Let’s Talk—Preparing a National Science Foundation GRFP Application

By Jamie Smith (she/her), Postbac in the Mosquito Immunity and Vector Competence Section of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research.

A photo of a cup of coffee and a computer showing the NSF logo.

On Thursday, June 17, 2021, Dr. David M. Coppola was welcomed by NIAID postbac fellows to provide essential information about the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) application process. Dr. Coppola is currently a professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia and was previously an NSF program director in the Directorate of Biological Sciences. The NSF GRFP is a fellowship awarded to current and prospective graduate students. The award includes a stipend of $34,000 for each recipient and $12,000 for the recipient’s graduate institution. Deadlines to submit the application are typically in mid-October and vary by field. 

The most important source of information about the NSF GRFP (including contacts, eligibility, deadlines, and details about the application components) is the GRFP solicitation. The solicitation for the 2022 competition will be posted in late July or early August. Dr. Coppola emphasized the importance of reading the solicitation in its entirety. Other valuable resources are the frequently asked questions (FAQs) on the NSF GRFP website and the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide. Cognizant Program Officers (whose contact information can be found in the GRFP solicitation) can also be a good resource for answering questions that applicants may have.

The fellowship application process is competitive. In 2021, awards were offered to 2,074 individuals out of about 12,000 applicants. The two main components of the application are a 3-page “Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement” and a 2-page “Graduate Research Plans Statement.” Each of these statements must address two review criteria: (1) intellectual merit and (2) broader impacts. For those who are on the fence about whether or not to apply, Dr. Coppola’s advice: “when in doubt, apply.” In addition to putting yourself out there and giving yourself a chance at receiving the award, there is a lot to learn from the process of applying and grant writing is a valuable skill. 

A few other tips from the presentation include: 

  • Applications are reviewed holistically which means all application components are important  
  • Both review criteria (intellectual merit and broader impacts) are equally important, so take the time to fully address each of them 
  • It is likely at least one of your reviewers will be very knowledgeable about your science while other reviewers will be less familiar, so keep your audience in mind
  • Plan on writing several drafts 
  • Ask both those who are familiar and unfamiliar with your research to review your application 
  • Pay attention to formatting requirements 
  • Check everything twice, then check it again 
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