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How to score better on the NSF GRFP application

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How to score better on the NSF GRFP application

Postby John Fetzer » Fri Nov 26, 2010 4:16 pm

Having combed over the criteria and talked to several people who have served as reviewers, I will give a few tips on the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GFRP) application.

There are two main areas that the reviewers are told to look at, technical and non0technical. The first looks at your proposal (for chemists and other laboratory scientists AND at your position and potential to be a good researcher. So not only is the research proposal graded on scientific merit, but you are on whether you show the maturity, resourcefulness, creativity, curiosity, doggedness to do high-level research. The second looks at you as a person in aspects that are outside of the research lab. Both are important!

If you just write about the science and not your passion and drive, you hurt yourself. The reviewers want to know if you have what it takes to do the project at a high level. This means not just following a professor’s or postdoc’s directions. You ought to be solidly versed in the concepts, open-minded (meaning that mentioning contingencies and alternatives is not a bad thing). The reviewers are research scientists in your field of interest, so they know that research is trial-and-error and that it takes perseverance and adaptability.

About yourself, do not just say “I want to be a research professor at a good university and mentor the next generation of scientist”s. Duh! Almost everybody applying can say that. What drives you? What are your more tangible goals? Why do you want to go through all the BS of grad school and research projects that only work sometimes?
Definitely do not say that your work will benefit anyone working in that field as your main or only goal. The impact of your proposed research should have either broader impact on science and technology areas outside of the research field or to be of benefit to people in a more general way.

On the nontechnical areas, outreach to young people, or to under-represented groups will gain attention. The NSF after all is a government agency that gets funding from Congress and has to pay attention to diversity. Tutoring and teaching are good experiences to describe, as are involvement in community groups, environmental activities, and other efforts. Enthusiasm and a passion for the science and for positive benefits to society sound altruistic and kind of namby-pamby, but those are one of the things of value in this competition – yes, you are competing with some very accomplished people.

It may seem banally fundamental, but proofreading your application is a must. Misspellings and poor grammar do not give a good impression of thoroughness or the attention to detail that lab science requires. It might be wise to have others review your application for readability and clarity. The latter often is missing because people working in a research area forget that the jargon and acronyms commonly used are not self-explanatory and that the fundamental points are not universally known and understood.
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