On Monday I sat on a panel about the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. That’s the funding source I currently have for graduate school. It’s a national fellowship that provides a stipend and cost of education allowance for three years. It’s competitive, like most funding mechanisms, but what makes it different from grants is that the funding is for the PERSON, not the project. At the info session we first had the university’s fellowship coordinator speak on general advice and the support she offers, then a professor who’s served on review panels for the fellowship talk about what it’s like as a reviewer. There’s a lot of resources available to help students put together a competitive application, but I think the most important thing that both speakers and the other panelist and I all repeated, is also the first thing: read and directly address the review criteria and purpose of the funding.

Everything submitted to NSF is reviewed for intellectual merit and broader impacts, and this fellowship specifically exists to “ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity.”  So as an applicant, you need to show that by funding you, the NSF can accomplish that goal and that your work is both intellectually merited and will have a broad societal impact. Most advice says to specifically address the two criteria with subheadings in the essays to ensure that it’s clear you’ve covered both.  I didn’t do that though; for me, it was more natural to integrate the two throughout.   What’s most important is that you use the limited space you have in the essays to make it clear that your career plans and proposed graduate studies address both.

I think what made it most natural to integrate the two was my background as an engineer. Engineering, at its core is problem solving. We begin from a problem, something that’s important to people, a need. Conducting engineering research involves reaching the edge of where the basic science or math necessary to solve the problem exists. That’s where we intersect with science research, but we still start from a problem. That is what makes connecting intellectual merit and broader impacts easy as an engineer. Connecting back to the application, a real world problem, makes it easy to show the broader impacts of your work.

Another thing that helped a lot was that I had worked in an NSF Engineering Research Center, Gordon CenSSIS as an undergrad.  I had served on the student leadership council for the center and participated in their management meetings. This exposure helped me to understand what they had faced to win the award and what they did each year to prepare for the evaluation. Each year I had been at the center’s site visit and talked with the NSF program manager and evaluation team.  I knew what they asked about the center, so I had a better understanding of the criteria of how NSF programs. This understanding made it easier to select which of my experiences to highlight.

Having the right qualifications is only the first step, the most important thing is making sure that the reviewers can read you application and clearly check off all of the criteria.  I started by listing the criteria and filling in things I had done or plan to do (depending on which essay) that met that criterion. As I continued writing I filled in why and how these experiences related. Writing reflective essays after each unit of high school English was something I regretted, constantly, and after 4 years of studying engineering and hardly writing, that was exactly what helped me with this process. Reflecting on what I had learned from each experience within the context of the criteria was just like a high school essay, but it was exactly what I had to do to win the award!