Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Insight Into the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship Program

When I started graduate school a couple of summers ago, I was thinking a lot about how I was going to start off on the right foot and be a successful grad student (like most grad students do).  One aspect that I knew was important was attempting to secure my own funding.  I knew it was important, but I did not know the best way to go about it.  I had information for student specific training grants, but I was not able to apply for those until I was done with my lab rotations.  Instead of waiting to be done with my rotations, I wanted to get active right away, but I did not know how.  Luckily a friend told me about two big national fellowships that I might be interested in.  These fellowships were the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship.

These fellowships are ideal for new graduate students because they can apply during their lab rotations (the fellowships are specifically for new graduate students).  I was fortunate to hear about these fellowships shortly after I started grad school, and was additionally very fortunate to be awarded the NDSEG fellowship.  Because I know many students don't know about these fellowships, I want to spread the word and offer whatever insight I can think of.  The following are some points I think are useful to think about when preparing the applications, and especially when writing the personal statements.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

1. Get Started Early

This is important for any grant or fellowship, and I’m sure it's obvious.  Getting a head start is important because it gives you time to get your papers together, it gives your references plenty of time to submit their section, and it will give you plenty of time to think about your application, have it edited by others, and revise it.  Of course one of the goals is to get the fellowship, but this is graduate school so it is just as important to learn about writing a good application.

As an additional note, it is important to get started on this early in your graduate career.  Students are only eligible during the first two years of grad school (and can even apply during their last year in undergrad).

2. Broader Impacts

This is the part I got nailed on in my NSF application.  This is the part of the application in which the NSF wants to see how you are going to use your science to impact the community, educate young scientists, encourage science in underrepresented minorities, etc.  The main point I learned with my application is that you need to emphasize what you have been doing, not what you are going to do.  In my case I had just moved to Philadelphia and had been adjusting to graduate school and focusing on my research/classes.  In my application, I discussed what I had done for broader impacts before I moved to Philadelphia, what I planned to do once I got graduate school classes/research under control, and the broader impact activities I had under my belt already during graduate school.   These were not enough.

The reviewers said they wanted to hear more specifics about what I have been doing, during my early months in graduate school, to promote the broader impacts of my science.  Therefore, the main point I want to pass on is that you need to focus on the specifics of your broader impacts (mention the names of organizations you are working with or want to work with, not vague ideas), and currently be engaging in most of those activities. Luckily it is still the summer, so try to get out there and do what you can so that you will be set for applications like these.

3. Basic Science

I think this point will be taken most by scientists like me who are primarily trained for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) program.  I am not all that experienced with applying for NSF grants, but I do know that it needs to be basic.  Do not propose medical or translational research here.  You will need to propose a project that is purely basic science.

DoD National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship

1. Similar to the NSF Fellowship

The NDSEG fellowship is similar to the NSF fellowship, and most students apply to both (their application deadlines are nearly the same time).  The biggest difference is that the NSF fellowship is trying to support excellent basic scientists, while the NDSEG fellowship is supporting excellent US scientists whose interests align with those of the Department of Defense.  When applying, be sure to keep the philosophy of the fellowship in mind, because you need to make clear how your personal philosophy aligns with those of the fellowship providers.

2. Research, Education, and Public Service

I wanted to mention these three points because these were the three career goals I focused on throughout my successful personal statement essay.  I found it helpful to summarize my broad goals in five words, and then have those as my foundation for the rest of the essay.  It is a good idea to keep these essays concise, well structured, and simple.

3. Commitment to Your Country

I think an important aspect of this application is showing your commitment to serving your country through your research.  One of the ways I did this was mentioning that I am an Eagle Scout and that I have continued to be committed to my community and country.  If you are an Eagle Scout or Gold Award Girl Scout, in AmeriCorps, in the military, or anything related, be sure to explicitly mention it because these achievements show your devotion to your country and community.  Additionally, mention your extracurricular activities as an undergrad because service through those groups also shows commitment to you country and community.

4. Military & Defense Science

Like I mentioned above, be sure to focus on how your science is important for the Department of Defense, as well as how you will use it to benefit the general American public (similar to the broader impacts idea for the NSF).

5. Get on Facebook

Interestingly, I have found that I get most of my fellowship information from Facebook, not through emails.  The NDSEG fellowship has a Facebook group that is full of applicant questions that have been answered.  If you want to stay updated on the application process and everything, you need to join their Facebook page.

Practical NDSEG Information

In addition to questions about the application process, I have also been asked about some practical aspects of the NDSEG fellowship.  I think these are helpful too, so I am going to include them here.

1. The Stipend and Taxes

The NDSEG fellowship provides a generous stipend that is paid monthly as direct deposit.  Overall it was the same setup as the stipend I was getting from my Penn graduate program.  Taxes were also not difficult to figure out.  I did not have many issues and the people at the NDSEG fellowship office are helpful so it’s a smooth process.

2. Delays or Issues with Stipends & Tuition

Like I alluded to in the above section, I did not run into any problems that I could not easily fix by working with the people at the NDSEG office.  It was a smooth process in my experience.

3. Which of the Two is Better?

I have been asked (especially by somebody who was offered both the NSF and DoD fellowships) which fellowship is better.  I obviously have a slight conflict of interest because I have the NDSEG fellowship, but here is my opinion anyways.  The main advantage I can see for the NSF fellowship is that they offer you money for traveling, while the NDSEG fellowship offers some cool internship opportunities over the NSF fellowship.  In the end, they are both very similar and excellent fellowships.

The application process for these fellowships is difficult and time consuming, but it is all worth the experience and the possibility of winning the award.  The best thing you can do is to learn as much as you can from online resources like these, and to ASK for help & advice.  Feel free to hit me up with any questions (probably best to use the comments section below or email) and good luck!

Helpful Resources

I thought this website was a good place to start: Jennifer Wang
And I remember reading this site too: Philip Guo

Works Cited

NSF NDSEG Logo: https://si0.twimg.com/profile_images/1523775279/NSFGRFP.jpg
DoD Logo: http://www.stanford.edu/~kywei/images/ndseg.png

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