You can apply for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship once as a rising senior before you enter a graduate program, and once during your first two years of graduate studies.
This raises the question, “When should I apply?”
The answer is easy for grad students entering their second year: apply NOW!
And it’s easy for rising seniors: apply now because you’ll get another bite after you’re admitted.
It’s more complicated for first-year grad students. That’s because everyone is reviewed in cohorts: rising seniors are ranked only against other rising seniors, and first-year and second-year grad students only against their respective peers. The bar gets higher at each stage—reviewers expect more research preparation, more understanding of disciplinary issues, and a more detailed research plan from more advanced students.
This doesn’t mean that it’s easier to win earlier in your academic career. To be sure, less-experienced applicants’ personal essays will show less preparation, and their research plans will not be as far along in the research process. What matters is that you stand out relative to your peers.
So, the question becomes, “should I wait to apply, accumulating the knowledge, insight, and practical research skills that will make my profile more attractive?” If you do wait, you will certainly be a more mature scholar, but so will your peers. If you compete early, your goals and motivation may be so inspiring that reviewers will be persuaded to overlook some deficiencies in your preparation or research plan. However, you may be up against other first-year students who are just as inspiring but have had more significant research experiences along the way.
If you do wait, you’ll be up against people in your cohort who are doing the same thing. Certainly, you will be a more mature scholar, but you might not be more competitive in relative terms. Conversely, if you compete early, your goals and motivation might be so inspiring that reviewers may be persuaded to overlook some deficiencies in preparation or direction in your research plan. If you do this, however, you might be up against equally inspiring first-years who had more significant research experiences along the way.
This turns the decision of when to apply into a strategic question: “When will I be most competitive?”
The three-page Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement — I call it the MPG, because it covers your motivation, preparation, and goals—doesn’t enter into our strategic calculation. You might write a different MPG essay in a year or two because of intervening life experience, but you can present an inspiring and compelling MPG at any stage of your career.
The Graduate Research Plan is another story. Based on what I’ve learned from coaching hundreds of applicants, nearly every winner has received substantial guidance from someone with a track record of funding peer-reviewed science projects. Lacking that, honorable mention is probably your best outcome.
You need someone who will make sure that you are addressing a problem that is important to society and relevant to current debates in your discipline. You need someone who will make sure that your methodology is appropriate, and that your scope of work is reasonable. You need someone who will anticipate what can go wrong and tell you how to avoid or recover from those breakdowns.
The simple answer is that if you have a committed advisor, you can apply as an incoming graduate student. If you don’t, you should defer your application.
Your advisor doesn’t have to be the person who will eventually direct your dissertation research. If you’re a first year student, you don’t even have to have worked in your advisor’s lab to get a win; after all, you are just starting graduate school, so reviewers won’t expect everyone to have worked extensively with their advisor.
As a first-year student, a committed advisor is someone who will help you develop your research plan, and will write a letter of recommendation for your application. You will need a few things from a good advisor. First, your advisor will have to work with you individually to develop your research plan, and help you identify research opportunities to gain the skills that you need to complete your proposed research. If someone is willing to invest their time in you, then you have a committed advisor. Second, your advisor should have expertise in your area of proposed research. As long as the reviewers, will trust your advisor when they say, “this is a great research plan,” you’re in good shape. Finally, your advisor has to know enough about your to write a great letter. If you haven’t worked on a research project with them yet, that’s ok! They can write about what impressed them enough about your preparation to admit you.
In short, a committed advisor is someone who will give you their time – time to meet with you to get to know you and steer your progress, time to review your research plan, and a commitment to advise your during the three years of your award. If you have an advisor who is invested in you, then you should apply as a first.
You can find an advisor like that in a few places. If you applied to a program specifically because you wanted to work with a specific professor, then they could be your advisor. Many grad programs involve rotations through labs during the first year. A professor who you will work with during rotations could be a great advisor. Finally, some programs assign incoming students mentors, or make research proposal mentors available. Those mentors could make great advisors.
Reviewers will expect a closer relationship between second-year applicants and their advisors. A committed advisor is usually someone who you have done research with, who knows your project well, and who will continue to advise you in the future. If they aren’t your dissertation advisor, then they will be someone who would serve on the dissertation committee.
The other big consideration for first-year applicants is whether they have enough research experience. You are ready to apply if you have research experience relevant to your proposed research. Lots of research experiences can be relevant. Research experiences that taught you a technique that you will use in your proposed research, or research experiences that motivated you to pursue your field or research project are all relevant to your proposed research. You need at least some experiences like this to be competitive, but whether you have enough is something you should discuss with your advisor.
In all cases, the decision turns on how much you can improve with the increased participation of your advisor versus the higher level of competition you will face in subsequent years.
There are a lot of wrinkles to this. Visit our GRFP course page.