Summary of the 2019 BMES NSF GRFP Session

Image credit: Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

At the 2019 BMES National Meeting in Philadelphia, BMES and the National Science Foundation (NSF) held a special session on NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowships Program (GRFP). The session included insight from program officers, reviewers, and awarded graduate students to highlight GFRP guidelines and strategies to develop successful GRFP grant proposals.

To view the whole session, check out the recording from BMES (coming out soon). Below are a few notes I thought were important and worth sharing to help anyone applying in the future!

Logistics Notes and Overall Strategies for Success:

  • Keep in mind that each reviewer is assessing 20-40 applications, so you need to be strategic in making your application stand out.
  • Highlight your key achievements (like publications) in several places (proposal, personal statement, references).
  • Selectively bolded text helps reviewers fill out their review form to justify your score.
    • Do your best to write the review for the reviewer.
    • Give them the sound-bites for your application.
  • Remember that this is an application package. Each of the sections must align under a central theme that justifies your need for the fellowship and potential to succeed as a researcher.
  • Have others read your fellowship drafts and note the main takeaways. Compare these notes with what you were aiming to emphasize in your application.

Q: When is the best time to start preparing for the GRFP?

  • In an ideal world, it would be best to start preparing for the award as a undergraduate in junior year. Why? The key to being successful is having enough time to build your resume: becoming involved in research, identifying mentors, and participating in outreach activities.

Q: What needs to be considered when deciding whether to apply in the 1st or 2nd year of grad school?

  • Will you accomplish anything significantly beneficial for your application between year 1 and year 2?
  • Will your adviser be able to write you a strong letter in year 1?
  • Will you definitely have papers in year 2? (This will be expected)

Q: Do GPAs matter?

  • Remember that application reviews are holistic, a sub-par GPA alone won’t necessarily prevent you from being a successful applicant.
  • You and your letter writers should explain your record in the application.
  • Emphasize the details of your classwork and research that support your potential to succeed as a graduate fellow.

Writing Tips:

  • Write concisely but don’t think about the page limit at first. You can always edit.
  • Don’t confuse the reader with long, complex phrases.
  • Write with an overall theme and ensure all parts of the application connect.

Letters of recommendation:

  • Be clear and help your letter writers highlight the strengths of your application.

Personal Statement:

  • Focus carefully on providing detail about you as an individual and your potential to succeed. This is a training fellowship - they don’t expect you to have your whole life figured out, but they want to see you are dedicated to pursuing a research career.
  • Don’t be cliché or vague. Every applicant “works hard” and “gives back to the community”.
    • Set yourself apart by giving specific examples and being authentic.
  • Always explicitly state conclusions you want the reviewer to remember because readers are not familiar with your stories.


Q: How can I come up with ideas for a proposal that aren’t clinical-based?

  • Research fundamental challenges in engineering/basic science that must be solved before clinical devices and techniques are implemented.
  • Think pre-clinical phase.

General tips

  • Make the proposal clear and come across as unique.
  • Don’t use acronyms.
  • Support everything you say with detail.

Q: How much detail is needed in the research plan?

  • Enough details so that you can present a clear plan about how you’ll complete the research
    • Aims, timelines, metrics of success, limitations + alternative strategies
  • Don’t get bogged down in the details. Show reviewers how you are approaching the scientific process.
  • Have other people read drafts to see what is confusing (so you can refine the plan) and essential (so that you don’t accidentally cut out something important when you’re editing).
  • You don’t need to describe all the methods of the techniques your proposing to use (the GRFP proposal isn’t long enough for this).
    • Reviewers are going to look for markers like “I will use the technique developed by our lab (reference the paper)” or techniques from other well-known papers in your field.
Katelyn Greene
Katelyn Greene
Graduate Research Assistant

I’m a biomedical engineering graduate student using image analysis to study bone and muscle changes. I’m passionate about helping others understand research and inspiring the next generation of young scientists.