Applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Published: Tues., April 4, 2017; by Jessica De Silva


The National Science Foundation (NSF) supports graduate students in STEM fields through its Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). Aside from the prestigious title “NSF Fellow,” recipients of this award choose three of their first five years in graduate school to receive the fellowship. Each year the student is on fellowship, they receive a stipend of $34,000 and another $12,000 is given to the institution to pay for tuition and fees.

The NSF-GRFP is the nation’s oldest fellowship program of its kind and has funded over 50,000 graduate students since 1952. I am proud to say I am one of those 50,000 along with a few other UNL graduate students. Although I applied for the fellowship in the last year of my undergraduate education, current graduate students can apply for the fellowship as well.

While the fellowships are competitive, I believe that everyone who qualifies should apply. It’s important to take the time to write an outstanding application. This article outlines the qualifications, timeline, and some tips for applying for the fellowship.

Eligibility Requirements

The NSF-GRFP funds U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, and permanent residents who wish to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree in an NSF-supported field (STEM fields). To see if your discipline qualifies, check out the eligibility requirements when the solicitation becomes available (usually in August).

Applications are due in October, and fellows are notified in April the following year. Recipients must be enrolled in an eligible program at an accredited U.S. graduate institution with a U.S. campus by fall of the award year.

As of 2016, the NSF has changed the eligibility requirements and the change specifically affects graduate student applicants. If you applied for an NSF-GRFP in fall 2015 as a first year graduate student, you are still eligible to apply in fall 2016. Otherwise, graduate students may only apply in either their first or second year of their graduate career, not both. If you’re an undergraduate, you may apply once as a senior and once as a graduate student.

There are a few eligibility restrictions with regard to previous graduate coursework or degree, and employment with the NSF.

Suggested Timeline

The application deadline for the NSF-GRFP is in mid-October but you should begin the process months before then. Applying requires coordinating with your advisor, notifying recommendation letter writers in a timely manner, and revisions, revisions, revisions. There’s no way to write your personal statement a week before the deadline!

Below is a timeline I would suggest for myself if I were to apply again as a graduate student:

End of spring semester:

  • Read this blog post in Graduate Connections and be inspired to apply for the NSF-GRFP. 
  • Let your advisor know you’re applying for the fellowship. You should describe all of the benefits that will come to you and your advisor if you need to convince him or her that the potential reward is worth the time and effort needed to apply.

June and July:

  • The application requires three reference letters but allows you to select five letter writers. You can (and should) provide names of alternates in case a letter writer does not submit their letter in time (it happens!). Identify letter writers and rank the order of preference. Besides your advisor (this is a must) I suggest the following broad categories:
    • A faculty member who can address your intellectual merit (e.g., he or she is familiar with your coursework and/or research)
    • A faculty member who's familiar with your activities that fall into the broader impacts category (e.g., service to your department, exemplary teaching, outreach to the community)
  • Decide with your advisor what research question you’ll propose and ensure they have both intellectual merit and broader impacts (the criteria you’ll be evaluated on).
    • Broader impacts can seem vague and almost nonexistent for some disciplines. If your research can be directly applied to the real world, you must emphasize this. Otherwise, highlight the impact your research will have in your general discipline (e.g., proving the Riemann hypothesis would lead to results in prime numbers, arithmetic sequences, etc.)
    • Be realistic! For example, don't propose to solve the Riemann hypothesis for your dissertation! The reviewers are highly respected researchers in your discipline and will know if the problem you propose is outlandish.
  • Think about why you chose your area of research, your future career goals, and what makes you amazing (lots of things!). These are important for your personal statement.


  • Finalize drafts of your personal statement, research statement, and curriculum vitae (CV). 
  • By the second week of August, ask your reference letter writers if they’ll write letters for you and give them your CV.
  • Once you have a solid draft of your research and personal statement, send them to your reference letter writers too. 
  • Revise your application materials, get feedback from a variety of people, and revise again.


  • Attend workshops at your university for fellowship applications.
  • There are people at your university whose job it is to help faculty and students apply for fellowships; ask them to provide feedback on your personal and research statements. Universityof Nebraska students can request for a one-on-one consultation with Graduate Studies (login required). Revise again based on the feedback you receive!
  • Remind your reference letter writers of the October deadline and provide them with updated versions of your personal and research statement.
  • Prepare PDF versions of your academic transcripts (an unofficial copy is acceptable).


  • By the second week of October, have versions of your research and personal statement that you’re proud of. You should have only minor revisions left at this point.
  • Submit your application and again remind your reference letter writers (all five of them!) of the deadline.

Application Tips

Be sure to answer every question listed in the description of the personal and research statement detailed in the Program Solicitation. The most important factors in your application are how you highlight your Intellectual Merit and emphasize the Broader Impacts of everything you have done and plan to do. This is so important that you should judiciously use boldface type in your application to make it easier for the reviewers to identify them. Also, strongly consider includong relevant figures in your application—reviewers appreciate figures. 

Opportunities Beyond the Stipend

The NSF-GRFP gives fellows the opportunity to apply for the Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP). and Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) Program . GRIP provides a travel allowance for students to engage in international research collaborations with investigators in partner countries. GROW gives students the opportunity to participate in mission-related, collaborative research under the guidance of host research mentors at federal facilities and national laboratories. Although Fellows must apply for these programs, acceptance rates are exceptionally high and provide a unique experience during their graduate education.

This article was originally posted on June 14, 2016.