Oct 9, 2022

Applying for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship - Insight from a former program manager

 Overview: The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program aims to recruit and retain a diverse cohort of early-career individuals with high potential for future achievements, contributions, and broader impacts in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It provides support to students who are pursuing a research-based MS or PhD within STEM or STEM education. This post provides some useful tips from a former NSF program manager for this program, Prof. Gisèle Muller-Parker.


Post Contributor(s): Drs. Marian Kennedy and Gisèle Muller-Parker, a former NSF program manager for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program.  If you are a US citizen looking for funding support to complete a STEM degree, you might be interested in a scholarship-for-service program offered by the US Department of Defense. This program can support undergraduate or graduate students supports students through the Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship-for-Service Program. This program is open to undergraduates and graduate students who are pursing either a master’s, or Ph.D. in select science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Applications this year are due on Dec 1st, 2022. This program is unlike the NSF GFRP in two main ways. The first is that students are supported in areas that are of interest to the US Department of Defense. The second is that recipients are obligated to obtain civilian employment with the Department of Defense upon their degree compl’tion.


Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash
Applying for a fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is an ideal first step in a research career in science or engineering. NSF created the GRFP to “select, recognize, and financially support early-career individuals with the demonstrated potential to be high achieving scientists and engineers” and “to broaden participation in science and engineering of women, persons who are members of groups historically underrepresented in STEM, persons with disabilities, and veterans.” This award is prestigious. GRFP was the first program created by the NSF in 1952, which has offered fellowships every year since then. The program has continued to grow steadily by doubling the number of fellowships offered annually from around 500 in the 1970s and 1980s to 1,000 in 1988, to 2,000 in 2010, and to 2,750 in 2023. The number may increase in 2023 to 3,000 due to authorizing legislation passed in 2022 (the CHIPS Act). Historically, the number of recipients in each area is similar to the proportion of applicants in the pool from each discipline. The CHIPS Act changes the NSF Act in Section 10 for fellowship awards by adding the words to also “address national workforce demand in critical STEM fields.’’ Recipients, often go on to win other accolades. In fact, the three recipients of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry include two GRFP recipients, Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless.


All the information to apply is found in the official GRFP solicitation NSF 22-614. This document contains deadlines, program description, award information, eligibility requirements, application preparation instructions, submission instructions and the application review criteria. NSF issued an updated set of GRFP FAQs this week: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (nsf23010). They also supply a Eligibility quiz. 


A complete application will include the following:

·       Form with fill-in fields for questions about educational history, personal information, etc.


·       Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement (3-page PDF)

o   In this section, you want to tell your story (personal and professional) that demonstrates your potential for STEM research career. Be sure to help the reviewers understand your intended trajectory by identifying your career aspirations and goals. Before beginning to write this section, ask yourself the following questions:

§  What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?

§  What details of your life might help the reviewers better understand you or set you apart from other applicants?

§  How did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has convinced you that you are well suited to this field?

§  How did you learn about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?

§  What impact have you had on your academic, local, and the broader community?


·       Graduate Research Statement (2-page PDF)

o   In this section, you will describe your proposed research plan. As you write, make sure that you clearly communicate your research idea and approach, explain your methodology, and the research questions you expect to answer (new knowledge developed).

o   The reviewers do want to see that you understand the current state of the field. One way to do that is to look at the recent awards from NSF to Principal Investigators in your field of study (not the NSF GFR awards). You can do this by going to www.nsf.gov and then searching under the awards tab. Each NSF Award has a Project Abstract which includes the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts of the awarded project.


·       Transcripts (official or unofficial, PDFs uploaded electronically; redact Personally Identifiable Information (PII) such as social security number, birth date, telephone number, email address before uploading)


·       Name and contact information for at least three reference writers

o   You can submit up to five potential reference letter writers, ranking them 1 through 5 from top-ranked to lowest. Only the top three ranked reference letters received by NSF will be included in the application file shared with the reviewers.

You submit your application through the Research.gov website.


Applications are assigned to review panels based on the applicant’s chosen “Major Field(s) of Study.” Make sure to select the one most closely aligned with your proposed graduate program of study, which may be different from that of your undergraduate field.


Reviewers are asked to comment on intellectual merit and broader impacts of the applicant’s application. The former refers to the potential of the applicant to advance scholarly knowledge and the latter is the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. Both the personal and research statements must address NSF’s review criteria in these areas, under separate headings in both statements. Applications in which intellectual merit and broader impacts are not addressed separately under those headings are returned without review.


The timeline is as follows.

  • Applications are due in mid-October and the specific deadline depends on the applicant’s field of study. The deadline is 5 PM in the time zone of your mailing address listed in the application.
  • Letters of reference due are due about one week later in October. This year the deadline is Friday Oct 28th at 5 PM Eastern Time (ET).
  • Recipients are announced in late March to early April.
  • Those offered an award have until May 1st to accept or decline.


Resources we encourage you to explore as you prepare your applications:

 About our guest contributor:  Dr. Muller-Parker’s career has focused on understanding the symbiotic relationships in marine organisms and enabling early career researchers and scientists. She holds degrees from SUNY at Stony Brook, the University of Delaware, and the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the Western Washington University faculty and was professor of biology from 1990 to 2010. She joined NSF in the Division of Graduate Education as Program Director for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program in October 2008. She served as lead Program Director of GRFP from 2010 until 2018. Please note that the advice in this post represents her own views and not that of the National Science Foundation. If you are interested in reading about her, I would suggest a recent article she published in Science: As a professor, I wanted to have a bigger impact—so I left academia for a government job” (2019).

Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at epsteinwords.com.