NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP)

Celebratory cake!
Celebratory cake, courtesy of Rice’s graduate studies office!

Earlier this year, I found out I was the recipient of the NSF GRFP: the sole winner in the field of Industrial-Organizational Psychology in 2015. It was a tremendous honor and vote of confidence in my abilities as a researcher — the result of years of experience, a ton of preparation and a good dose of luck.

Given the high volume of participants (over 17,000 this previous year), applying for the NSF GRFP is an extremely competitive enterprise. There are plenty of thorough and comprehensive guides out there, some of which I’ve included at the end of this post. In case it would be helpful, however, I’m also including my own take-aways from this grant-writing experience — particularly since I am in a discipline that doesn’t ordinarily garner a lot of STEM-oriented awards.

Statement writing

Understand the reviewers.

Critically important! Like in anything else, you need to know what your target audience is looking for. Luckily, the NSF makes this very clear by telling you their criteria; they want to be assured that you have intellectual merit and that your research promises broader impacts. Remember, too, that they are funding you, as a student — not necessarily your specific research project. Reviewers understand that research can and does change over the course of a graduate career; no one will come knocking on your door four years down the line to make sure you saw your proposal through. What you want to do is prove to them that you are on your way to becoming a contributing, star researcher.

My strategy: I re-read every sentence of my statement to make sure they either emphasized one of the two criteria, or that they pushed forward my narrative in a critical way. Speaking of which…

Find your story.

You are essentially trying to market yourself to the NSF reviewers. Most candidates will have strong academic backgrounds and interesting research ideas. To set yourself apart, find an “angle” — tell a comprehensive, thematically-tied story about yourself and your research, weaving in distinctive characteristics (e.g., overcoming adversity, participating in outreach). Although my research and extracurricular experiences were diverse, spanning many different domains and disciplines, I wrote about the common thread that unified them and propelled my own research forward.

Tip: It’s always a good idea to open with an attention-catching personal anecdote! I dedicated the first few lines of my statement to a story about a very personal experience that exemplified my research interests’ real-world applications. I also mentioned (but did not overly elaborate on) things that helped me stand out, like my experience as a first-generation American, woman, and racial minority.

Consult with others.

Read as many samples as you can, even if they aren’t exactly from students your field — see the below resources section for links with outstanding statements. Talk to experts, other winners, faculty, etc. Ask for extra pairs of eyes on your statements, particularly your personal one (usually the research proposal will be more technical and more scientifically sound). I, personally, carved out time to attend workshops and use free coaching services offered by my university. Take advantage of any resources you might have! This will help you understand what, exactly, reviewers are looking for.

Below, I’ve included a rough outline of my statement structures.

Personal statement


Research proposal


Make it clear.

Relatedly, you want to make it easy for NSF reviewers to understand why and how you are qualified and exceptional. Early on in my personal statement, I established my driving motivations (what “I’m about”) to give them a strong sense of who I am. I used formatting to be as explicit as possible: I bolded important statements (sparingly), used headers to explicitly outline my intellectual merit and broader impacts sections, and used line breaks between paragraphs to give reviewers’ eyes a break. Think about how many statements reviewers need to go through, and try to make their job easier.

Time yourself wisely.

Give yourself enough time. Start by listing out all the potential things you might ever want to incorporate into your statement, cull through them, develop your narrative, and then sit down and write it up. Know yourself and your work habits, be kind to yourself and allow yourself breaks, and plan accordingly! Easy, right?

Reference letters

Help your recommenders.

Every reference writer works differently. Some may want privacy and full control over the letter; others may want you to develop a draft yourself. In any case, it helps to give them as much information as possible. I referred back to my graduate school application process and created a “brag sheet” to highlight the greatest hits in my CV and the key points of my proposal. Providing your letter-writers with as much information as possible is critical — help them help you.


  1. Inside Higher Ed
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  3. Philip Guo
  4. Auburn University
  5. Psychological Science
  6. Graduate Mentor