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The National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship: What you need to secure your own PhD funding

The NSF GRFP helps ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States. It recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions, helping them become life-long leaders that contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching. (

Past fellows include:

  • 42 Nobel Laureates

  • 450 members of the National Academy of Sciences

  • Numerous faculty members

  • US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

  • Google founder Sergey Brin

  • Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt

It is a Five-Year Award with a $138,000 total sum. You have the freedom to select 3 years out of those 5 to be "on tenure".

  • $34,000 Stipend per year

  • $12,000 to your department for tuition and fees

2000 fellowships (~17% success rate) are awarded annually. NSF grants for PI's in general have a similar or slightly higher success rate, considering that the NSF-wide average is about 23% according to their 2014 report.

The program covers all areas of science and engineering exclusive of clinical biomedical work (which is covered by the NIH predoctoral grant).

You will need:

1 Personal Statement (3 pages)

1 Proposed Plan of Research (2 pages)

3 Recommendation Letters

Applications are evaluated based on two criteria approved by the National Science Board (as described here):

  • Intellectual Merit

  • Broader Impacts

Intellectual Merit - Criterion 1

What they’re looking for:

Demonstrated intellectual ability and other prerequisites for a successful scientist. Potential to advance knowledge and understanding within or across disciplines.


Can you plan and conduct original research in the chosen field?

Can you work as a member of a team as well as independently?

Can you interpret and communicate research?

How to convey this?

Answer the following questions in your proposal:

Does the proposed research explore creative or original ideas, or address a significant issue in the area of study?

How are you qualified to conduct the project? The reviewers will comment on the quality of your previous work and grades.

How thorough and organized is the proposal? Is there sufficient access to resources needed?

Relevant Factors:

Academic performance (coursework) • Research Experience & Plan • Previous Honors & Awards • Publications and Conferences • Independence & Teamwork • Creativity • Communication • International Collaboration • Reference Letters • Institutional Resources

Broader Impacts – Criterion 2

What they’re looking for:

Prior experience with and/or future plan to benefit society or advance desired societally-relevant outcomes.


What will be your impact on society as a student (and through your project)?

Can you communicate science to and increase participation of diverse audiences & underrepresented groups?

Can you increase scientific literacy and public engagement with science?

Can you improve STEM education in K-12 schools?

Could you increase partnerships between academia, government, industry or internationally?

How to convey this:

Answer the following questions in your application materials:

How can your proposed research benefit society at large?

How could you both advance discovery and promote teaching and learning STEM?

How can you increase participation of underrepresented groups (gender, ethnicity, disability, etc.)?

Have you had international or industry experiences that would allow you to create collaborations or partnerships in the future? Is your proposed project of interest and does it allow for that?

How can you disseminate your results to enhance scientific and technological understanding?

Relevant Factors

Previous Accomplishments • Leadership Potential • Science Communication • Future Plans • Science Museums, Clubs, TV, Schools, Radio • Integrate Research & Education • Diverse Audiences

Personal Statement (3 Pages):

Tell your story in 3 pages, and organize it in a way that’s easy to read

  • What are your career aspirations, and your motivation and preparation for them?

  • What drives you? Don’t be afraid to include personal anecdotes and professional experiences that contributed to your desire to pursue STEM and specifically your Field of Science (FOS).

  • Demonstrate potential to contribute to scientific research and innovation. Include as many research experiences as possible but emphasize those relevant to your FOS.

  • For each project, write a few sentences on what it was, where it was done, why it was worth doing, your role, how your role fit with the rest of the project, your hypothesis, how you tested it, what the findings were, how/if you analyzed the data, what the experience taught you & how you presented the findings (conference poster, conference presentation, undergraduate thesis, publication, etc) and if it received recognition (prizes, awards) or if you raised your own funding (grants, fellowship, UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program), include instances where you worked with collaborators or as a team.

  • Don’t forget to address the “broader impacts”criterion and include examples of past experiences and future plans

  • Demonstrate leadership potential and dedication to research and education, science and society, and highlight international experiences or collaborations that you’ve had

Graduate Research Proposal (2 Pages):

Choose your topic:

  • Cannot be biomedical research for which goals are directly health-or disease-related, or research focused on clinical practice (epidemiology, health services, etc)

  • Choose something that you can do and in the span of ~3 years

Introduce general theory/area of study/ research specialty:

  • Describe the motivation behind project and overarching goal (broadly defined, long-term)

  • Use references from previous research to demonstrate understanding of state-of-the-art, and importance and relevance of your proposed study or idea to the aforementioned goal

  • Be specific and concise, and refrain from technical jargon. Reviewers are experts in the field, not necessarily in your particular area

Research Plan

  • Remember that they’re evaluating your skills as a scientist, not specific details of your project

  • Be very clear and specific about your hypothesis

  • Explain specific “aims” to test your hypothesis that are measurable, immediate, and logical

  • Explain the methods you will employ for each aim and expected outcome (but not experimental details) e.g I will use qPCR to measure expression of genes x and y

  • Explain what you would do if you didn’t get the result you anticipated (your hypothesis was false). How would you explain this data? Would you use a new method? How can you still use the data? Read: demonstrate flexibility

  • Don’t forget broader impacts on your area, field, or other fields. Collaborations if applicable

  • Do not exaggerate the impact of the work or your claims. Make statements based on empirical data.

Reference Letters

  • Ask 3 faculty members who know you as a scientist and as a person

  • Give your referees at least 2 weeks notice and share your application materials with them

  • Track letters on FastLane – give a 1 week reminder about deadline

  • They should be able to corroborate intellectual merit and potential for broader impacts with specific examples, and note their role if they assisted with your application

  • They may also compare you with NSF Fellows they have known

Know Your Audience

Applications are sent to panels of disciplinary and interdisciplinary scientists and engineers based on primary FOS. Three reviewers will score your application materials as a whole on a 5 point scale (excellent, very good, good, fair, and poor) for each of the 2 criteria. You need to write well and write well within your discipline. Each field has its own culture and language. Which panel is best suited to evaluate you? They will comment on strengths in the application and on areas for improvement. Make it easy to find the information they're looking to assess you on. Guide their eyes to where they want to go. The best writers typically anticipate what their reader might be thinking while reading their work. Be organized in both of your statements. Use headers. Write as concisely as possible while maintaining technical viability. The less words you can use to explain something without losing meaning, the better. Be clear and use language that accurately communicates what you mean. Have others review your proposal, and preferably at least 1 person in your primary FOS who isn’t familiar with your specific area

2017-2018 Deadlines: by 5 pm Eastern Time

Monday, October 22, 2018 - Geosciences, Life Sciences

Tuesday, October 23, 2018 - Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Engineering, Materials Research

Thursday, October 25, 2018 - Social Sciences; Psychology; STEM Education and Learning

Friday, October 26, 2018 - Chemistry, Mathematical Sciences, Physics, and Astronomy​

Friday, November 2, 2018 - Reference letters for all fields of study

If you are an undergraduate student, also consider applying to the Hertz Foundation Fellowship, the Ford Foundation Fellowship, the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) fellowship, the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, Inc. Fellowship, NIH OxCam, or one of the other NIH predoctoral fellowships as applicable.

Open-source Application Examples

Your department might have a folder with past examples that you can access. Here are some freely available ones.

GRFP examples on ecology, evolution, and plant biology provided by Yaniv Brandvain, Assistant Professor at University of Minnesota.

For pull requests:

More examples compiled by Alex Lang's blog from various sources:

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me!


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