GRFP Essay Insights: Application Resources for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program
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From Outline to First Draft

Getting Started

To begin writing your Graduate Research Statement, you should create an outline to organize your thoughts. First, start with the instructions found in Fastlane GRFP. Identify the sections listed in the instructions (e.g., Research Idea, General Approach, Needed Resources, Intellectual Merit, Broader Impacts and Literature Citations). Start an outline based on these sections.


Next, conduct a literature review on a topic of interest. By studying articles in the top-tier journals of your discipline, you can develop your rationale for your research topic. This worksheet can help guide you through that process. A lit review can also point to appropriate methods for your "general approach" section. Terminology will vary by discipline and nature of inquiry (i.e., quantitative or qualitative approaches). Think critically about what resources you will need - and what your expenses might be to conduct a research project. Re-read the explanation of the review criteria and determine how to address them in your statement.


Complete your outline and discuss it with your current mentor(s). Because you used the literature to inform your thinking, you should feel prepared to defend your selected topic and general approach. Ask: "Am I headed in the right direction with this concept?" Based on the feedback you receive, revise your outline.

Writing Phase

When ready, begin writing freely (you can edit later.) Now review your work. Edit your plan for clarity and length. When you have completed a first draft, send it to your mentor. Faculty are extremely busy, so allow at least a week turn around time. Based on the feedback you receive, revise your essay. Continue working with your mentor as necessary to complete the plan. If you need help with grammar or mechanics, consult a campus writing tutor.

Decisions, Decisions

Fact: This statement is limited to two pages. Be ready to make tough decisions on what to include and what to forgo. Pictures, charts or graphs are part of the two page limit. Will you have enough space? Your mentor will be an invaluable resource to you on these decisions. Strive for clarity and a scholarly tone!

How Many Literature Citations?

The new instructions give you a choice about including citations. (I think you should include them.) If you do, select the 2 - 5 references that best document (a) the need and/or importance of your research, (b) previous findings or preliminary results and/or (c) pertinent controls, models, theory or procedures. Check with your mentor on what references the reviewers might expect.

Formatting Tips

Requirements. Strictly adhere to the essay formatting guidelines found in Fastlane GRFP. Do NOT alter the margins, line spacing, typeface or font sizes because you will be disqualified from the competition.

Title and Keywords. You will enter the title of your research plan and keywords in Fastlane GRFP. Do not take up space on your document for these purposes.

Header/Footer with Name and Page Numbers. Your name is attached to your enire Fastland GRFP record. Do not take up space on your document for your name or page numbers.

Headings. To conserve line space, try in-paragraph headings. (The word "headings" is an example of an in-paragraph heading.) Simply bold face the section title, place a period after the title, and start your narrative on the very same line.

References. One way to maximize space in your essay is to number your references. For example

1. Smith, AJ; Thomas, RM; &; Bradley, CT. (2009)...
2. Hoover, FN; Smith, AJ; Bradley,CT and Fernandez, JA. (2008)...
3. Wyatt, GP and Fernandez, JA (2006)...

Then in your narrative, use the numbers to cite the references at the end of the sentence (instead of surnames in parenthesis). Example:

Anomalies in sea surface temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific are attributed to unusually cold or warm ocean temperatures [1, 3].

When the reader turns to the reference section, it shows that the authors of [1] and [3] are the sources of that information. While this citation style is common in many science journals, do not use it if your mentor advises against it.


Social network discussions
Advice from Fellows

Having this award on your record shows that you are capable of thinking beyond the average student and are able to do great research.

Melonie Williams

'07 Fellow, Psychology

Vanderbilt University


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Updated July 25, 2016 | Site content and handouts created by Robin G. Walker, PhD
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