Understand that GRFP reviewers have only limited time to peruse any individual application. Your narrative statements must trigger them to become emotionally vested in your success. Thus, for each of the two narrative statements, it is of paramount importance that the opening two to three sentences provide a clear, precise, and succinct outline that engages the reviewers’ attention, builds up their anticipation, and informs them about what is to come. Structuring your statements under distinctively named sections helps serves as road signs that direct the reviewers’ reading in a connected and logically progressive manner.
Note that NSF is not in the business of funding simply routine science and engineering research; instead its mission is to identify and support future STEM pioneers. Thus, it is suggested that applicants compose their narrative statements that showcase strong leadership potential, capacity to be a self-starter, and an ability to cooperate across disciplinary and institutional boundaries. Create your narrative statements that capture and communicate your enthusiasm, excitement, and inspiration for your chosen STEM field and document how your past academic, research, and internship experiences exemplify your future potential.
Be yourself. A personal narrative statement that conveys a strong sense of applicant’s identity and infused with a story that has vitality, continuity, and growth, will invariably attract and retain a reviewer’s attention in contrast to a narrative statement that is indifferent, flat, and disjointed. Recall that the GRFP reviewers perceive and assess applicants based on their demonstrated potential for accomplishment, excellence, perseverance, and success in science and engineering. That is, instead of simply assessing the proposed plan for research, the GRFP review process evaluates the capabilities of applicants since these can indicate potential for overcoming obstacles and becoming successful in proposed research, in the short term, and becoming a leader in one’s chosen field in the long term.
Use appropriate scientific terms and tools (e.g., hypothesis, speculations, figures, tables, references) in the graduate research plan statement.
It is advised that one not get caught up in the nitty-gritty or be excessively technical. Most GRFP reviewers will be specialists in an applicant’s general field of research, however, in all likelihood they won’t be specialists in the applicant’s proposed area of research. Thus an effective strategy is to begin by posing the research problem, introducing the foundational hypothesis of the proposed research, and crafting a research plan with clear and precise goals that address the knowledge gaps in one’s chosen field.
Build up a steady subject and connection in the two narrative statements, weave together one’s own story with academic and professional plans and past experiences to develop a convincing rationale for why NSF should award funding. The choice of who will be funded will be based on applicant’s demonstrated potential for valuable accomplishments in science and engineering. Remember that reviewers will peruse an applicant’s entire GRFP package.
Since as a GRFP awardee you are expected to perform creative, cutting-edge, and novel STEM research, reviewers need to assess the transformative potential, intellectual merit, and broader impacts of your proposed research. It is critical that you start early to identify, conceive, and develop a coherent agenda for a unique and impactful research project that addresses a knowledge gap in your field with a plan that a panel of experts will deem realistic. At this early planning stage, you may consult with and seek advice from doctoral students, postdocs, and faculty mentors in your area of research. With their broad knowledge of your research field, they may assist you in navigating potential pitfalls (e.g., recent advances that transform proposed research as obvious; problems deemed overly ambitious, impractical, or uninteresting, etc.). You will be well served by planning a research project that draws from and is grounded in your prior research experiences (if you have one), without being an obvious extension of such prior work.
Your research statement should start by introducing clearly and succinctly the research problem, relevant background scholarly works, and the scientific or technological goals of research. Be creative in introducing your problem, highlight why it is important and why should it matter to the reviewer. Next, propose your hypothesis (informed by the literature or preliminary research), relevant theoretical, computational, or experimental methods—aligned with the research goals, required computing or experimental facilities, expected outcomes, intellectual merit, broader impacts, and references. For original research problems, even the ones informed by scholarly literature, achieved outcomes may differ from the expected outcome. Such results are revealing nonetheless, so clearly state what, how, and why you will learn in this scenario. Be explicit in communicating how your research will advance knowledge and understanding in your field and how will it contribute to societal benefits.
As you begin the task of composing your research statement, following questions may help you engage in some self-reflection. Such an exercise, done in a purposeful manner, can enable you to create an authentic research statement.
It is suggested that you organize your research statement with explicit section headings. You may also want to utilize bold and italic fonts to highlight key terms, concepts, and ideas throughout the research statement. Avoid using “jargon” or too many abbreviations in your research statement.
The narrative statement, limited to three pages, should allow the reviewers to gain a clear understanding of the applicant’s (your) personal attraction to STEM, pertinent background, and long-term career goals. Engage in a visioning exercise to first develop and then share the academic milestones you intend to achieve and professional opportunities you foresee seeking as part of your comprehensive personal development plan. Identify your individual connection to science, prior experiences, personal characteristics, and proposed graduate school opportunities that will permit you to make fundamental scientific discoveries or advance technological frontiers. In describing unique science stories, experiences, and preparation, you need not limit these to your proposed field of graduate study. Explicitly communicate the link between your proposed advances to STEM knowledge and their potential for broader societal impact. Your narrative statement should provide a coherent direction to reviewers regarding how your experiences, skills, and accomplishments align with the intellectual merit and broader societal impacts of your proposed research.
Formulate the personal narrative to illustrate experiences that have informed your decision to seek graduate education in a STEM field: e.g., how you overcame a personal challenge or adversity to excel in STEM disciplines; how you parlayed your academic interest and performance in a specific course into a research project; or what you learned during an industrial internship about the implications of scientific and engineering research in transforming the future of work. If you have performed research in an academic, government, or industry laboratory, clearly communicate the specifics roles that you played, e.g., independently performed preliminary design of experimental apparatus and then collaborated with a team to produce and test a prototype. Moreover, discuss the skills that you developed or honed through your research experience and its value for your graduate career. Explicitly describe the opportunities that you engaged in to develop your personal, academic, or research profile, e.g., attended research or project-review seminars where you participated by presenting your own work, interacted with seminar speakers to discuss their work’s implications to your own research and sought their guidance, etc.; presented talks or demonstrations to broader audiences about your internship, e.g., K-12 teachers, students, and parents, or marketing and service departments, among others. In narrating the aforementioned activities and experiences, purposefully showcase their outcomes (for example, learned to communicate findings of STEM research to non-STEM audiences) and their role in preparing you for your long-term career aspirations (for example, your unique capacity to perform research at the convergence of frontier technologies and your skills in communicating cutting edge research to non-scientific audiences will allow you to pursue professional development opportunities in STEM policy development as a AAAS Fellow).
Upon graduation, NSF Fellows join the ranks of internationally renowned specialists in their fields. Moreover, they continue to grow their professional expertise through scientific and engineering advances, both in research and training. Your narrative statement should reflect your preparation, potential, and fortitude to excel similarly at a high level in your own professional career.
For those who have finished over a year of graduate or post-baccalaureate coursework, or a professional degree with a break of a minimum of two years, kindly provide an explanation for the same.
As you begin the task of composing your narrative statement, following questions may help you engage in some self-reflection. Such an exercise, done in a purposeful manner, can enable you to uncover some powerful stories and experiences that can aid in the creation of an authentic personal statement.
Even though this is a personal narrative, this should not be used for simply boasting about one’s capabilities, skills, successes, etc. Instead, the narrative statement should be informed by how varied experiences, individuals, organizations, etc., shaped you as an individual and imparted the varied capabilities, skills, habits, etc., that allowed you to enjoy the successes you have had. So instead of simply turning the lens of this essay to focus on you, turn it outwards to discover and identify externalities that allowed you to become you.