August 31, 2016

Applying to the NSF GRFP

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP) is a great way to start off your research career. Writing for a grant is great practice for future grants, and, if you have yet to apply to graduate school, a starting place for your personal and research statements. Receiving the grant opens up 3 years of funding for your graduate education and further funding opportunities for federal or international collaborations.

I applied twice: the first time the year after graduating from college while applying to PhD programs (Oct 2015 due date for 2016 award date) and the second as a first year PhD student (Oct 2016 due date for 2017 award date). I received an honorable mention in 2016 and was a successful applicant in 2017. In the interim, I learned a lot about how to approach the grant, and below are my tips for applying.

I first drafted this guide in 2016 for mentees that I had at Stanford. There are many websites with lots of advice (some of which I have included in the resources section of this post). This document is just how I approached my NSF application, which will be heavily skewed toward bioscience applicants who are current graduate students. Your experiences and my experiences are different. Make sure to take advantage of any mentors, lab mates, peers, and especially your PI with whom you will be writing your research proposal.

This post consists of 4 parts:

  1. Letters of Recommendation
  2. Personal Statement
  3. Research Statement
  4. Resources

Last updated: Oct 2020 (but only the formatting portion based on guidelines here and here).

Letters of Recommendation

Who: people who have supervised your research

You can submit up to 4 recommenders in ranked order, although only the first 3 recommenders’ letters will be read.

For those of you who are graduate students, start by asking people who wrote you letters for graduate school and at least one professor at your current institution who can attest to the resources and techniques you have available. This is especially important if you are using novel technologies developed by the lab that you are rotating in. The professor needs to back up that you have the skills and that the lab has both the material and intellectual resources to support you and the project.


  • Now: Prepare CV
  • At least one month in advance of due date: Ask for letters of recommendation
  • One week in advance of due date: Email out reminder for letters and send updated draft of personal statement if recommenders ask for it


  • Before asking for a letter of recommendation:
    • Update your C.V.
    • Prepare a cheat sheet with all of the NSF GRFP letter of recommendation requirements
    • (Optional) Prepare a cheat sheet with your broader impact and intellectual merits (I never did this, but some people have suggested it)
  • In person (if possible) or over email:
    • Tell the professor that you are applying for the NSF graduate research fellowship program (GRFP)
    • Ask if they can write a letter of recommendation in support of you
    • Tell them the due date and time for the letter
    • Ask what they need from you to write a good letter
    • If over email, attach your CV and a cheat sheet. If in person, make sure to follow up the meeting with an email including the due date/time, CV, and cheat sheet.
  • Once the person has agreed to write you a letter, send the link to upload the recommendation through FastLane
  • Sometimes, the recommender will ask for a (rough) draft of your proposal. If this is the case, it is imperative that you have a good draft at least one week before the due date, preferably two weeks beforehand.

Personal Statement

I personally think that the personal statement is harder to write and more time-consuming than the research proposal.

While writing, remember that the purpose of the personal statement isn’t necessarily what you accomplished, but what you learned and what inspired you to pursue science. (i.e. gain confidence, learn communication skills, learned how to critique research).

The personal statement can be written as one long narrative or in sections (“Research Experience,” “Broader Impacts”). Figure out what works for you structurally.

For those of you who are applying as a graduate student, below are my tips for turning your graduate student essay into a rough draft of your NSF personal statement:

  1. Make sure it is in NSF-appropriate formatting: 11-point font, Times New Roman, 1” margins. Cambria Math font for equations, and Symbol font for non-alphabetic characters.
  2. Justify your margins.
  3. Update anything that you have done in the last year that has contributed to your growth as a scientist.
  4. Add examples of leadership, mentorship, and communication. The NSF especially likes any experience in working with underrepresented groups (this includes women!) and lay communication.
  5. Cut down your research section. Using as few sentences as possible, identify the PI you worked with, where you were working, and what problem you were addressing. Clearly delineate if you performed research independently as opposed to under the mentorship of a graduate student/postdoc.
  6. Reflect on your research experience. What non-technical skills or perspectives did you gain that can be applied to future experiences and showcase your intellectual merit/broader impacts? Think along the lines of these types of “takeaways”:
    • Research process: literature; designing questions and experiments
    • Communicating science
    • Addressed unanswered questions
    • Rewarding to take ownership of a project/take on responsibilities
    • Gained significant experience in…
    • Patience, persistence
    • Teamwork
    • Confidence
    • Power of technology
    • Time/resource management
  7. Write an introduction and conclusion:
    • Introduction should frame why you were interested in science/biology/research to begin with.
    • Conclusion should summarize what you have accomplished, what you hope to do at Stanford, and how the NSF GRFP will help you accomplish your goals at Stanford and beyond (academia, industry, etc.).

Research Proposal

Detailed Timeline/How-to’s

Talk to your PI:

  • Tell him/her you are writing your proposal based on the work in the lab
  • Tell them what the constraints for the NSF projects are:
    • Basic research
    • Should be a 3-year project that could be completed by a graduate student
  • Preferably, you already have done enough reading to know the general question/topic that you want to write about
  • Decide on a project together
    • The project should be of interest to both you and your PI
    • The project should be something that can be accomplished by the lab
    • The project should be address a pressing question in the field [your PI will have a better sense of this than you will, but this is also why you should do a little bit of reading about the current state of the field before talking to your PI]
  • If the project is based on a grant, ask them for the grant
    • This will give you a starting point for the background reading that you have to do and should give you a sense of the experiments/assays that are performed by the lab to answer certain kinds of questions
    • If your PI is super busy, ask the admin for the grant

Do your literature search:

  • You should get a broad overview of the field so that you can understand the current state and identify specific papers that pinpoint that the question that you are asking is important.
  • Read the papers cited by your PI in his grant. Ask your PI, postdoc/graduate mentor for papers.
  • Read reviews related to the general topic in the field
    • I usually do this by going to Web of Science. Search for reviews in your field (e.g. stem cell niche) published recently (I usually start with something published in the last 5 years). Sort by “Times Cited – Highest to Lowest.”
  • Identify papers in the reviews that are directly relevant to your project. Read them.
  • Don’t forget that you can keep track of these papers using something like Mendeley, Zotero, Papers. You will have very little actual space in your research proposal to actually cite all the papers you want to, so make note of the super-important ones.

Steps to drafting your NSF research proposal:

  • Figure out your overarching question. [You should have decided this with your PI about this]
  • Define 2-3 related but not interdependent specific aims that directly address your question.
    • What does interdependent mean? It means that the success of one aim is dependent on the success of another.
  • State a hypothesis that encompass your aims.
  • Optional: Graphical abstract of the current understanding of the field, your aims, and/or experiments
    • This can be a good way to introduce your model/question
    • If you’re going to make it, make sure you make it pretty
    • Font size for captions can be 10pt
  • For each aim:
    • Rationale: 1-2 sentences background based on literature or preliminary data.
    • Methods: What specific experiments will you perform? Put enough detail so that it shows that you have thought through the methods and that you (or at least your lab) is familiar with them
    • Expected results: based on literature/preliminary results, what do you expect?
    • Pitfalls and alternative methods: what can go wrong and how will you address it?
  • Write your background last:
    • What background information is necessary to give context for what the problem is?
    • What information is necessary to
  • Write your broader impacts:
    • How is it important to science/your field:
      • Innovative technology?
      • Paradigm-shifting results?
    • Mentorship/communication:
      • Use your research to teach people, mentor undergraduate/high school students
      • Communicating to broader scientific audience: conferences, publications
  • Citations:
    • Author, journal, year is sufficient.
    • 11 point font.
    • Number them so you can use superscript numbers to reference them in your proposal. However, you can just have them in a running line.

General outline of research proposal:

  1. Introduction (background, question, hypothesis, experimental model, graphical abstract): 0.5 pages: 
    • Broad/significant introductory points critical to your research (where is the field currently?)
    • Gap in knowledge (what is missing in the field? And why?)
    • Objectives/goals of the proposal (How do you plan to advance the field further?)
    • Preliminary data (1 paragraph): work done in your lab that substantiates the feasibility and credibility of the model-system/techniques/approaches in your proposal
  2. Experimental plan (1-1.2 pages; 2-3 Specific Aims):
    • Rationale (1-2 sentences) – How does this aim address hypothesis? How does it contribute to overall research question? 
    • Method (as much as needed) – do not be vague, be detailed and clear. However, do not write a protocol
    • Expected Outcomes (1-2 sentences)
    • Limitations/drawbacks (include as appropriate, 1-2 sentences)
    • Alternative expected outcomes and/or alternative plans for failure (include as appropriate, 2-3 sentences)
  3. Broader impacts/summary: 0.25-0.3 pages (depending also on your citations)
    • Broader Impacts (2-3 sentences): How will your research broadly impact the field?
    • Citations: Short-hand citations


  • Focus on hypothesis-driven research questions: avoid using fishing experiments
  • Avoid clinically-oriented research: don’t even mention clinical relevance/impacts just to be safe
  • Avoid proposals based on developing a technology
  • Tailor proposal to your audience/judges (what is the category you are submitting to?)
  • Having a scientifically diverse support group to review/edit will help you prepare


  • Are the goals and objectives clearly explained, well-developed, and well-organized?
  • Is the impact/scope of this research clearly defined. Is this research worthwhile?
  • Is the research plan rigorous and innovative and appropriate to address the hypothesis?
  • Is there sufficient evidence that the proposed experiments are reasonable and feasible?
  • Is the applicant’s role in carrying out this research clearly explained and significant?
  • Is there evidence of broader impacts (education, dissemination, inclusion, collaboration, interdisciplinary connections, etc)?


NSF GRFP links

Advice from past applicants