Sep 28, 2022

Applying to the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship program (Submission Deadline for 2022=> Oct 31st)

Overview: Fellowships are awarded directly to students and therefore allow the students much more independence on setting their own research agenda. While the advisor (and committee) has some say as to the scope of work to be done, a fellowship can eliminate the input of program managers as to the deliverables during a dissertation.


This week, I invited Dr. Garrett Pataky to speak about developing a research statement for one of the most competitive fellowship programs- the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship program. Dr. Garrett Pataky is an associate professor within the Clemson Department of Mechanical Engineering. He recently earned a CAREER award by the National Science Foundation, a highly desired award for early career faculty (and their institutions!).


During his talk, I took notes on the highlights and crafted the first version of this post. Dr. Pataky then edited to ensure clarity. We both wish you the best in developing your initial fellowship proposals-- the first of many proposals you will write in your scientific careers.


Contributors: Drs. Marian Kennedy and Garrett Pataky




Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash
Developing a fellowship proposal will require you to carve out time from your already overloaded calendars and perseverance. However, we think this is an excellent use of your energy since it can allow you mobility in graduate school to work on a project based on interest alone, set you apart from your peers and allow you to earn a higher stipend than those on teaching assistantships. Fellowship applications typically require four components: (1) application form, (2) personal statement, (3) letters of recommendation and (4) a research proposal.


A ‘research proposal’ is your pitch for a research project of YOUR choosing. Your narrative should highlight your hypothesis along with the motivation for pursuing that hypothesis. You need to convince the readers (the review panel), why this research project is worth reviewing and what possible benefits to the stakeholders might be. In addition, you will propose how to test that hypothesis (outlining the experimental methods). In this post, we will focus on how to develop a research proposal for the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship program. However, you can use the same research idea for multiple research fellowship application! So, we will encourage you to target multiple submission windows at once.


The National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship was established in 1989 through an act of Congress with the aim to increase the number and quality of our nation’s scientists and engineers. The congressional action also came with a caveat- those fellows be selected "solely on the basis of academic ability." Recipients today are allocated support over for 3 years including full tuition, all mandatory fees, a monthly stipend ($38,400 annually), a travel budget and up to $1,200 a year in health insurance. This stipend is higher than those paid to graduate students working as teaching or grading assistants during their dissertation or thesis work. In addition, being a recipient is prestigious and that honor stays on your curriculum vita for the length of your career. This is a more competitive fellowship pool than the National Science Foundation GFRP. With over 4,000 fellowships granted since 1989 and over 60,000 applications have been received, the acceptance rate is below 7% since inception. However, these numbers are skewed. When we look at the 2021 pool of awardees, only 2% of applicants were accepted! (For reference, the NSF GFRP is around 15%). Dr. Pataky used these facts to suggest that his students focus on developing applications for the NSF GFRP and then to use the developed materials for a second push towards the NDSEG.


To be competitive applicant for the NDSEG, you should apply at or near the beginning of your graduate school program. The Cal Tech website for fellowships reported that 97% of these fellowships were awarded to students who are either graduating seniors or in their first year of graduate study. In addition, the research proposed needs to have a military application. The MIT Office of Graduate Education Fellowships webpage on fellowships clarified this for us: “This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be building the better missile. The DOD has many guises and covers a large area of expertise from building bridges to supply chain to computer systems.”

As noted in our previous post (“Writing a fellowship proposal for graduate school- How to get started”), you need to identify the specialization section by consulting the consult the Broad Area Announcements for the Army Research Office, Office of Naval Research, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The reasoning for this was made much clearer by the MIT Office of Graduate Education Fellowships webpage. This website clarifies that this “specialization” selection is used in the second part of the selection process. In the first part, the NDSEG staff work with reviewers to whittle down the applicant pool into a smaller pool of “qualified applicants”. Representatives from the branches of the military choose from the pool to make sure that the applicant’s proposed research is of strategic interest to them. This website also made this suggestion: “… a student should choose a specialization that is in all three lists. This may increase your chances of receiving this fellowship by giving you the broadest appeal.

Like other awards, there is a statement that ‘Applications are encouraged from minority students, women, and those with disabilities.’ Which mirrors many other programs. What is different is that this program has a set percentage allocated. 10% of awards are set-aside for applicants from underrepresented minority groups.


Steps for preparing your research proposal for the NDSEG:

·       Define the focus of your original research project

This is often the most difficult step for students. Dr. Pataky suggests going ahead and first identifying areas that you are interested such as metallic deformation, heat transfer, etc. If you need a position to leap from- start with identifying the courses in your major you enjoyed the most and then the topics in those classes that peaked your interest.


Next either join a research opportunity related to these topics (during which you will read research articles) OR do some intensive reading one your own of recent literature. Reading is the only way to understand the landscape of a research area and is always the first step of the research process. Either path will let you know if you really liked that area or you just enjoyed the teaching style of the faculty member who taught that class.


As a college undergraduate or graduate student, you have access to journal articles that are open access or available through data bases purchased through your institution’s library. As you search for articles, try to identify newer articles (up to three years since publication) to see what the current state is or read review articles. Review articles are typically longer (15-20 pages) but provide you a clear review of the key contributors to a specific research field and often highlight emerging areas.


As you are reading journal articles, track the following things:

§  The gaps in knowledge the authors pointed to.

§  The future work suggested by the authors.

§  Research questions you want to ask the authors of the journal papers.


To track your references (journal articles). Dr. Pataky recommends using Zotero, a free tool that allows you to collect, organize and create bibliographies. You will both need to allude to the articles you read in your research proposal and cite that work.


·       Articulate your hypothesis statement and make sure this is testable.

A hypothesis is not a research question. It is a statement. You can often point to preliminary results from others to develop your hypothesis. You also need to make sure that your hypothesis is testable. It shows that you thought about what experiments you will need to carry out to do the test. Identify the variables in the project.


·       Don’t throw the kitchen sink at the problem.

What is the minimum set of measurements and conditions to test the hypothesis? By identifying the minimum set up measurements, you show the reviewers that your research project is well-defined research.


·       Craft your research proposal draft

Your proposal will include an introduction section that outlines the knowledge gap existing in published literature. Next, you will address the relevance to the funding agency. That will be followed by the introduction of the hypothesis and followed closely by preliminary results. Finally, you will outline the experimental approach which could be a computational or laboratory based experimental approach.


·       Crafting your relevance

You need to answer this question- Why is your proposal worth pursuing study? Why does the funding agency care? Why is this topic timely?

o   For the NDSEG, make it clear that the Department of Defense will benefit from your work. Read through the BAAs.

o   NSF calls this “Broader Impacts”. From their proposal guidance, this section “encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes”.

o   DoD & NASA want research projects that support their missions. Find their needs through Broad Agency Announcements (BAA).

o   DOE SCGSR requires a collaborating research scientist at a DOE lab.

o   CSGF is focused around the benefits/developing high performance computing.


·       Get a research mentor[s] interested in supporting your application.

Even if you work for a faculty member as an undergraduate or graduate research assistant, they may not have the bandwidth to help all their advisees develop fellowship applications. A few months before the deadline, make sure you meet with them. In this meeting, be ready to present the due date, funding opportunity, funding agency for that fellowship and the parts of the application packet. You will also need to show them your draft. This draft should be substantial- that is not just a paragraph- to get the attention of the faculty member. They want to help you, but do not have the bandwidth to co-create your research proposal, especially as the idea should be driven by you.


·       Mark the deadlines on your calendar!

Deadlines for fellowship applications will not be extended and there will be no grace given for missing them even for large life events. Plan ahead!


·       Make your work count.

Use your developed research proposal to apply to multiple programs! If you are applying to the NDSEG, plan to try one of these other fellowship programs too.


o   NSF GRFP –October 17-21, 2022

o   NASA NSTGRO –November 2, 2022

o   DOE SCGSR –November 9, 2022

o   DoD SMART –December 1, 2022 (DoD employment)


Before we end this post, we need to give a hats off to Cal Tech. They have a wonderful website dedicated to fellowships that you should at least scan. We also would like to highlight Kelsie Rutlage, Ph.D. Candidate at University of California Los Angeles. Unlike other fellowships, finding a recipient for the NDSEG who shared their materials/experience was more difficult. Read it.