre-application contact, you probably won’t be admitted.

So how do you get in touch with some scary PIs (principal investigators) from different institutions that probably haven’t even heard of you before?!? Dr. Jacquelyn Gill has an awesome blog post on how to nail that inquiry email. My two cents is that in every cold email/cover letter I send, I try to remember these things:

  • Show you put in a little research on the PI. Peruse their website, take a look at their papers, and try to identify the intersection of your interests and their work. You can name drop a paper you particularly liked in the email.
  • The cold email is not only for saying why the PI would be such a great fit for you, but what skills and expertise you have to offer to the lab, and why it’s a no brainer they should admit you to their lab.

Now, with that said, PIs are generally busy and certain times of the year (summer during conference and field work season, beginnings and endings of semester, etc.) your email might get buried in their inbox. Don’t be afraid to send a reminder email in two-ish weeks.

This clearly isn’t a perfect practice, as it’s an insider knowledge type thing about knowing how integral emailing is in the first place, and then whether you get a response or not. However, I’m hoping to make a small contribution towards making EEB academia more inclusive and equitable by documenting the insider knowledge ins and outs to the admissions process that I’ve picked up as I go along with this potential blog series. Thanks for reading!

P.S. if you are applying to grad school this admissions cycle in EEB and are in need of some mentoring, check out EEB Mentor Match!

7/8 of college done!

Fall semester has finally drawn to a close! I can’t believe I have just one semester left of college. Here are some highlights from fall 2018:

  • My Evolution of the Iowa Flora class! We spent the first half of the semester romping around local prairie remnants, learning basic Iowa plant taxonomy and ID. Somewhere along the way of collecting and ID’ing 38 specimens, I became a better naturalist and cured some of my plant blindness.
  • At the beginning of the semester, I dreaded my Statistical Modeling class, having a bit of imposter syndrome and thinking I’d do awful trying to learn R and stats at the same time. Turns out, my summer research experiences learning to code prepped me quite well and I picked up R with minimal pain involved!
  • PR’ed in the 6k during my cross country season! My shiny new PR is 25:11. I’ve come a long way from my first 6k time of 31:25 two years ago. A lot of my gratitude goes to the Varsity Sports running crew in Baton Rouge who gave me a community while getting my miles in this past summer.
  • For my Race and Ethnicity in America course, among the prompts for our final paper was to write a manifesto. I chose this prompt and wrote about retention and achievement gaps of underrepresented minorities in STEM. Having the opportunity to write about a topic I’m passionate about made the process a lot more fun.
  • I found my voice and spoke up for others in various situations, from advocating for greater incorporation of computational biology in our department’s curriculum, to advocating for a stronger URM in STEM community, to standing up when a Title IX case was grossly mishandled. I was reminded of the Hillel quote (my Hebrew school teachers would be so proud), “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”