Sep 4, 2022

Writing a fellowship proposal for graduate school- How to get started

Overview: Fellowships allow students to define their research projects in graduate school. These fellowships typically require that students craft a short research statement. This article talks about applying for the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship program, which is due this year on Oct 31st, 2022. The insight can be harnessed to develop applications for other fellowships such as the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which this year has field-dependent deadlines between 18 and 22 October 2022.  


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy and Jennie LaMonte


Photo from ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash. 
Fellowships are awarded to a student, not a project, and are distinct from assistantships. These awards typically provide graduate students with a stipend, tuition assistance, and additional travel or HPC funding. Perhaps more importantly, a fellow becomes more visible to broader engineering or science communities. Fellowships are often portable, allowing a student to take the support as one moves into an approved institution. The objective of each fellowship is defined by the funding agency funding the program; there are differences in fellowships provided by the Departments of Defense or Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. Before applying, look closely at each fellowship opportunity solicitation to make sure you qualify. Each funding agency provides critical insight into approaches for successful applications. They also provide guidance for those who are writing letters of support or reference.


For the majority of fellowship applications, you want to answer three questions while responding to the specific fellowship’s prompts. They are:

  • Why me? Help your readers to understand how you are the person a program was intended to fund – in whatever dimensions are appropriate.
  • Why this? This is the “so what” question. How do your interests, aims, and goals align with those of the funding entity? Why do they care about the ideas that you wish to explore?
  • Why now? You’ll need to address this in two contexts – in terms of your field (how are your ideas will advance discovery); and in terms of your field (these are frontier queries).


Today, we are discussing the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship program, which was established in 1989 by direction of congress to increase the number of U.S. citizens earning PhDs in science and engineering, specifically in areas that could potentially be important to the military. Fellows are typically (but not always) work in the following areas: aeronautical and astronautical engineering, Astrodynamics, biomedical engineering, biosciences (includes toxicology); chemical engineering; chemistry; civil engineering; cognitive, neural, and behavioral sciences; computer and computational sciences; electrical engineering; geosciences (includes terrain, water, and air); materials science and engineering; mathematics; mechanical engineering; naval architecture and ocean engineering (includes undersea systems); oceanography (includes ocean acoustics, remote sensing, and marine meteorology); physics (including optics) and space physics. 


Students who want to apply for this fellowship, first need to look at the Department of Defense (DoD) Broad Agency Announcements (BAAs) to see the areas that are of interest to this program’s managers. Read more about this here: You will need to identify the program to which your intended research will most closely relate. The solicitation is explicit about how to reference and use the BAA information.


Your application packet will include some forms, a resume or CV (if you have a record of publications and posters), a personal statement, transcript[s], and a research proposal. The person statement gives the reviewer an understanding of your short- and long-term goals along with an overview of steps you are taking to achieve those. The research proposal provides an overview of your research questions or hypothesis. Explain why your ideas and work are important to larger communities and the steps that you will take to answer those questions or attempts to challenge your hypothesis. Failure to adhere to the rules set forth in the solicitation will result in your application being considered “non-compliant”. It will not be reviewed.


As reviewers of graduate fellowship submissions for multiple programs and after advising our own students, here is our advice. 


  1. Start early! You should begin the process of applying at least two months (if not more) prior to the deadline. 
  2. Identify your research mentor[s] and establish strong and clear channels of communication. If you are a graduate student already working with a research advisor, discuss your plan to apply with your PI, and include the application deadline first among the materials you provide. 
  3. Identify what the focus of your research will be. Start making a list of your research questions or a hypothesis. A good proposal often includes 2-3 questions to be pursued and clearly identifies why this work will advance knowledge of the field. Remember that research is about developing new knowledge for a community and not an individual. You should talk with your research mentor about these questions and have help refining them so that they are clear. 
  4. Include your motivation. Make sure that your statement identifies why the community should be motivated to pursue this work. Who will benefit if the work is completed and why that new knowledge is important. 
  5. Identify a possible path to answer your research questions or test your hypothesis. The reviewers will want to see that you have defined some experimental or computational plans. You can highlight how your work will follow the protocols set by other groups with some new changes or expansions. Ask yourself (and your advisor) if this plan will really help you answer your research questions and if the work really can be accomplished by you at your proposed institution in a traditional period (4 -5 years for a PhD). Feasibility is a selection factor (do you understand “scope”?).
  6. Make sure your research proposal conveys why your work is original. We want graduate students to be trying something new, not just replicating the work of others. Justify how you have ensured that others have not completed this work already. 
  7. Show that you are capable. Point out your preliminary work that helps reviewers have faith you can complete the work and finish your PhD. If your previous work is not in this area, help your readers understand how it is foundational in a new context.
  8. Review and revise. To write a well-crafted research proposal is difficult. As faculty, we spend time getting others to review our work and then revising our drafts based on that feedback. We encourage you to do the same. Ask peers in your research lab, friends from school, your research advisor, etc. to read your drafts and provide suggestions. Empower those reviewers by giving them the specific prompts from the fellowship application so that their feedback is aligned well.