Do you already have an idea for research you want to do but lack the freedom or funding to pursue that research question? In the US, fellowships such as the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF), DoD Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART), and the National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) fellowship offer substantial support (both financial and other) to motivated graduate students to pursue their own research in order to maintain a strong, research workforce after PhD.
My biggest advice to those interested in fellowships is:
“You can’t win if you don’t play.”
Many big, national fellowship programs can have success rates around 10% (and even higher!). That’s roughly the same probability of rolling two dice and getting a sum of 9. If you are successful, congrats! If not, you will have gained valuable experience in proposal writing and promoting yourself and you may even get feedback to help make a stronger application if you are eligible to apply the following year.
Fellowship applications typically consist of a fill-in application, a research proposal, and a personal statement. The goal of the application is to get a multifaceted view of the candidate – What’s their academic history? Can they effectively communicate a sound research question? Is the candidate well-aligned to the fellowship program’s goals? These are the questions reviewers are looking to answer when they read your application. In the next section, I provide some tips on how to increase the chance of success with your fellowship applications.
The part of a fellowship application that differentiates winners from honorable mentions is the personal essay. A great way to understand the personal essay is to find previously successful essays to learn from. Advice that I give to those writing a personal statement include:
- Show, don’t tell. Instead of “I learned strong communication skills.” say “I presented findings at weekly meetings and received presentation feedback from the group.”
- Think like a novelist. Mood, setting, theme, and story are key elements to consider. It should be an engaging story about yourself – I always recommend starting with a good hook to grab the reader’s attention (perhaps a story about a key experience that shaped your trajectory as a trainee or a moment you learned something important about yourself).
- Keep it simple. Focus on you! Reviewers want to know how your experiences impacted you, rather than simply providing a laundry list of your activities.
- Maximize your “points”. Reviewers have a grading rubric in front of them. Look at the fellowship solicitation carefully and ensure you touch upon all of the evaluation criteria. Reviewers are rooting for you! Ensure they have the easiest time finding where something you’ve done fits in their grading rubric. They want to give you as many points as they can.
I significantly credit this website to my success on the NSF GRF. There are some great tips and a repository of successful applications:
If you have specific questions or want to discuss fellowship applications with other applicants and past winners, these forums are a fantastic source of information:
Finally, many universities have Writing Centers and even Fellowship/Scholarship Offices with experts who can help tailor your application. They are often an underutilized resource that can provide significant support for your application.
Applying for a fellowship had always seemed to me as a daunting task. The applications are large and oftentimes I found myself reading essays from students who I thought I could never compete against. The first time I applied to the NSF GRF, I scored in the lowest categories and worried I could never be the caliber of applicant they were looking for.
After reading more essays and talking to others, I learned that the key advice I never took to heart was tailoring my personal statement to the reviewers. I rewrote my personal statement to explicitly highlight how I met the evaluation criteria of “Broader Impacts” and “Intellectual Merit” as defined by NSF. I was sure to include how I had accomplished (or planned to accomplish) all seven types of “Broader Impacts” and was sure to balance the amount of “Broader Impacts” and “Intellectual Merit” evenly between my research and personal statements. The most helpful exercise for me was to highlight any place in my essays where I was scoring “points” (yellow for Broader Impacts and pink for Intellectual Merit). I wanted my essays to be as highlighted as possible. I scored the highest category in my second NSF GRF application on all evaluation criteria and I credit this restructuring as the key factor that made this possible.
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