Changing Times and Rolling the Dice: The new NSF GRFP rules and how you can maximize your odds for success

Danielle Stevens1,2 and Kelsey Wood1,3

1Integrative Genetics and Genomics, University of California, Davis, CA
2Department of Plant Pathology, University of California, Davis, CA
3Genome Center, University of California, Davis, CA


Image from Flickr user jcoterhals

First and second year graduate students as well as senior undergraduates share one thing in common: they comprise the key student body who can apply for the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, known as the NSF GRFP. The program, which funds around 2,000 students from over 10,000 applicants each year across the United States, is an incredible opportunity. Students get recognition and potential freedom in the program and lab they join, the institution gets money to cover tuition, and the faculty mentor pays minimally, if at all, to fund their student in the lab.

The GRFP, known to fund students of nearly any discipline with a basic research-oriented proposal, is a key fellowship available each year for students who work on basic research-oriented plant disease projects. Proposals that have been funded cover many aspects of plant pathology, ranging from large-scale population dynamics to microscopic protein-protein interactions. However, this year is different, and hence, why we are writing to you, graduate students and members of APS. We want to encourage you, as always, to apply for the GRFP this fall if you are eligible and to encourage you to prepare your application carefully this year.

This summer, recent changes in the program solicitation were made for the upcoming fellowship year. For students who work on plant diseases, this is for you. The program solicitation now states the following, “Studies focused on basic questions in plant pathology are eligible, however, applied studies focused on maximizing production in agricultural plants or impacts on food safety, are not eligible.”

As a disclaimer, we are not from the NSF; rather, we are graduate students who are familiar with the GRFP. So we cannot speak to what is okay or not okay regarding eligibility (to be absolutely sure – call the NSF). However, we think this statement is intended to clarify and push students to pursue fundamental basic questions, which is the type of research the NSF funds. While many of us hope that one day our work might help with food security and agricultural production by limiting disease outbreaks, we suggest that these impacts should not be stated as the goal of your work, but rather stated within the context of the broader impact of the proposal.

Therefore, these are our best recommendations/guidelines based upon these new rules for students whose projects involve plant diseases:

  1.  In your research proposal, make sure you explicitly state you are focusing on fundamental basic research in plant diseases. The goal should be to address unanswered questions in plant pathology rather than preventing or treating plant diseases.
  2. Avoid food safety and improvement in agricultural production as central goals of your work; instead, focus on what will be learned by conducting the project, using the broader impacts section to connect your project to the needs of your community.
  3. If you are unsure if your project and application are eligible, check with a faculty member who is familiar with the GRFP and, if necessary, reach out to the Program Director to get clarification on the rules in relationship to your application.

We realize the GRFP proposal is challenging to write. However, use any and every resource to help you craft your application. Go to workshops, work with peers and faculty who are familiar with and willing to review your application, read online websites and blogs that share winning applications, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Here are our general recommendations for the GRFP:

  1. The GRFP funds the person, not the project; so while your project should be sound technically, focus in your personal statement on how your past events have driven you to where are now.
  2. Tie in your personal history to your outreach events. And showcase your broader impacts, which are just as important as your intellectual contributions, in both your personal statement and project proposal.
  3. Keep in mind the objectives, goals, and initiatives of the NSF. Shape your application to show evidence that your project falls within these lines.
  4. Use italics, bolding¸ and underlining to your advantage. Reviewers have to go through a large stack of applications quickly. Make their review process easier by making your best features stand out.
  5. Start early – you will need plenty of time to edit your drafts and get feedback from your professors and peers.

Sometimes it can feel like you are rolling the dice and you might question if it is worth it, but in the end, you will learn more about the science and about yourself in the process. We promise, it is worth a shot.

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