Nsf Grfp Essay Guide

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 https://www.fastlane.nsf.gov/grfp/Login.do. 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

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Personal, Relevant Background &
Future Goals Statement

Statement Purpose

This statement introduces you to the reviewers. In a compelling fashion, you will share your motivation and readiness to pursue advanced studies; steps you have taken to gain professional knowledge and skills; your experience working independently and on teams; and your career goals. Reviewers will be seeking strong evidence of your past intellectual merit and broader impacts.

Important: Before you begin writing

Precisely follow the instructions for this statement, found in the online application form in Fastlane GRFP https://www.fastlane.nsf.gov/grfp/Login.do. Remember: This statement is limited to three pages.

Your Writing Process

To begin writing, create an outline to organize your thoughts. (My next page has additional tips.) Next, select experiences that best illustrate your knowledge, skills and abilities. When ready, begin writing freely (you can edit later.) Now review your work. You may need to rearrange the order of your paragraphs for better flow. Add transition language to connect the paragraphs. Edit for clarity and length. When you have completed a first draft, ask family members and friends for feedback. Revise. Set aside your draft for a day or two and reflect on your writing. Fine tune. Ask your mentor(s) and a GRFP Resource Person to read your polished statement. Faculty members are extremely busy, so allow at least a week turn around time. Based on the feedback, revise your essay again. Consult a campus writing tutor for help with grammar or mechanics.

Highlight Your Publications, Presentations and Posters!

First, make sure to list your all of your publications/presentations/posters in the Education and Work Experience section under "Other Experience." List scholarly work first, then add public outreach (lay audience) presentations. Second, summarize your productivity in your narrative. For example, after explaining an independent research project, add "As a result of this undergraduate research experience, I coauthored a refereed journal article and presented an outreach poster for state legislators. See citations listed in the 'Other Experience' section."

Check your Intellectual Merit examples:
Questions a reviewer might pose about this essay

  • What motivated this applicant to pursue advanced studies?
  • How prepared is this student to commence with graduate studies?
  • How does the chosen degree program fit with the student's career goals?
  • Does this person learn from mistakes? Seek advice? Collaborate with others?
  • How does this applicant face adversity, solve problems and move past barriers?
  • What is the scope of this applicant's previous research experience? What was the intellectual merit of his/her previous research projects?
  • Has this student explored creative, original or transformative concepts independently or as part of a team?
  • How did this student share scientific knowledge through scholarly articles, conference presentations and scientific posters?
  • Does this student's academic or career goals include an aim to advance scientific knowledge?
  • Might this student become a scientific leader within or across disciplines?
  • More on Intellectual Merit through the Eyes of a Reviewer

Check your Broader Impact examples:
Questions a reviewer might pose
about this essay

  • What are the broader impacts (societal benefit) of this applicant's previous research topics and research activities?
  • To what extent did this student engage in BI activities? For example, did this applicant engage people from diverse backgrounds in research activities? Conduct educational outreach aimed at improving public scientific literacy?
  • Did this student teach or mentor younger STEM researchers from diverse backgrounds? Is she/he likely to continue mentoring and teaching?
  • In what ways has this student been a leader in various settings (on/off campus)?
  • In what other ways did this student demonstrate a commitment to broadly benefit society and/or advance societal outcomes?
  • More on Broader Impacts through the Eyes of a Reviewer.

Writer's Block?

See writing prompts for this statement on the Writing Resources page.

Social network discussions
Advice from Fellows

If it wasn't for the NSF GRFP, I would not be able to work with either of my current advisors (one at Georgia Tech and the other at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory) because at the time, they did not have the funding to take on another student.

Rene Diaz

'11 Fellow, Engineering

Georgia Tech


About this site

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