NOTE (6 April 18): A few years have passed since I wrote this. Since writing it I do recognize my privilege of being able to live paycheck to paycheck & intern for free post-undergrad, I know not everyone is able to do that. I also recognize that the resources I had available to me at Texas A&M as a new graduate student helped make my application stronger, and that those resources are not available to every one.
There is absolutely the luck of the reviewer draw, as both years I applied I got the same score ratios, but only got funded the second year. I am grateful that the reviewers appreciated my passion for broader impacts, and fought for my application. The year I got funded each reviewer mentioned that my undergrad grades were lacking, and I had no publications at the time of application. Every reviewer mentioned the strength of my letters of recommendation (a few said they were the strongest in the pool), and each mentioned my clear passion for broader impacts and my clear plan to integrate them throughout my PhD. I am not funded for my research, nor my grades, I am funded because I am doing my PhD for the broader impacts, and I am not shy about stating that up front.
If you were funded, congratulations! If you were not, congratulations! Submitting an application is a huge accomplishment in and of itself! I have good friends, who are incredibly talented scientists, who both did and did not get awarded.
You are more than the grants you receive.
Original post April 2015
A few weeks ago the new class of National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships was announced. In response I tweeted a congratulatory:
Then I saw discussions arising on social media that were criticizing the NSF GRFP program and their lack of supporting broader impacts/underrepresented groups, and their lack of funding diverse candidates from non-name recognized schools and/or candidates that will serve a diverse public.
I know I am just one example, but I think it’s important for people to know that people do get funded based on their broader impacts. I am a NSF Graduate Research Fellow, and I am one of those people. I also graduated from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), but my undergraduate institution had very little to do with my NSF GRFP, in fact I spent almost half of my tenure at UCSD at different universities. UCSD (including faculty) had nothing to do with the writing or preparation of my application.
Mine may be a special case, but I think it’s important that people know these cases exist and remind people that the public NSF GRFP results don’t give you a full picture of each applicant, only where they went to school – which should neither credit nor discredit them. I am not saying no biases exist, I am not naïve to the politics behind academia/research, this is just my personal experience.
I initially wrote this post in a more reactive/defensive stance, feeling personally attacked that people were alluding to the fact that NSF GRFPs may not be earned, especially if you went to a name-recognized undergraduate institution, which I did. Then I stepped away for a few weeks and realized, rather than be defensive, I’ll be transparent, so here is my NSF GRFP funding story, the one that the institution names don’t tell:
I worked, volunteered and interned for 3 years after I graduated from UCSD. I spent those years bringing science education to underprivileged minorities, helping to reach over 3,000 children in a historically underprivileged school district. I developed STEM education programs and taught them to children from homeless shelters, autistic children, and Mexican children who didn’t speak English. Whose parents’ didn’t speak English, so I translated material so they could understand too. I helped organize and teach free student and teacher conservation education workshops (complete with bilingual resource bags containing activities, books, games, etc.) in a small town in Mexico.
I kept a job that barely paid the bills so that I could continue this work, which became a passion and the inspiration behind pursuing my PhD. I volunteered 10+ hours a week, on top of working full time, to pursue a research internship and also volunteer with a non-profit that brings free science education to underserved school districts. I pursued graduate school applications and took the GRE while working and volunteering and dealing with a death in the family, commuting 3+hours round-trip several days a week to be there for family.
The job that barely paid the bills I took as a “place holder” while I thought I’d figure out what I wanted to do, as I got it after 4 months of post-graduation unemployment. I didn’t know when I started that it would inspire me and instill in me a passion for outreach, especially to underprivileged groups. As a result, the first lines of my NSF GRFP Personal Statement read:
I want to make a difference. I want to influence policy, encourage sustainable change, inspire stewardship and promote STEM education. Earning my PhD is essential in accomplishing these goals.
and my “life sciences” dissertation work has a critical component that helps employ, engage, educate, and give voice to impoverished people in Central America. As well as plans to bridge graduate students and K-12 STEM students.
I am funded for my broader impacts, those past, present and future. One reviewer actually started their review with something like:
Although reproduction of turtles is not an exciting topic…
and then went on to give me an “Excellent”, emphasizing the strength in my integration of learning, discovery, and communication of my project to diverse audiences, and my specific plans to serve underrepresented groups.
Another reviewer specifically cited my “exceptionally strong” broader impacts plan as a reason for supporting my work.
I was not funded for my research on sea turtles. I was not funded because my B.S. was from UCSD, or because my grades or test scores were perfect (they weren’t). I was funded for my broader impacts, specifically for those that target underprivileged and underrepresented groups.
I realize everyone’s story is different, but please consider that you may not have all the information, that the name of the undergraduate university doesn’t give you the whole story and that NSF does fund GRFPs for broader impacts. I may be just one example, but I know that if not for my strong passion for science communication and education that I would not be funded.
I am proud of my NSF GRFP and thankful that NSF does fund graduate students with goals and passions outside of pure research and I am thankful that broader impacts matter to the reviewers who fought for my application.