How to Win the NSF GRFP

It’s that time of year again – the time when web search results are likely flooded with this exact question. Students applying to graduate school for next year are looking for funding opportunities and some will target the coveted National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, whose deadline is looming near in mid-October. I will be starting my tenure as a fellow next month so here are some tips on how to increase your odds of becoming a fellow too!

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First off, let me say that there are more fellowships to consider than just the NSF GRFP. There are fellowships that provide a higher stipend, more years of funding, money for research equipment, money specifically for international travel, support for dependents, and money for international students. Do not limit yourself to one opportunity. Consider fellowships, research, and project assistantships specific to your university or state, career aspirations, or demographic as well. Keep in mind that lesser-known fellowships and awards may also be less competitive, and you may have a higher likelihood of actually winning those awards.

The Research Plan Statement

Compared to standard research proposals in STEM, writing the two-page graduate research plan is a piece of cake. With that being said, it can be a challenge to fit all the details of a three-year or longer project into such a short document. Try to break up your statement into sections. This will make it easier for you to start writing. Adding a relevant figure from your own preliminary work can also make the document easier to read.

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Above all, make sure that you explain the big questions other scientists might have about your project. What is your hypothesis? What will be your method? Do you have the tools to carry out this method? What if your project does not go as expected? Will your project improve scientific knowledge? If you do not have a great answer to any of these questions, either improve that section, or consider leaving it out and elaborating instead on the aspects of your project that are doable.

The Personal Statement

“In everyday life, as the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, we ‘wear the mask that grins and lies’ that ‘hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,’ but when we write these all-important essays we are pushed — by teachers, counselors and anyone who gives advice — to tug the heartstrings of upper-middle-class white admissions officers. ‘Make them cry,’ we hear. And so we pimp out our trauma for a shot at a future we want but can’t fully imagine.” – Anthony Abraham Jack, 2019

Around the time I started feeling the pressure of needing to write my personal statement, I read a piece in The New York Times by Anthony Abraham Jack that made me think. I didn’t want to pimp my trauma to anonymous application-readers (who volunteer their time, thank you all!) for a shot at a fellowship. I wrote my personal statement mostly in my head while staring at the sky. For a while it was this lengthy inner monologue that I couldn’t get my brain to transfer through my fingers into words on a page. I just wanted to study freshwater science, for reasons I couldn’t explain to anyone but myself, and I needed the financial support to do it.

Obviously, I eventually wrote the personal statement. And you should do the same. My advice is to give yourself time, don’t feel like you have to go through twenty excruciating drafts, and don’t feel like you need to lay bare all the elements of your life story. Focus on what brought you to the science.

Recommendation Letters

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Make sure you give your letter writers plenty of time. Having a back-up letter writer is always a good idea. Send them your application materials and any extra information to help them spice up your letter!

The Final Step

Reading this far on my blog post shows that you are determined! I wish you the best in your quest for funding and I hope that you get to study whatever your heart desires. If I was to go back through this process again I would probably have applied to more opportunities because you can actually combine NSF with some other awards. At the end of the application process I was exhausted and was finalizing a manuscript so I hit the submit button and never looked back. Okay maybe I looked back once or twice, but trust me you will know when the results are out.

Speaking of results, if you win, take the time to truly be happy about this huge accomplishment and the effort you put in! Frame that beautiful application (or don’t) and get to experimenting! If you didn’t win, you can use the comments to try to improve your research question, but don’t feel pressured to look at them at all. The application is reviewed by humans after all and some people have found the comments not to be as helpful as others. Be proud that you put in the time and effort to such a competitive award! You are amazing.

Other Resources

More advice on applying for the NSF GRFP can be found at Alex Lang’s Website, Mallory Ladd’s Website, Claire McKay Bowen’s Website, GradCafe Forums, and countless other places on the web. Feel free to click any of the underlined links in this post to learn more. And comment if you have any questions or tips to add!


As stated on the welcome page, my views do not represent those of the National Science Foundation. This post is meant to give everyone a better chance at crafting a good application. It is not in any way a guarantee that you will “win” a fellowship. My title is more of a jest because when I am aiming to solve pressing problems I just internet search them, like “How to Save the World” which is a blog post that I actually wrote. Good luck, and have a wonderful day!

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