The basics of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

Admission into most biomedical PhD programs come with tuition coverage and a stipend. However, as a young scientist, you have the opportunity to fund yourself by obtaining your own competitive fellowship. Writing for your own funding at this stage is a great training opportunity, and receiving a fellowship can make you a more attractive candidate for graduate program admission or for postdoctoral positions. Read on for an introduction to the most broad fellowship for prospective and early graduate students, the NSF GRFP.


The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program is an initiative by the NSF to fund young (before the second year of graduate school), burgeoning PhD candidates. Notice how I said that: this is to fund YOU, not your proposed project. While you are expected to write a coherent proposal, submission or even acceptance of the award does not commit you to the project in any way. So, as you are just getting started in the world of science, don’t feel like writing for this fellowship boxes you into a specific field of study.

While you are not tied to your proposed research, your proposal should be in-line with the types of research that the NSF supports. Specifically, unlike the NIH, which funds research relevant to human health, the NSF’s mission is to fund basic research. Your proposed research should have the goal of discovering more about nature rather than treating a specific disease. As stated by the NSF, “research with disease-related goals, including work on the etiology, diagnosis or treatment of physical or mental disease, abnormality, or malfunction in human beings is normally not supported. Animal models of such conditions or the development or testing of drugs or other procedures for their treatment also are not eligible for support”. Keep this in mind while developing your proposal.

As mentioned above, the NSF is meant to fund you! In judging your application, there are only two criteria being scored: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.

What is Intellectual Merit?

You may be familiar with being assessed on these criteria: your academic record, your honors, other achievements, the strength of your research proposal in the field, your previous research experience, and any record of publications or presentations. Here, you are being judged on how strong of a scientist you are and your future potential. As scientists, the panelists scoring you need some evidence and data that you know what you are doing scientifically. Tell them about all of it! Don’t be shy about your achievements! Highlight where you have taken initiative in research or the classroom; emphasize where you made a big contribution to your work; showcase times where you overcame challenges to become successful in the end. Stand out in your grit and proficiency.

The reviewers want to ensure competency in your ability to understand and perform rigorous experiments, so try to highlight this. Young scientists are often unsure of how their previous work fits into the larger field, and this can show in their writing. Therefore, I recommend that you discuss this part of your proposal with others in your lab. Don’t be shy—get their take on your ideas and how you frame your experience and proposed project. This will improve your proposal and provide a great platform to learn more from the scholars who surround you. If you want more information from them, ask for their suggested reading material, too. Any of this input should improve your proposal.

What are Broader Impacts?

Okay, although it might be a bit daunting, the Intellectual Merit criteria should make a lot of sense to you and you are likely going to rock that part (many NSF applicants do). Broader Impacts, however, is a bit more vague and requires more thought and intentionality in your writing. In judging these criteria, the panelists are analyzing ways that you AND your research will impact the bigger community. Specifically, the NSF is looking for “the potential for future broader impacts as indicated by the personal, professional, and educational experiences”. This can include science outreach through volunteering in the community, teaching/tutoring, lab mentoring, or even leadership in scientific groups. Here, you should not simply just list your activities or duties but instead should formulate a story of your overall goals for reaching the community and how your activities fit into that story. Emphasize how you plan to continue these goals through specific activities in graduate school and beyond. Make sure you discuss things that you are truly passionate about and communicate the “why” in your essay. This section is generally where applicants fall short so be sure to spend a lot of time and effort here. Some of the successful proposals I’ve read have provided more personal background than most other scientific proposals seek. The reviewers want to see that you are passionate about communicating science to non-scientists, so tell the story of why this is an interest of yours.

Final comments

To remind you, you are only being scored on Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Keep this in mind while writing your essays. Use your limited essay space wisely: everything you write should address these two criteria, and should do so directly. Attack this head-on rather than writing around these topics and assuming a grader will pick this up in the 2 minutes he or she will spend reading it. One way to make your points obvious is to break down the two-page limit into sections that are titled and or to bold phrases or sentences that you want to emphsize. Make sure that any titles clearly emphasize your point so that the reader can quickly sense the take-away.

Keep in mind that grantsmanship is not just about writing a proposal; it is about aligning your goals with the goals of the funding program. If you find these two things don’t fit, then you are writing for the wrong funding. If your work is too medically motivated and you can’t simplify your project to a basic research question or if you don’t have the past experience to write a compelling story to address the Broader Impacts section, don’t waste your time. However, rather than throwing in the towel, I’d like to encourage you to think creatively about how you can align your history and goals to the NSF goals. This will give you a great opportunity to practice grantsmanship, which will serve you well in the years to come! If appropriate, consider writing for a scientifically-related fellowship as well. The more you write, the higher your chances of being funded (and the more opportunities you have to read and think critically about your work).

There are countless blogs, articles, and workshops for writing for the NSF GRFP. Simply google to find more resources. Before you do, make sure you read the whole NSF GRFP program announcement and solicitation.

Best of luck!

Other fellowships to consider applying to before your second year of study:

  • Hertz Fellowship
  • NDSEG Fellowship
  • AHA Predoctoral Fellowship

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