Fellowships & Awards
The single most useful piece of advice I was ever given for fellowship essays:
These are not literature, don't write like it. An essay for a fellowship is not a novel, it is not even the standard "essay" as you were taught in high school.
You do not have to obey the simple paragraphs of text layout style. Add bold words to draw attention to your key points, use whitespace however you want. Your goal is to make things as easy for the reader as possible.
The NSF requires that you specifically address the "Intellectual Merit" and "Broader Impact" of your proposal—put in section headings with exactly these titles and write about them. You don't need "transition sentences". In this context, they're nothing but a waste of precious space that could instead say something to bolster your case; worse, as a reader, they're just crap that I have to wade through to get to the relevant parts of your essay. The last thing you want to do is annoy your reader. Think of the volumes of essays they're reading, then put away the thesaurus and get to the point.
At the end of the day, that's really the goal: minimize the crap the reader has to process to get what you're trying to communicate. Don't let the word "essay" get in your way, if a bulleted list makes the most sense, put in bullets.
Below I've provided my essays (winning and losing) as well as any reviews that were made available to me. Hopefully they can serve as helpful examples. Particularly note the change in style from my (losing) 2012 NSF, which I would consider a "traditional essay", to the (winning) 2013 NSF, which I would consider a "fellowship essay".
Fellowship Homepage: www.nsfgrfp.org
Fellowship Homepage: ndseg.asee.org
The NDSEG has fairly restrictive rules (2013 rules). In particular, you're limited to only 3,000 characters, which requires your "essay" to be extremely concise.
Qualcomm Innovation Fellowship
Fellowship Homepage: www.qualcomm.com/invention/research/university-relations/innovation-fellowship
This fellowship is really interesting as it requires you to have a partner. I worked with Brad Campbell, a pretty awesome dude in my lab. The fellowship is (was) only open to a limited set of schools as Qualcomm grows the program. They've been adding schools every year thus far, so check the website for updated information.
- 2013 (Won Honorable Mention [$50k instead of $100k])
In 2017, I was honored with the College of Engineering's Richard & Eleanor Towner Prize for Outstanding Graduate Student Instructors and the Rackham Graduate School's Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor awards.
While it is my supposition that these awards are highly dependent on the supporting letters and nominations (a big thank you to Marcus Darden, who led my nominations, as well as all others who wrote letters of support!), a few folks have asked me to share my statements, which I'm happy to do here:
- College of Engineering Towner Prize – Application [pdf]
- Rackham Graduate School Outstanding GSI – Teaching Philosophy [pdf]
Funding can be a big issue for grad school, but luckily there are quite a few fellowships you can apply to. The three most notable ones are the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP), the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG), and the Hertz Fellowship.
This post is a bit long so a quick comparison below.
Quick comparison of the three fellowships
The NSF and NDSEG fellowships are both government funded; NSF by…well…the NSF… and the NDSEG by the Department of Defense (DoD). They both offer three years of funding but with different levels of support. The NSF is a longer application with two essays, totaling five pages, and evaluated on how well the content of those two pieces fit into their review criteria of intellectual merit and broader impacts. The NDSEG is a one-page statement squeezing in your background and research proposal. They evaluate your resume much more, asking you to fill in sections about research experience and awards, and score them with a points system. The Hertz Fellowship is often considered the holy grail of fellowships because it’s a full five years of funding, but difficult to get because you need to one of the top 15 applicants in the country. All the applications ask for a research proposal in some shape or form so make sure to leverage your past research experience and talk to mentors who can give you feedback on your ideas. Most importantly, start early so you can polish these essays up. Competition is tough for funding and you want to put your best foot forward. Good luck!
The NSF application is due sometime between October 24-28, depending on which discipline you are. The application consists of two essays and three recommendation letters. The first essay is your personal statement detailing your research experience and any other relevant activities you’ve been a part of. The second essay is your research proposal. You’ll want to write both of these so it comes together as one cohesive statement painting your identity as a researcher.
Your application will be reviewed on two criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. What that really boils down to is you need to be able to sufficiently explain the scientific value of your research and what personal and societal impact it will have. Intellectual merit is often addressed by explaining what knowledge your research imparts and broader impacts is covered by how society may benefit from the knowledge in addition to how you may be a participating in outreach activities to further disseminate this information.
My best advice in crafting your essays is to leverage your past research experience and tie in your existing skill sets to what you propose as a research project. It shows you already have a foundation to carry out the research. Also make sure to have your mentors read over your research proposal to give feedback on its feasibility. This may also make your recommendation letters stronger as they know what you’re writing about and can comment on it in their letter. You can also go on the fellowship website and look up a resource person near you for further help. Break down your proposal similar to how grant proposals are written with a background, aims, and significance. Don’t be shy in being explicit in how your proposal addresses the two review criteria of intellectual merit and broader impact.
Three reviewers will read your application and rank you on the two review criteria. You most often need to get a bunch of excellent or very good to rank high enough to be awarded the fellowship. About 10% of applicants are awarded a year, 2000 awardees out of 20,000 applicants.
If you are awarded, you can be a NSF fellow for five years and choose which three years you want to receive funding. The funding will cover your first $12k in tuition and a $34k yearly stipend. Some people choose to use their funding the first three years and stay on as a fellow for another two to get access to certain programs and resources such as supercomputing time.
The NDSEG application will open in September (very soon!) and the due date is not yet announced. Unlike the NSF, where there are two essays totaling five pages, the NDSEG application is a single page essay that needs to cover who you are and what you propose to do. You write this essay significantly differently from the NSF application, so even if you want to recycle ideas do not recycle your NSF essay by simply shortening it. Re-write your ideas for the NDSEG single-page format. Because you have such little length, you do not go as in depth into your proposed research project. Instead, you’ll need to precariously balance painting a complete picture of who you are and what you propose to research.
Because of how NDSEG is funded, you need to be a bit strategic with your research proposal. Within the DoD, each military branch will provide their specific allotment for research they find important. That means that there isn’t a large pool of money that is divided up among the top applicants. Instead, the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) will read through the applications and forward certain applicants to a specific funding source based on the strength of their application and if their proposed research is of interest to a specific agency. A commonly suggested strategy is to look at the current possible funding opportunities from each DoD department so you know which areas of research has funding money available. You’re much more likely to get the NDSEG fellowship if you know that a pool of money exists to pay you!
Also, different from the NSF application, NDSEG has you fill in modules of your research experience and achievements. It is to your advantage to fill in as many sections of the application as possible. Each section of the application has a certain allotment of points and you can score higher overall if you have more sections filled out. A better explanation of the scoring system is found here (https://eng.umd.edu/sites/default/files/research/2013-writing-successful-dod-fellowship-app.pdf).
Like the NSF, about 10% of applicants are awarded with 200 spots for 2,000 applicants. The NDSEG fellowship covers full tuition and offers a $34k yearly stipend for three years. You must use all three years once you are awarded.
The Hertz fellowship is a privately funded fellowship from the Hertz Foundation due on October 28. It is the holy grail of fellowships since it offers five years of support. However, it only funds 15 people. It’s a very prestigious fellowship in which they hold retreats for current and past fellows, offering the recipients an amazing network. Because I was not awarded this fellowship and given how far of a reach it can be, I’ll be going over this very briefly. The application process is much longer, consisting of a written application and two rounds of technical interviews. The written application asks very specific questions and also has an additional information section that you can write almost anything. You can have more than three recommendation letters. Top 20% of applicants will be invited to a first round interview. These interviews happen on specified dates in certain locations around the country. If you do well enough you will advance to a second round. Both interviews will be highly technical with the interviewer asking you questions to test your logic and foundation in the sciences. Applicants who have advanced to the last round say that the second round is much more difficult than the first.
Good luck on your application!
P.S. Another popular fellowship is the Ford fellowship (http://sites.nationalacademies.org/pga/fordfellowships/index.htm)