Writing a winning NSF proposal

Alexandra T. Barth, 2018 Recipient

Deadlines for the 2020 round of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program are fast approaching (October 21-November 1, depending on one’s discipline). Applying for this fellowship requires intentioned thought about the journey that motivated you to pursue a PhD, research objectives within your program, and intended outcomes for your degree.  Receiving the fellowship is a first step in starting one’s research career, but also a fantastic exercise in reflecting on your personal goals for the degree program.

I started attending NSF proposal writing sessions during the sophomore year of my undergraduate degree, always curious about the expectations for the next stage in my academic career.  Since then, I’ve read dozens of award-winning proposals from online resources, friends, and students I’ve mentored.

Coming from these experiences, I want to offer general and specific insight from the mentorship I’ve received in applying for this fellowship, in hopes that it benefits your process:

Writing Process

  • Find a fellowship mentor. This can be a previous NSF GRFP recipient at your institution, graduate student, or faculty member. Ask them about their writing process and any general advice.
  • Review winning proposals and reviews in your discipline. These may be accessible to you through online resources, a fellowship office on campus,  graduate students at your institution, or your research mentor. Use of the NSF GRFP awardee search can help you find people at your institution, and feel free to reach out to graduate students who offer their proposals through Twitter.
  • Utilize resources available within your department or institution including essay proofreading, tone, and formatting advice.
  • Reciprocate proofreading with a friend, and serve as accountability partners to personal deadlines you set before the due date.
  • Finish your first draft early, and continue doing iterative edits over time.

Writing a Personal Statement

  • NSF funds the person, not the project. Don’t hold back in portraying an authentic representation of your experiences and passions.
  • Identity is not itself a broader impact, but may contribute to your perspective and motivations within your field. For this reason, include any underrepresented groups you identify with, and comment on how this identity relates to your experience pursuing a PhD degree.
  • Include all quantifiable outputs of research (scholarships, awards, research presentations). Make sure the scale of conference presentations is clear (statewide, national, international).
  • Include citations of all in preparation, submitted, or published manuscripts.
  • If you started a new Broader Impact project or organization, make sure your individual contribution is clear. Roughly quantify the number of people impacted in any project you have been involved in (i.e. mentoring a class of twenty students doing research).
  • Connect your previous experiences to your future ambitions.
  • State any intention to continue Broader Impacts efforts of your undergraduate degree into your graduate program.

Writing a Research Statement

  • Provide a motivation that creates a sense of urgency and that everyone can understand. Review introductions to papers in your discipline to see how people commonly “pitch” the project area.
  • Provide context. Reviewers are broadly within your discipline, but you cannot expect them to be well-versed on the specifics of your proposal subject. Provide a small literature overview into the work that has been done in this area, including relevant citations.
  • Create a clear description into how the research will be conducted. Provide context acknowledging ongoing work in the field towards this problem, and explain how you may be taking a different approach.
  • Include diagrams/visual models/schematics, if applicable. If you have preliminary data on this project, include it.
  • Have your research statement reviewed by a professor within your research area to ensure the statement meets implicit criteria of data presentation and communication within your discipline.
  • Include Broader Impacts (how the outcomes of this project affect others) and Personal Merit (how you are the right person to do this project, and the advisor/institution you select in your application are right to support you in this research) criteria under an explicit header at the end of the proposal.

Alexandra Barth is a PhD student in physical inorganic chemistry at CalTech

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