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Nsf Fellowship Essay

Graduate Research Plan Statement


With this statement, you must demonstrate that you can conceive and begin planning an original research project. Your task: "Present an original research topic that you would like to pursue in graduate school. Describe the research idea, your general approach, as well as any unique resources that may be needed for accomplishing the research goal (i.e., access to national facilities or collections, collaborations, overseas work, etc.) You may choose to include important literature citations. Address the potential of the research to advance knowledge and understanding within science as well as the potential for broader impacts on society. The research discussed must be in a field listed in the Solicitation."Source

Important: Before you begin writing

Precisely follow the official instructions for this statement, found only in the online application form in Fastlane GRFP You will enter your research title and keywords into Fastlane. This step gives you extra writing space as this statement is limited to two pages. Also remember that you are required to address both the Intellectual Merit (the potential of your research to advance knowledge) and Broader Impacts (the potential of your research to benefit society) of your research plan. Use separate statements for each. More on the review criteria.

For your consideration

As appropriate to your discipline and research topic, you may propose a qualitative or quantitative or mixed methods study. While it seems that the words "general approach" signal writing flexibility, I still highly recommend that you (a) work from an outline or worksheet, (b) propose rigorous methods, and (c) write in a scholarly fashion. I believe that in order to be competitive in the GRFP selection process, your research statement must read like a two-page research abstract.

Other suggestions:

  • Your rationale for selecting a research topic and methods should be informed by the literature (or bodies of literature if you are proposing an interdisciplinary project). Research plan worksheet
  • Select a graduate research topic that relates to your stated career goals.
  • The scope of the research project must be doable for a graduate student.
  • Be realistic about needed resources (e.g., travel, equipment, supplies) and how to cover costs.
  • Select appropriate and rigorous data collection/analysis methods for a quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods study. Borrow a research methods book from your mentor.

My Best Advice Remains: Work closely with your mentor(s) on this statement.

Addressing your role in a larger research project

Reviewers understand that quite often students work on lab teams funded by external grants. If your graduate research topic is part of a larger research project, make certain that you explain this. Devise a rigorous plan, then specify how your findings will contribute to the overall research project. Be clear about your role and responsibilities. IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not copy and paste sections from a grant proposal - that is plagiarism. Final tip: Reviewers understand that student researchers need to acquire and hone additional research skills. If your proposed research topic will be a challenge with your current skill level, don't fret. Briefly explain how you will gain the necessary skills to conduct your research successfully (e.g., graduate courses, summer research, training and/or mentoring.)

Questions a Reviewer Might Pose Related to the
Graduate Research Statement

Intellectual Merit:
  • Has the student presented a well-organized statement? Writing clear? Definitive?
  • Is the topic creative, innovative or potentially transformative?
  • How did the student justify the need for this research topic?
  • Is the "general approach" appropriate for the topic? Are methods rigorous?
  • Has the student identified possible pitfalls or limitations with this topic?
  • Is this student ready conduct a graduate research project on this topic?
  • What is the mentor's expertise and how strong is the mentor's support of this research?
  • Do the references letters confirm that the student will have adequate research resources?
  • How will the student publish/present scholarly findings within and across disciplines?
  • If the student proposed international research or field study, is it relevant?
  • How will this research help the student acquire new knowledge and skills?
  • Potentially, how might this research advance knowledge within and across disciplines?
  • More on Intellectual Merit through the Eyes of a Reviewer
Broader Impacts:
  • What are the inherent broader impacts (or societal benefit) of this research topic?How will society benefit from this research topic - directly and/or indirectly? Does the topic address a significant global problem, societal need or NSF priority?
  • What broader impacts (or societal benefit) may be realized through the research activities? For example, will research activities broaden participation of people from underrepresented groups?
  • Are the proposed, complementary BI activities realistic? Sustainable? Specifically, what groups will be reached and how will they benefit from the BI activities?
  • Does this applicant propose to teach public audiences about science and discoveries?
  • Might this study enhance research and education infrastructure (e.g., facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships)? 
  • What is the applicant's record of broader impacts efforts to date? Is this applicant likely to be proactive and consistent with BI activities in the future?
  • If the GRFP makes an investment in this student, how will this student help the NSF work toward "desired societal outcomes"?
  • More on Broader Impacts through the Eyes of a Reviewer.


Graduate Research Statement: From Outline to First Draft
Social network discussions
Advice from Fellows

Winning the award has given me time to focus heavily on research and to create a good roadmap for my dissertation topic and methods.

Elise Hernandez

'12 Fellow, Developmental Psychology

University of Michigan


About this site

Permissions, Background & References

Writing Resources

GRFP Statement Planning Guides

Checklist Use a checklist to plan your time and complete your GRFP application by the submission deadline.


  • Writer's Block? This list of writing prompts is applicable to the Personal, Relevant Background & Future Goals statements. The list is not inclusive by any means!
  • Describing Previous Research Experiences This worksheet will help you reflect on your previous research experiences.
  • Worksheet for the Graduate Research Statement. This handout may help you identify a possible research topic and an appropriate approach. Discuss your topic with your mentor before you commence writing.
  • Planning a Broader Impact Activity. This handout can help you identify broader impact activities aimed at "desired societal outcomes."Tip: Your BI potential will look stronger if you can build upon your current BI activities. If you proposed a new BI activity, make sure it is innovative!

Outlines for Statement Outlines (These are merely examples and are unofficial).

Formatting Suggestions

  • Graduate Research Plan Statement. Numerous applicants have asked how to organize the research statement. Your best bets are to (a) ask your mentor what panelists from your discipline might expect and (b) adopt section headings from articles in discipline-specific journals. Here is one possible format example.

Unofficial Rubric. This revised rubric is designed to help you reflect on (a) the content of your essays, (b) how well your application packet reflects your abilities, and (c) your writing mechanics.

GRFP Essay Examples* & Advice from GRFP Fellows

*Important: The GRFP instructions have changed entirely. If you elect to review essay examples from previous years, please keep this in mind. DO NOT model your statements after previous year's essays.

Alex Lang, PhD. NFS Fellowship. A 2010 Fellow Alex Lang is currently pursuing a PhD on physics at Boston University. His site includes numerous essay examples from several disciplines, some with reviewer feedback.

Mallory P Ladd, PhD Think like a Postdoc. is a 2014 GRFP Recipient. Her blog contains GRFP advice and statement examples.

Rachel C. Smith, PhD. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Dr. Smith received the GRFP Award in 2007. Her page includes successful GRFP essays, many with the reviewers' comment.

Jennifer Wang, PhD. NSF Graduate Fellowship Advice. Dr. Wang received the GRFP Honorable Mention in 2007 and the GRFP Award in 2008. Her page links to other GRFP resources and advice from other award and honorable mention recipients.

Jan Allen, PhD. Graduate Mentor is an Associate Dean at Cornell. Her site contains information on a a variety of fellowships, including the NSF GRFP.

More on Broader Impacts

National Alliance for Broader Impacts. Join the free national ListServe and learn what others are doing for their BI efforts. Find collaborators! In fact, your institution may already be a NABI member.

Broader Impacts Guidelines . This page is primarily for grant proposers and reviewers, but the content can help GRFP applicants better understand the BI criterion.

GRFP 60th Anniversary Video Contest Winners. Here are three terrific examples of how Fellows have used technology to teach the public about their research endeavors.

COSEE Broader Impact Wizard Introduction (You Tube). While this video is aimed at faculty, it offers an excellent take on what "broader impacts" means. GRFP applicants should watch to 4:51 minutes. Learn how these faculty members collaborate with others to address the Broader Impacts review criterion.

Broader Impacts Showcase (2005). Findings from the Showcase offer ideas on how others have broaden impacts. GRFP applicants can adapt these ideas (or expand on them) for proposed future broader impact activities. Review Criteria. The GRFP Operations Center manages this resource site for Fellowship applicants, awardees and reviewers.

Resource Persons & Social Network Discussions

Your best bet for finding GRFP advice is to talk with your faculty mentor(s), GRFP Fellows and GRFP Resource Persons. Social networks are another option. However, like any other GRFP advice you may find on the web, read critically, consult your mentor and only use suggestions that make sense to you.

Social network discussions
Advice from Fellows

…once you finish the NSF GRFP application, your graduate apps will be a snap.

Adam Daily

'12 Fellow, Biomedical Engineering

University of Texas at Austin


About this site

Permissions, Background & References