In 2021, I was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, an amazing scholarship that allows me to pursue my research with an above-average stipend, no teaching requirements, and no strings attached. As a way of paying forward all the help and advice I received from past winners, here are some tips from my experience. Feel free to reach out to me for help with your application, or scroll down to see my statements. Also, check out Alex Lang's long-standing website collection of GRFP advice and winning proposals.
Be specific with your aims and hypotheses. Include research questions, why they’re important, and what will answer them. Using the “if, then” format from middle school is honestly a great structure for hypotheses. Show that you’ll know what your results mean when you get them.
Don’t worry about structure at first when writing. I started with an outline of everything I’ve done that would be relevant, then moved bits around and cut parts that didn’t quite fit. Keep the cut parts and, if you think they’re still important, ask one of your letter writers to speak to them. The very last thing I wrote was my opening paragraph; it took me that long to figure out what my story was.
This is its own header here because they’re really important. When I first applied, I wrote something like “I will be a role model for young women in STEM.” This is not good enough---you have to be specific about who you’ll be impacting with your research, how you’ll do it, and why.
Give your letter writers specific goals for what you want them to write. I gave my writers a bulleted list of things I had done that I thought they should mention. This will help you get the letter you need, and provide them with a structure for the letter. Remind them of important deadlines and links to the GRF formatting guidelines (especially that they need both IM and BI in their letters!) in the top of your email. Thank them afterwards, whether or not you win. They spent time and energy on you, and an email or a quick word in the hallway will mean a lot.
I started this application around October 01, 2020. Do not do this! Start earlier to give your letter writers time; remember that they will want at least a draft of both statements, so have those ready to send them along with your CV and possibly transcripts.
Underline instead of bolding; it saves space. Get a lot of people from different backgrounds to read your statements (especially if you know any NSF GRF winners!). Remember that the NSF is funding you, not your project. It doesn’t have to be 100% the thing you’re going to be spending your PhD working towards, it just has to be a solid plan. Get advice from other winners/honorable mentions, but remember that each field has its own ideas about where a “good scientist” should be at your career stage.
This is not your time to be modest or shy. Ask for help, ask for edits, ask for letters, early and often. No NSF GRF is won by one person working alone in their office for a few months. It’s a group effort and we all lean on each other to get it done. Good luck!