NSF and NIH Graduate Research Fellows Offer Advice for Applying to Program

Undergraduate seniors and beginning graduate students planning to pursue research-based master’s and doctoral degrees should consider applying for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and the NIH Predoctoral (F31) Fellowship.

The GRFP provides three years of support, which can be used over a five-year period at an accredited U.S. institution. For each of these three years, the fellow receives a $30,000 stipend and the graduate institution receives a $12,000 educational allowance to cover tuition and additional fees.

Nineteen statistics students were awarded this fellowship in 2016 in one of three categories: statistics, biostatistics, or computational statistics. The deadline to submit full proposals is October 28.

The following fellows offer advice for applying to the programs.

ST_Bowen_ClaireClaire Bowen is a fourth-year statistics PhD candidate in the applied and computational mathematics and statistics department at the University of Notre Dame.

FELLOWSHIP SUPPORT: University of Notre Dame

STUDY PERIOD: August 2013
RESEARCH: Statistical disclosure limitation or methods of data privacy and confidentiality, with Fang Liu

    Please describe your approach to preparing and writing your application.

    Start Early: I started working on my application during the summer, so I had plenty of time to edit my essays and have others edit them as well.

    Research the Fellowship: I researched a lot on what a typical winning application looked like.

    Workshops: My university holds a specific workshop series on applying for the NSF GRFP, which I participated in.

    Consultations: My university also has a unique resource: writing consultants specializing in graduate grants and fellowships. I had several consultants look over my application in addition to my friends and family.

    Recommendation Letters: I made sure all three of my letter writers knew me personally and could target different aspects of my application.

    1. My adviser – who could write about our work and me as a researcher.
    2. An oncologist – who my adviser and I worked with on a research project that was not my dissertation work. However, since I came from physics, he was able to write about my dedication and hard work as a statistician. We also published a paper, so he could describe my work ethic from start to finish on a project.
    3. My undergraduate adviser – who I worked with extensively in creating outreach programs. This part of the NSF GRFP is what applicants usually receive low scores on (Broader Impact). Participating in outreach is important.

    Working with My Adviser: I only worked with my adviser on my research statement to make sure my proposal was reasonable.

    I also work for the Notre Dame Grants and Fellowships Office as a writing consultant. I have researched the NSF GRFP extensively, edited hundreds of applications, advised four winners (so far since starting in 2015), and organized workshops at both Notre Dame and Los Alamos National Lab (interned the summer of 2015). Being well versed in the fellowship is a great asset when applying.

    How did you learn about this fellowship opportunity?

    I knew about the NSF GRFP from those who won while conducting undergraduate research (I earned my bachelor’s in physics and participated in NSF REUs).

    Anything else you’d like to add?

    Participate in STEM outreach. Not only does it look good on your application for fellowships and other awards, but you are also affecting the community in a positive way!

    MORE
    Claire Bowen offers advice for applying for the NSF GRFP on her website.

    STAMeisnerphotoAllison Meisner is a PhD student in biostatistics at the University of Washington. She grew up in Connecticut and studied engineering as an undergraduate. Allison discovered her interest in biostatistics as an intern at the National Cancer Institute and plans to pursue a career in academia.

    FELLOWSHIP SUPPORT: NIH/NIDDK F31
    UNIVERSITY: University of Washington
    STUDY PERIOD: September 2012
    RESEARCH: Risk prediction methods for biomarkers, with Kathleen Kerr

    Please describe your approach to preparing and writing your application.

    I worked with my adviser and F31 sponsor (Kathleen Kerr) in preparing my application. My cosponsor, Chirag Parikh, is a nephrologist at Yale University. I worked as a research assistant with Kerr and Parikh for two years before applying for the F31. We were interested in using biomarkers to provide an early diagnosis of post-operative acute kidney injury. This work presented several methodological challenges, which motivated my dissertation research. Since my dissertation seeks to address practical issues in nephrology (and beyond), applying for an F31 at NIDDK under the guidance of both Kerr and Parikh made sense.

    How did you learn about this fellowship opportunity?

    Our department encouraged all students to consider submitting fellowship applications, both at NIH (i.e., F31 fellowships) and at other institutions such as NSF.

    What advice do you have for people thinking about applying for a graduate/predoctoral fellowship?

    First, it’s important to give a compelling practical/clinical argument for your research. I was fortunate that my research aims were identified in the course of performing applied research, which made it easy to provide motivation that would appeal to clinicians and nonstatistician scientists.

    Second, try to minimize the number of equations and statistical jargon in the application. This was particularly straightforward in my case, but to the extent that it can be done, it should. Essentially, convince reviewers (generally nonstatisticians) that your research is worth pursuing, your proposal is feasible, and you are well-equipped to complete the project.

    Anything else you’d like to add?

    Even if your application is unsuccessful, there are benefits to putting one together. First, since the F31 application requires precise statements of each of your research aims, completing an application forces you to think through and formalize your plans for your dissertation research. Second, if you are considering a career in academia, completing an F31 application gives you a taste of the process of applying for grants.

    ST_Shaina_MitchellShaina Mitchell is a doctoral student in biostatistics at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Mitchell is also a pre-doctoral trainee in the Carolina Population Center at UNC.

    FELLOWSHIP SUPPORT: NSF GRFP
    UNIVERSITY: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    STUDY PERIOD: August 2014
    RESEARCH: Using and developing machine learning techniques to determine relationships between microbiome, diet, and disease in a cohort in China, with Amy Herring

    Please describe your approach to preparing and writing your application.

    My strategy for the research proposal was to choose an application area that interested me, and then to find a gap in the literature for that area. I spent a couple of weeks becoming familiar with the microbiome literature base and found a gap that met my methodological interests in machine learning and causal inference.

    I got feedback along the way on the research idea and proper jargon usage from faculty specializing in the areas the proposal addressed.

    For the personal statement, my goal was to have the essay read more like a story than a list (to keep the reader’s interest) and to include how each opportunity I mentioned helped steer me toward a doctorate in biostatistics.

    Amy Herring and Eric Bair were extremely helpful throughout this process, providing me with information about how to approach the research proposal and giving me feedback on my drafts.

    How did you learn about this fellowship opportunity?

    I learned of this fellowship through a professor of mine at UNC, Eric Bair, who thought I would be a good candidate for the program.

    What advice do you have for people thinking about applying for a graduate/predoctoral fellowship?

    Start early. I spent a long time combing through a large literature base to make sure my proposal idea added something new to the literature. I also found it extremely helpful to have faculty review my essays, especially regarding what information to expand upon or cut out.

    Anything else you’d like to add?

    I applied during my first semester of graduate school, which made the application process a great opportunity to learn more about the faculty, data sets, and research centers my university houses.

    ST_Ryan_WarnickRyan Warnick is a fourth-year PhD student in statistics at Rice University.

    FELLOWSHIP SUPPORT: NSF GRFP
    UNIVERSITY: Rice University
    STUDY PERIOD: August 2013
    RESEARCH: Bayesian statistics with an application toward learning functional connectivity from neuroimaging data, with Marina Vannucci of Rice University and Michele Guindani of the University of California at Irvine

    Please describe your approach to preparing and writing your application.

    I met with a student in my department who had previously received the fellowship, and he was kind enough to give me his application. This gave me a feel for the type of material a successful applicant focuses on. I also attended a number of seminars offered by my university, which described how to prepare an application and what the review committees look for. Several people within and outside of my department reviewed my application and offered suggestions. Most importantly, I started writing the application very early (a couple months before it was due), so I had a lot of time to make edits and suggested changes.

    How did you learn about this fellowship opportunity?

    My adviser suggested I apply, but our university has a big push for students to apply for the fellowship.

    What advice do you have for people thinking about applying for a graduate/predoctoral fellowship?

    Definitely make it known when proposing a particular research path that you have the skills and resources to succeed at it. You can illustrate this through past work and collaborators. If your letters of recommendation make it clear that this is the case, that’s even better.

    Anything else you’d like to add?

    Don’t hesitate to write personally in the application.

    ST_Katherine_CaiKatherine Cai is a doctoral candidate in statistics at Arizona State University and a 2015 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.

    FELLOWSHIP SUPPORT: NSF GRFP
    UNIVERSITY: Arizona State University
    STUDY PERIOD: August 2013
    RESEARCH: Methods to improve the analysis of binary, correlated data, with Jeffrey Wilson

    Please describe your approach to preparing and writing your application.

    Before starting my application, I contacted current GRFP fellows for advice on how to approach the research statement. In addition, I talked to professors in my department about their experiences working with students applying for the fellowship. I started my application early and went through multiple rounds of editing to improve the clarity and purpose of my statements. My adviser kindly offered to give feedback on my research statement, and I spent time working with him to revise my essay.

    How did you learn about this fellowship opportunity?

    I first heard about the NSF GRFP through the Summer Institute in Biostatistics program at North Carolina State University. During the program, we had an opportunity to learn about graduate fellowships and hear from graduate students who had gone through the application process.

    What advice do you have for people thinking about applying for a graduate/predoctoral fellowship?

    Applying for a graduate fellowship can be challenging and time consuming, but it is a great opportunity. The application process, itself, can be useful in evaluating your research goals and interests. It is important to carefully review the program solicitation and essay prompts before you start writing to make sure you address major criteria. The statement will be reviewed by a panel that may not have a background in statistics, so you should focus on explaining your research and demonstrating the relevance clearly, avoiding unnecessary technical terms.

    Anything else you’d like to add?

    Don’t be discouraged! The NSF GRFP is a competitive program; I applied twice before receiving the fellowship. Even if you are not successful on your first try, reviewers provide feedback, which is helpful in strengthening your application for the next cycle. Use the next year to refine your goals and interests, and make headway on your research to demonstrate how you will be successful in the field of statistics.

    Editor’s Note: Graduate students now may only apply once, either in their first or second year of study.

    ST_HannahDirectorHannah Director is a PhD student at the University of Washington interested in spatial and spatiotemporal statistics. She holds an AM in statistics from Harvard University and a BS in mathematics and statistics from the University of Washington.

    FELLOWSHIP SUPPORT: NSF GRFP
    UNIVERSITY: University of Washington
    STUDY PERIOD: September 2015
    RESEARCH: I am developing spatiotemporal methods for forecasting Arctic sea ice, with Adrian E. Raftery and Cecilia Bitz

    Please describe your approach to preparing and writing your application.

    I started out by learning as much as I could about the fellowship. I found lots of resources online and asked past recipients of the award for their advice on applying. I then wrote my research proposal and personal essay and edited them extensively over a couple of months. When I was near submission, I showed my application to my master’s adviser, Luke Bornn, who had a few suggestions about the style and structure of my proposal. This feedback was very helpful, since the NSF GRFP was the first scientific proposal I had written.

    How did you learn about this fellowship opportunity?

    I learned about the fellowship from other students I met who had previously been awarded the fellowship.

    What advice do you have for people thinking about applying for a graduate/predoctoral fellowship?

    Remember that reviewers will be reading your application quickly. So, it’s crucial that you make the key points of your proposal and your major accomplishments clear even to someone just skimming your essays. Formatting can help a lot here. It’s also important to tailor your application to the specific criteria on which the fellowship is evaluating. For example, the NSF GRFP places equal weight on intellectual merit and broader impacts, so I made sure to not only discuss statistical ideas, but I also mentioned my involvement in outreach and the societal impact of my research.

    Anything else you’d like to add?

    Consider applying to more than one of the major fellowships. Once you’ve written one application, you will have all the ideas and material you need to write another fellowship application fairly quickly. Each of the major fellowship has different requirements, reviewers, and applicants, so it’s entirely possible you might receive one fellowship, but not another. (It happened to me.) So, you can increase your odds of success by applying to more than one.

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