Today we welcome guest writer Brooke Morris, a PhD student in the Biology Department who works as a Doctoral Administrative Fellow for the Graduate School and serves as the Present Your PhD Coordinator. Brooke was awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in 2018.

As we are getting settled into classes, teaching, and figuring out the strange quirks that each semester brings, I find myself nostalgic about my first semester as a graduate student. I am entering my fourth year and my first semester feels like a lifetime ago. These thoughts inevitably bring me to thinking about how I spent the first half of my first semester, writing a fellowship for the National Science Foundation, the coveted Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

I spent hours and hours writing and re-writing my personal statement and research statement, brutally analyzing each word and exactly where to place it to make the most of every space on the few pages you are allowed to write. I remember the relief I felt when I submitted my proposal (a few days early as an extra bonus but mainly because I could not read it one more time!). The following April, after remarking to one of my advisors that I had not received any news about the fellowship, I went back to my office and checked my junk mail. Sure enough, there was an email titled “GRFP”. When I read the opening line congratulating me, I let out a ridiculous squeal that I had no idea I could make and made my lab mate read it to make sure I it was seeing things correctly.

It’s still hard for me to believe I won. Since this time, I have encouraged any graduate student I can to try to write one as well. My wish is that the campus is filled with graduate students who have successfully written and won a fellowship.

When people ask me for tips on how to write one, they generally ask me for help revising the statements they plan to submit. I am happy to answer these questions and have spent a lot of time looking over many of them. But the biggest part of preparing for the NSF GRFP (or any grant/fellowship) is not really the writing itself but planning for the grant. I’m not saying that the writing is not important— it is—but what if you put in the hours and hours it takes to wright a proposal, only to have it never make it to the reviewer’s hands? Heartbreaking! Please don’t let this happen to you. If there is one tip that I think makes the difference between a winning proposal and a nonwinning proposal, is making sure you know every detail about the grant or fellowship that you are applying to. It is important to understand that the rules put in place by the funding agency you’re applying to are also serving as a filtration step in their process. They receive thousands of submissions, and each reviewer is responsible for an incredible number of them. The best way to initially filter the number they need to read is by removing the ones that did not follow the rules they clearly state in the program’s solicitation.

When a fellow graduate student comes to me as they are beginning to put words on the page for their statements, I tell them to print off the program’s solicitation, read the rules 3 times before you even type a word.

  1. The first time just become familiar with the terminology they are using. Are there key words that you see over and over? Deadlines that might apply to one group but different deadlines for another. Do you have to choose a discipline that you will submit under? Is the mission statement clear?
  2. On the second read through, highlight everything you think you need to pay attention to. Make it jump off the page with a florescent pink highlighter (or any color you fancy!).
  3. The third read through, make yourself a cheat sheet. Is it highlighted? Put it on the cheat sheet with the page number and exact wording. I wrote out the exact terminology, the mission statement, the subheadings that they wanted, and key terms that I saw over and over. When I finally sat down to write, I kept that program solicitation with me, and every change I made, I consulted to make sure that the change was within the rules. It was tedious, my eyes blurred, and many times it felt overwhelming to try to make sure I wasn’t violating some small infraction they had hidden in the printed pages, but it paid off.

It is small details that move us from good to great, from great to excellent, and from not funded to funded. And I promise you, the details are worth it!

Have a topic you want us to address on the blog? Email requests to Becca Cassady at