The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) is one of the most prestigious - and generous - sources of funding available for graduate students. Providing more than $130,000 over three years, this fellowship is well worth the time it takes to craft its five page application. In this post, I offer 8 tips for writing a winning NSF GRFP proposal.
1. You don’t (necessarily) have to do what you propose to do.
Don’t let your anxieties about actually doing the research prevent you from being bold in your proposal. After you’ve proposed the research, if you end up getting interested in something else, NSF isn’t going to yank your funding. They're not going to hold your feet to a fire and force you to do what you proposed to do.
2. Focus on feasibility.
Be bold but also practical. You don't necessarily have to do the research you propose, but you must show the reviewers that you can plan a research project carefully.
If you’ve never studied Swahili, for example, that's not a reason not to propose doing research in Kenya. Just write into the proposal that you will spend x number of months or years studying Swahili and, if you can, include which institution or program you’ll be attending, and when, to get such training.
Feasibility is more important than brilliance. The administrators of this grant are more interested in projects that are do-able than they are in projects that are brilliant. Now, if you can show that your brilliant and innovative project is also eminently feasible, more power to you. But if you have to err on one side or the other, stick with a simple project that is abundantly do-able.
3. Your methods are going to win you the grant.
Research design is the thing that others are least likely to do well, which is why it should be the most important part of your proposal. Your methods should take up about one-third of your two-page Graduate Research Plan Statement.
This is where the rubber hits the road. It’s one thing to talk about why your research questions are theoretically interesting, but this is where you’re going to show exactly how feasible your project is. You want to show the reviewers that you’ve already thought of every step required to actually do it and that you could start this research project tomorrow, if need be.
Be sure to have at least three different methods: participant observation, survey, archival research, interviews, etc. If you can, have one creative or innovative method that will catch the reviewer's eye. Be very specific with these methods: how many people will you interview? How many days or months will you spend in participant observation? Where? And doing what exactly? Name names. Do not worry that you don’t already have contact with people, organizations or agencies. Remember that this is just a demonstration that you’re able to think through what a research project really takes. Don’t worry that you’ve never spoken to The Organization of Scientific Women in Antarctica. Just say that you’re going to interview five of their top officers.
For more on how to write a winning methods section, see my previous NSF post.
4. Format for visual clarity.
Make both of your essays – but especially the Graduate Research Plan Statement – simple and clear. Use the following tools to organize your proposal and highlight important points:
- Bold face
You want the essay to be easy on the eyes.
Put yourself in the reviewer’s shoes: they have to read hundreds of these essays in a very short period of time. They don’t have all day to sit and read every word of your proposal carefully. Make it easy for them to *see* what is most important, without having to do a lot of hunting and interpretation.
The reviewers are also going to talk to one another about the top candidates. You want to make it easy for someone to defend your proposal: if asked what the take-home point of your project is, you want a reviewer to be able to glance down, see it, and defend your project.
Be sure to address every one of the criteria that are required by NSF: title, key words, objectives, review of literature, hypothesis, broader impacts, references, etc.
Again, see my previous NSF post for more thoughts on formatting.
5. Avoid jargon and theory.
This is a proposal to go and do things. It is not a theoretical treatise. A one-paragraph literature review is sufficient to demonstrate the significance of this research to important debates in Anthropology and its related disciplines. But this is about going out and doing something. Show them what you’re going to do, rather than telling them what it’s all going to be about.
See this previous book review for tips on writing about scholarly literature.
6. Strive for efficiency.
Try to say as much as possible with the fewest words. This doesn’t mean using big complicated words. It means organizing your thoughts with words that convey what you’re trying to say as simply and clearly as possible. Every. Word. Counts. This is tough, but the good news is that you’ve only got five pages to edit.
7. Address place directly.
Be specific about why the country or city you propose to do research in is the place where this research needs to be done. This requires just one sentence, but it’s an important sentence that needs to be in there somewhere. Why does this particular practice of customer service need to be studied in this architecture firm? Why do competitive eaters need to be studied in Japan? Why is Hanoi uniquely situated to shed light on the problem of noise pollution?
8. Broader Impacts.
Try to incorporate the broader impacts of your research into each of your essays.
For your Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement, talk about the broader impacts of previous research. For your Graduate Research Plan Statement, talk about the potential of your proposed research.
It may be that your research can contribute something unique to the world: new understanding that can influence policy or practice in a particular arena. It may also be that you are someone with life experiences that are unique and/or under-represented in academia. If that’s the case, then helping you further your studies and diversify academia is one broader impact of this fellowship. Do not be shy in using this line: academia, and anthropology specifically, benefits from people with different experiences and perspectives on life.
Be creative and bold (but succinct) in thinking about how this research is going to benefit the world. See my previous NSF post for more detailed thoughts on significance.