NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Resources
If you would like more information on attending one of our NSF Support Series workshops, please consult our Professional Development events calendar. Students who interested in the GRFP or are actively working on the application can contact the Office of Grants and Fellowships at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Applying for the NSFGRFP
Applicants should first explore the user-friendly NSFGRFP applicant website.
Familiarize yourself with the official NSF solicitation.
Read the NSF Guide to Proposal Writing.
Create a Fastlane user account and read the Applicant Guide.
The Graduate Research Statement (PDF)
You must convince the readers that your plan of research:
- is worthwhile.
- is feasible within the grant parameters.
- should be undertaken by you.
Choosing a project:
- Begin with an area with which you are familiar. You should be comfortable with the concepts and vocabulary pertinent to the field.
- Complete a literature review to get an idea of what questions are being asked in your area, and what still remains to be done.
- Imagine the “next question” to ask of the work being done in the lab you work in (or have worked in).
- Frame your interest in a hypothesis driven manner.
- Brainstorm the experiments you will complete and outline what the results would mean one way or another for your hypothesis.
- Discuss your research plan with a faculty member. Verify that your program has the resources to complete your project and that your intellectual merit and broader impact are realistic within its scope.
Drafting your proposal:
Your project proposal must demonstrate:
- the significance of your research.
- the originality and creativity of your idea.
- the soundness and rigor of your methodology.
- that you are in the right institution to pursue your plan.
Title: Create a clear, concise but descriptive title.
Key Words: list several descriptors that best describe or categorize your study
Introduction: State the nature and scope of the specific problem(s). Cite key findings from literature that demonstrate the scope of the problem and the gap your research fills.
Hypotheses or Research Questions: List 2-3 specific hypotheses.
Research Plan: Describe your methods, connecting specific methods with specific hypotheses. Explain your timeline, any compliance issues, how you will monitor and evaluate progress, what limitations may exist, and what your contingency plan may be. Note anticipated results and give a rationale for these expectations. If your plan is part of a larger team effort, clearly explain your specific responsibilities and the role of your work in the larger project.
Intellectual Merit & Broader Impact: Restate the significance of the problem. Describe the potential outcome of the research, and who will benefit and how. Explain how you will communicate your findings.
References: Include key citations. References do count within the two-page limit.
The NSFGRFP Research Guide may be helpful in planning your proposed research essay.
Questions to ask of your completed first draft:
- How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
- How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project?
- To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
- How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity?
- Is there sufficient access to resources?
- How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?
- How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?
- To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships?
- Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
- What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?
- Is there sufficient documentation of the background and justification for the study?
- Does the plan address a significant need or problem?
- Does the plan address NSF funding priorities?
- Are the proposed methods rigorous and appropriate for the hypothesis? Are the steps or the process clear? Are potential pitfalls addressed and a contingency plan been outlined? Is the plan doable in the time allotted?
- Are the intellectual merits and broader impact suggested realistic for this project?
- Does the project proposal address the aims of the NSF, and the GRFP specifically?
The Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement (PDF)
This essay will work to demonstrate your ability to successfully undertake your proposed project and your potential to be a leader in science and/or education.
Like your research proposal, it must address the intellectual merit and broader impact criteria. It should be an integrated narrative that motivates, both personally and professionally, your choice of graduate study, and indicates how your future goals stem from your past experience.
This essay should show readers how well prepared you are to conduct research and how likely you are to complete your proposed project. You should give concrete examples of experiences in which you demonstrated characteristics like ingenuity, resourcefulness, determination, flexibility, reliability, etc.
- Experience on faculty-led research projects, research assistantships, leadership on student research teams
- Experience during internships, field research, study abroad, or employment
- Experience in coursework, lab work, or scholarship.
For each experience describe your role, your contribution, the outcomes, what you learned, and skills you gained.
- Describe how the experience will be useful to your future research, and how it has influenced your perspective and/or determination.
- Describe how the experience helped you improve your analytical skills, self-direction, time management, creativity, resourcefulness, etc.
- Describe the methods or technical skills acquired: research design, data collection, field research, data analysis, data protection, responsible conduct of research, grant proposal writing, presentation skills, etc.
Remember that reviewers are looking for students who are highly engaged, will encourage diversity, and will advance scientific knowledge that benefits society. You should demonstrate cultural competence, respect for other disciplines and other people, global awareness, and a willingness to integrate science and education.
- Research with international faculty and/or on interdisciplinary research projects.
- Reaching diverse audiences through teaching, scholarship, presentations, public outreach, media, etc.
- Leadership in field organizations, membership in professional societies, attendance at conferences.
If appears that your proposed research plan would be a challenge given your current ability, you should demonstrate your eagerness to learn the skills necessary to complete it. Give examples of your willingness to seek out and accept feedback and explain your plans to gain the necessary training.
This essay should also demonstrate your potential in a more personal manner: your motivations, your goals, your abilities, your character.
Ideas to address:
- How motivated are you to pursue your studies, and this project? What motivates you?
- What efforts have you undertaken to improve your skills and knowledge, inside and outside the classroom?
- Can you demonstrate a willingness to challenge assumptions, test new ideas, learn from mistakes, overcome barriers, think creatively, find resources, act independently, etc.?
- What qualities do you possess that will make you a leader in your field?
- Do you demonstrate an understanding of local and global challenges, and a passion to make a difference in the lives of people in the US and abroad?
- What are your career aspirations, and how will you contribute to your field?
- Do you demonstrate leadership qualities as well as the ability to be a collaborative team member?
- What are/will be your personal contributions to society?
- What key experiences made you who you are today?
- What are you passionate about? Why is your research important to you?
- How have you helped others?
- How will you adapt to advances in the future?
Steps to writing your essay:
- Brainstorm notes about experiences that best demonstrate your research qualifications, your personal strengths, and the motivation for your professional goals.
- Reflect on these experiences and decide which best demonstrate your knowledge, skills, and the characteristics that demonstrate potential. Reflect on which experiences best reflect the intellectual merit and broader impact criteria.
- Select concrete examples that make your skills, strengths, and motivations clear to your audience.
- Choose a writing structure. You might describe your experiences chronologically, or write about your most meaningful experiences first. You might also list skills you have acquired, and give a concrete example of how you applied that skill.
- Write a draft of your essay. Don’t be initially concerned if you go over the 3-page limit – it is generally easier and more effective to cut material than to add it. After you’ve included all your relevant experiences, try to identify an overall theme and use this to create a compelling introductory paragraph.
- Create a compelling introduction and conclusion that bring your ideas full circle.
- Share your essay with the fellowships advisor, writing tutors, family, friends, etc. to get feedback.
- Set aside your essay for a few days, and then revise with fresh eyes.
Questions to ask of your draft:
- Did you provide evidence of your intellectual merit and broader impact with concrete examples?
- Have you accurately represented your research experiences?
- Is your past experience connected with your future research and professional goals?
- Will a reader believe that you have the necessary skills and drive to undertake your proposed research?
- Does this essay reflect the real you? Does it feel sincere?
- Is the writing clear, compelling, and detailed?
- What sets your essay apart from other applications?
Students interested in studying sample essays for the NSFGRFP should contact the Office of Grants and Fellowships at email@example.com. The sample essays cover most fields and disciplines.
Sample reviewer comments
By analyzing reviewers’ comments on both successful and unsuccessful applications, you can determine what to include in your essays. Elements highlighted in blue will help boost your score, and elements in red should be avoided.
Much of the above material was adapted from GRFP learning materials created by Dr. Robin G. Walker, University of Missouri – Columbia. Visit her GRFP Essay Insights website for more information.
Below is the prompt for the Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement:
Please outline your educational and professional development plans and career goals. How do you envision graduate school preparing you for a career that allows you to contribute to expanding scientific understanding as well as broadly benefit society? Page limit - 3 pages
Describe your personal, educational and/or professional experiences that motivate your decision to pursue advanced study in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Include specific examples of any research and/or professional activities in which you have participated. Present a concise description of the activities, highlight the results and discuss how these activities have prepared you to seek a graduate degree. Specify your role in the activity including the extent to which you worked independently and/or as part of a team. Describe the contributions of your activity to advancing knowledge in STEM fields as well as the potential for broader societal impacts (See Solicitation, Section VI, for more information about Broader Impacts).
NSF Fellows are expected to become globally engaged knowledge experts and leaders who can contribute significantly to research, education, and innovations in science and engineering. The purpose of this statement is to demonstrate your potential to satisfy this requirement. Your ideas and examples do not have to be confined necessarily to the discipline that you have chosen to pursue.
If you have completed more than 12 months of graduate or post-baccalaureate study or a professional degree and an interruption of at least two consecutive years (fourth option under Completed Study in the NSF GRFP Program Information section), please address the reasons for the interruption in graduate study here. Please refer back to that section for details.
Important questions to ask yourself before writing the statement:
- Why are you fascinated by your research area?
- What examples of leadership skills and unique characteristics do you bring to your chosen field?
- What personal and individual strengths do you have that make you a qualified applicant?
- How will receiving the fellowship contribute to your career goals?
- What are all of your applicable experiences?
- For each experience, what were the key questions, methodology, findings, and conclusions?
- Did you work in a team and/or independently?
- How did you assist in the analysis of results?
- How did your activities address the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria?
Below is the prompt for the Graduate Research Plan Statement:
Present an original research topic that you would like to pursue in graduate school. Describe the research idea, your general approach, as well as any unique resources that may be needed for accomplishing the research goal (i.e., access to national facilities or collections, collaborations, overseas work, etc.) You may choose to include important literature citations. Address the potential of the research to advance knowledge and understanding within science as well as the potential for broader impacts on society. The research discussed must be in a field listed in the Solicitation (Section X, Fields of Study).
Important questions to ask yourself before writing the statement:
- What issues in the scientific community are you most passionate about?
- Do you possess the technical knowledge and skills necessary for conducting this work, or will you have sufficient mentoring and training to complete the study?
- Is this plan feasible for the allotted time and institutional resources?
- How will your research contribute to the "big picture" outside the academic context?
- How can you draft a plan using the guidelines presented in the essay instructions?
- How does your proposed research address the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria?
Applicants are required to submit three reference letters. There are five slots available for applicants to list reference writers. Applicants are strongly encouraged to utilize all available slots.
The reference letter should provide details explaining the nature of the relationship to the applicant, comments on the applicant's potential and prior research experiences, statements about the applicant's academic potential and prior research experiences, statements about the applicant's proposed research, and any other information to enable review panels to evaluate the application according to the NSF Merit Review Criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.
Applicants can improve their chances of obtaining strong reference letters by doing the following:
- Choose your references carefully; choose people that can speak to your abilities and potential, rather than someone with a prominent title.
- Provide referees sufficient time to write a strong letter.
- Discuss the application and share your essays with them.
- Inform them that reference letters should reflect both your "intellectual merit" and "broader impacts."
- Track submission of letters using your status page in the FastLane application module - if necessary, remind reference writers about deadline. No late letters will be accepted under any circumstances.
- Have backup references in case one of your primary reference writers cannot submit their letter.
Your academic transcript is the evaluators' opportunity to view the courses you have taken, allowing them to determine your level of preparation for your proposed plan of research. Thus, it is a significant component of a complete application.
An academic transcript is required for every institution you have listed in the application module. If your transcript contains your academic records for more than one degree, you need to only upload your transcript once. You can select a checkbox on the application that the transcript information for an institution is contained on the uploaded transcript for another entry on the Education and Work Experience section of the application.