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Author Topic: NSF GRFP advice  (Read 5338 times)
lady_steam
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« on: May 06, 2009, 10:14:48 pm »

Im applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program this fall and Im wondering if anyone has any advice, either as a past applicant or winner, or as a member of a proposal evaluation committee. I searched on the fora but I didnt find anything on this. I have already contacted some past winners at my grad school, but any tips would be helpful. Im applying in the life sciences, and my PhD program is in Molecular Genetics. I have a lot of relevant research experience, and have published 2 papers as first author in mid to high impact journals (Impact factor over 5.0), even though Im still in my first year of grad school.

I have a good handle on my proposed research; Im specifically wondering (1) how to meet NSF Broader Impacts criteria, and (2) how important are undergrad grades? I have a 3.0 GPA from undergrad, but because I had extensive independent research experience I squeaked by into a top 20 grad program. Here I have a 4.0 and Ive gotten an A+ in most of my classes, which is rare in my program.

Any tips appreciated!
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jgp32
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« Reply #1 on: May 07, 2009, 10:18:21 am »

I had a NSF GRF, although in a completely different field (social science).  I actually applied three times--once before beginning grad school, once as a first-year, and once as a second-year.  It wasn't until my third application that I was successful.  I can't speak to how important undergrad grades or the broader impact statement were, but I do know that the difference between my earlier and later applications was almost entirely in the area of the proposed research (can't remember the precise name of the question--the one where, basically, you describe what your diss will cover).  My first two attepmts were rather general--here's the research issue, I'm interested in blah blah blah--but my successful application was MUCH more specific: a precise research question, specified field site, data collection protocol, etc., plus information about how my previous work had prepared me to undertake this project. 

I was advised that the evaluating committees are most concerned with funding students who are likely to go on to do impactful research, so the most important aspect of your application is a description of your specific research plans.  Obviously they are concerned as to whether you're capable of carrying out this research as well, but your recs, grades, past experience, etc. should speak to that.

I'm sure others have helpful advice as well.  The other thing that was most useful for me was reading the applications of others in my department who had been awarded the GRF in previous years.  Also, if you happen not to get the fellowship this year, you can request comments from your reviewers, which can be really helpful if you apply again.

Good luck!
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midwestbluebird
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« Reply #2 on: May 09, 2009, 11:56:32 am »

I've been told repeatedly that you MUST amp up your outreach plans/goals. I know it seems like it wouldn't be a huge part of the application, but it is. I submitted an application in the sciences a few years back; one review was stellar, the other basically said, " excellent proposal, good promise as a research scientist, but needs to more heavily consider how to support women in science". I'm a woman in science, so I didn't exactly need the heads up that this is an ongoing issue. 

In general- it sounds like you've tracked down some successful applications, and I think that is the biggest thing you can do. Look them over carefully!
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juillet
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« Reply #3 on: May 09, 2009, 10:02:07 pm »

I was an unsuccessful applicant who applied last year, so no tips on actually winning it, but as far as managing time -- start as early as possible, and work in close consultation with advisors who will help you undertake your project.  If you're already in graduate school, you should be consulting your advisors on a weekly or biweekly basis about your project and plans.  If you're not, work with the people who have advised you in past research.  Winners have told me that you don't have to actually ever DO the project you write, so the best project is one that is clearly related to past research that you have done but is different enough that it looks as if you are attempting to grow and broaden, and also something that has the whole 'broader impacts' (serving underserved groups, tackling a problem of national concern, etc.)

Don't underestimate the amount of time this proposal will take.  3 essays and a demographics sheet doesn't seem like much, but it will take constant editing and revision and advisors looking over it (and they are slow because they are busy), so the earlier you start, the better.  I started conceptualizing my project over the summer before I planned to apply, starting working on it like the week after I stepped through the gates of grad school and was still working on it the week before it was due.  If you wait until September you set yourself up for a lot of stress (a couple of my classmates did, and had substantive portions still incomplete the week before the due date, whereas I was just working on editing it for coherence and flow and not for the content of my project).
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scampster
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« Reply #4 on: May 09, 2009, 10:34:59 pm »

I had excellent GREs and a 4.0 GPA in grad school (with several A+s) and was in the top grad program in my field, but had a 3.0 undergrad GPA (from an Ivy) and I was not successful (I applied at the beginning of my second year of grad school like you). I'm not saying my undergrad GPA was the culprit but everyone I know who has gotten it had near 4.0 as an undergrad as well (this is where I can enter bitter gripe mode if I so please :-)).

If you have seen the evaluation forms, there are check boxes for all the criteria - I got a "good" for "Academic Record" from one of the reviewers. Someone who has one might be able to say more, but I am pretty sure if you don't have at least all Very Goods and Excellents (probably almost all Excellents) then you are out, as it is very competitive. So I think it can really depend on the individual evaluator whether undergrad grades matter.

But then again, I didn't have two publications in my first year, which is quite excellent and will impress evaluators I'm sure. (I did have my first article submitted already though)

To my knowledge, your second year of grad school is the last time you can apply, so you kinda have to nail it - I presume like me you waited because you needed your first year accomplishments to have a strong application. You are starting early, which is really good.

As for broader impacts, I can give my naive impressions based on writing the broader impacts section of my advisor's proposal that funded my PhD work and from successfully being awarded a postdoc fellowship from NSF. I mentioned explicitly that I was a woman in an underrepresented field and any previous work I did mentoring younger girls and how I would continue. This can backfire though if you get a bitter reviewer who thinks they have been denied awards/grants/ etc because "they always go to women and minorities." In our current proposal, our outreach was directed towards rural schools, as opposed to the school in my college town which is chock full of professor's kids who are more exposed to science anyway. My department and college also did a variety of outreach activities to local school kids that I piggybacked on - "At Kids And Science day at My University I will do this demo that will help educate about this topic." Broader impacts can also be as mundane as "I plan on disseminating results through publications (which I have shown ability to do) and conference presentations."

Those are my thoughts - YMMV.

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When you are a scientist your opinions and prejudices become facts. Science is like magic that way!
lady_steam
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« Reply #5 on: May 10, 2009, 3:40:08 pm »

Thanks for the advice so far.

My PI is well known in science and math education circles, so for my "broader impacts" outreach Im trying to play off of his strengths and work within programs he's already established. So far that means working with science teachers in a local underserved school district, volunteering at science fairs, and demonstrations at local elementary schools.
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lady_steam
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« Reply #6 on: July 14, 2010, 7:48:28 pm »

FYI I have been awarded an NSF fellowship after all :)

My reviewers commented on my pubs and didn't seem to care about my low GPA at all.

Thanks for the advice everyone!
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scampster
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« Reply #7 on: July 14, 2010, 8:22:43 pm »

Congrats!
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When you are a scientist your opinions and prejudices become facts. Science is like magic that way!
disambiguate
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« Reply #8 on: July 14, 2010, 10:17:27 pm »

So far that means working with science teachers in a local underserved school district, volunteering at science fairs, and demonstrations at local elementary schools.

Yes, this.  I'm convinced that the funding I've gotten (twice from NSF) had more to do with the strength of my outreach program than of my research program.

As others have stated, your GRF should be as specific as possible and cover as much of a potential project as possible.  It doesn't necessarily have to be the project you intend to do, but you should show that you understand all of the steps involved in doing research and that you want to do it for the 'right' reasons. 

Good luck! And remember, in the end chance has a huge part in the outcome since almost everyone who applies is very good.
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