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Criteria for Success
- Your research proposal convinces a panel of academics that you are qualified to receive the Fellowship, especially with respect to the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact
- You show that the proposed research is creative, original, or transformative.
- You show that you are actually capable of performing the research.
- Your proposal meets the formatting and page limit criteria.
The sections, their sizes, and their order is just an example, not the rule.
Identify Your Purpose
Your research proposal (technically, the “Graduate Research Plan Statement”) is part of an application that should convince the selection panel to award you the Fellowship. The proposal is the part of the application where you get to lay out a plan for your graduate research career. The personal statement gives you space to explain the big picture of your past and future career, whereas the research proposal is a place for more nuts and bolts. It is an opportunity to convince the selection panel that you are capable of being a successful researcher: that you have the intellectual ability to propose a creative, feasible plan of research.
Note that if you win the Fellowship, no one will actually hold you to this particular research plan; this is a demonstration of critical thinking, not a commitment.
Analyze Your Audience
Your entire application will be “reviewed online by virtual panels of disciplinary and interdisciplinary scientists and engineers and other professional graduate education experts.” These are academics, usually from your broad area of science (e.g., engineering, possibly nuclear) but not from your specific area (e.g., reactor thermal hydraulics). They will judge your application using some combination of (a) the NSF’s official criteria for the Fellowship and (b) their own ideas about what constitutes good science.
The people on the committee read many, many applications. Make it easy for them to figure out that you are qualified for the award by referencing the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact criteria that they use to judge your application. It may be wise to, for example, have sections in your proposal that are explicitly labeled “Intellectual Merit” and “Broader Impacts”. It may also be wise to have an “Abstract” or “Executive Summary” at the beginning of the proposal. Use simple language rather than field jargon.
The selection panel knows that this is a graduate student fellowship and not the sort of grant that is going to a principal investigator. Real grants are big documents with heaps of citations and references. Because this application is about funding you and not a specific project, the panel is more interested in seeing what your proposal says about you rather than about your project. Spend more words showing that you are capable and creative rather than showing that you can cite many papers.
Your current education level should influence your proposal
The tone and level of specificity in your research proposal needs to reflect how far along you are in your academic career. The NSF solicits applications from senior undergraduates all the way to second-year graduate students. As a senior undergraduate, you most likely don’t have a thesis project yet, so your application, although informed by literature review, will be necessarily speculative. In contrast, as a second-year graduate student you are able to speak more directly about your work, its continuation, and the eventual goals and impacts of the project. In this second situation it is important to remember that the application is about you and not a letter about your results so far. Your current academic year is clearly indicated in your application and only judged in comparison to other applications from your year. The research proposal of a senior undergraduate will not be compared against that of a second-year graduate student.
Do your homework
A mature and sophisticated proposal for research is more likely to win you the Fellowship. Before sitting down to write, do your homework. Read a lot about the field in which you’re proposing research. Make sure the thing you’re proposing to do hasn’t been done before or hasn’t been generally regarded as impossible.
Find mentors. More senior scientists like postdocs and faculty members have a lot of experience crafting research proposals, and they are similar to the kinds of people who will be on your selection panel. Get their feedback and advice. Your proposal should also excite someone who is in your exact field. If they have any reservations about whether the project is interesting, then scientists outside your field will have an even more difficult time believing that it’s research worth pursuing.
There’s typically a tradeoff between risk/reward and credibility. Low-risk projects, like obvious, simple extensions of your undergraduate thesis research, tend to be very credible: it’s clear that you can do them. They also tend to be low on reward. Projects that are very ambitious and have huge rewards tend to be unbelievable and impossible for a grad student. There’s a sweet spot in between: find a problem that you can probably solve and that demonstrates that you took some initiative, know your field, and have some creative thoughts.
Include Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact criteria
Read the program solicitation so you know what “Intellectual Merit” and “Broader Impacts” mean to the NSF, and show that your proposed research meets those criteria. In particular, do not just make up your own ideas about what “Broader Impacts” means. The NSF has specific lists of activities that constitute Broader Impacts. These criteria are so important that the solicitation even says that “applicants must include separate statements on Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts in their written statements [… and] should include headings for Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts in their statements.”
Write for a reader who is outside of your field and short on attention
It’s more important that all the members of your panel understand your work than that you impress the one member of the panel who happens to be in your field. When you write a paper or a grant, it will probably be minutely reviewed by people in your exact field. However, your panel for the NSF GRFP will likely not be in your field, and your application will be one of many they read. They may very well miss points in your proposal that you think are “subtle” or “implicit.” Explicitly state what you’re doing and why, and make it clear even to someone who doesn’t know your field, and who is fatigued from reading many applications.
Lay out concrete hypotheses, approaches, and outcomes
Strong research proposals say what motivates the project, how the project will get done, and what the project’s outcome will mean with respect to the motivating scientific question. In the life sciences, scientists often label their hypotheses or objectives as “specific aims”. Consider structures like bulleted or numbered lists, flow charts, or diagrams to clearly indicate not only research objectives but also the relation of consecutive or parallel tasks.
When discussing research approach and outcomes, make it clear that the project has a clear endpoint that is well within the timeline of a PhD. It’s great if your project leads into a lifelong line of research, but the NSF GRFP only funds graduate study. To win the Fellowship, the proposed research should be able to be completed within a few years.
As best you can, describe concrete outcomes. Will you write new neutron transport code? Will you have designed a certain tool? Having a concrete outcome can help you show how your research will meet the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria, by saying, “Once I have thing X in hand, Y will be intellectually possible or will have Z effect on society.”
Your research proposal will be judged, in part, on the basis of whether or not the panel members believe you will actually be able to carry it out. It might therefore be wise to name the key resources in your institution and program of interest. Your success as a graduate student will depend on your advisor’s mentorship, the opportunity for collaboration with other scientists, and the resources that you will have at your target institution. Make it clear that you will have the right equipment and intellectual input that you will need to solve your problem. (Again, this is not because you’ll be expected to actually complete this research. Rather, the goal is to demonstrate your resourcefulness, and the likelihood that you’ll excel as a researcher in general.) Being able to name specific resources, especially NSF or other federally funded resources, shows that you’ve done your homework and that you’re willing to become part of the larger domestic research structure.