You can apply once for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowships as a rising senior or before entering a graduate program. You can also apply once during the first term of your graduate studies or at the start of your second year of study.
This raises the question, “When should I apply?”
The answer is easy for grad students entering their second year who haven’t applied before: apply again 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 have less detail. What matters, however, is what those essays contain relative to people competing at the same level.
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’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’ll be up against people who are just as inspiring but may have benefitted from better 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.
If you’re a new graduate student in a program where everyone does two-week lab rotations during their first term before choosing an advisor, and professors don’t invest time in prospective students until they’ve committed to their lab, you might wait to apply next year with help from the professor you eventually work with.
I’ve seen students who have been in the workforce for several years, during which time they developed professional relationships with professors who are willing to help them prepare their application. They often apply for the fellowship at the same time that they apply for graduate study.
Some schools have formed panels of volunteer faculty to fill the advisory role for new graduate students who don’t yet have a committed 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.