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Thinking of Graduate School? Check Out NSF Fellowships

By Meredith Berthelson and Jennifer Slimowitz Pearl

Many students about to graduate with baccalaureate degrees contemplate going on to graduate studies. One of the major obstacles can be funding: Students who have just finished their undergraduate education may not want to add more tuition bills to the pile. If only they had a way to continue their education and do some of the research they have in mind. Well, there is a way! And one of the most valuable funding mechanisms for mathematics and statistics graduate students is the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). 

“[The] NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (or an Honorable Mention in the competition) is certainly a feather in any future scientist’s cap!” says Sastry Pantula, director of the Division of Mathematical Sciences at NSF. “There are many well-qualified mathematics and statistics students in this country, and I would love to see many, many more of them take advantage of this excellent opportunity.” To put Pantula’s remark in context:  In 2012, the NSF-wide GRFP, which embraces all science and engineering disciplines, awarded 2000 fellowships. Of them, only 75 (3.75%) were to students in mathematics and statistics, directly reflecting the proportion of mathematics and statistics applicants; visit the GRFP Awardee and Honorable Mention list.

What are the key elements of the fellowship? It is a five-year award, worth a total of $126,000. An NSF graduate fellow receives three years of support (useable over a five-year period). For each of the three years, the fellow receives a $30,000 stipend and the graduate institution receives a $12,000 educational allowance to cover tuition and all required fees. The fellow also has access to information about international research opportunities and to supercomputing resources.

Eligibility is limited to U.S. citizens, nationals, or permanent residents; an applicant should be an early-career graduate student pursuing a research-based master’s or doctoral degree in an NSF-supported field. In the mathematical and statistical sciences, the following categories are included: Algebra, Number Theory, and Combinatorics; Analysis; Applied Mathematics; Biostatistics; Computational and Data-enabled Science; Computational Mathematics; Computational Statistics; Geometric Analysis; Logic or Foundations of Mathematics; Mathematical Biology; Probability; Statistics; Topology; and related fields not included in the list. An applicant must be planning to enroll in an accredited institution in the U.S. by the fall following announcement of the award. Those who have already received graduate degrees are not eligible. According to the program solicitation (NSF 12–599), “Categories of applicants that are ineligible include: Those who have earned any graduate or professional degree by August 1, 2012, except applicants who have completed a joint BS/MS program and have not completed any further graduate study outside the joint program.” 

Nicholas Brubaker and Gina-Maria Pomann, two current NSF graduate fellows, hammer home the importance of some of these requirements. Brubaker is on track to graduate in 2013 with a PhD in applied mathematics from the University of Delaware. His research focuses on the modeling of soap films interacting with electric, magnetic, and gravitational fields. The GRF has given him not only time and the independence to do his research, but also the opportunity to publish two papers and to have another two manuscripts in review. His advice to prospective GRF applicants: Give yourself time, and keep trying. “Apply as many times as you can! If you don’t get it the first time, don’t get discouraged.” He also points out even if your GRF application isn’t successful, the application process can help you as you plan your graduate career. 

Gina-Maria Pomann is pursuing a PhD in statistics at North Carolina State University. Her research interests are functional data analysis with applications to magnetic resonance imaging and dynamic treatment regimens. She credits the GRF, in combination with her AT&T Labs Fellowship, for allowing her to work on an array of different projects, as well as with different mentors. Pomann first considered graduate school and learned about the GRF through the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program. MSRI-UP also led her and her fellow participants to a SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) conference, where the students were further informed about the GRF as well as other opportunities. Her advice to students seeking a GRF: “Get as much undergraduate research experience as possible!” Her early research experiences, she says, helped her to focus her research interests and to write her GRF application.

The official NSF solicitation can be found here. For more information, and tips from awardees and reviewers, go to the GRFP website or contact 1–866–NSF–GRFP (673–4737); [email protected]. For access to online applications, user guides, and other official announcements, log on to the FastLane website. The deadline for full proposals for 2013 is November 14, 2012.

Tips for Students

To enter the competition for an NSF graduate research fellowship, you need to submit a complete application via NSF FastLane. The application asks for a personal statement, description of research experience, proposed plan of research, and transcripts. You will also need to arrange for three letters of reference, submitted separately via FastLane by the reference writers.

Reviewers evaluate GRF applications on the basis of two National Science Board-specified criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. For intellectual merit, you will need to demonstrate your academic capability and other conventional requisites for scholarly, scientific study. You could comment on your ability to plan and conduct research, work in a team as well as independently, and interpret and communicate your research findings. To demonstrate broader impacts, you need to convey how your research will contribute on a larger scale to society and the breadth of its audience. Will it encourage diversity, broaden opportunities, and allow participation of all citizens in science and research? If so, you should make this evident to the reviewer. You can access examples of “broader impact” activities here

Be clear and specific in preparing your application—the reviewer shouldn’t have to struggle to read it. Describe experiences—whether personal, professional, or educational—that have been factors in your preparation and that have driven you to pursue graduate study. Be detailed about your involvement in any scientific research activities and what you learned from those experiences. If you have not been directly involved in research, you should describe any activities that you believe have prepared you to start doing research. Don’t leave it to the reviewer to glean from your writing that you “could” be a leader in some capacity— instead, describe your leadership potential directly. How do you see yourself contributing to research, education, and innovation? Let the reviewers know your career aspirations and specific goals you hope to accomplish. Your application is a chance to sell yourself!

Meredith Berthelson is pursuing a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Montana; with a Quality Education for Minorities/Tribal Colleges and University Programs fellowship, she is spending six months at the National Science Foundation. Jennifer Slimowitz Pearl, a program director in the Division of Mathematical Sciences at the National Science Foundation, manages the Infrastructure Program.