Several of the students who have come to my group as summer students are planning to submit NSF graduate fellowship applications in the coming weeks. However, one question that I am not sure about is how specific the statement of purpose needs to be.

When I applied for the NSF fellowship (going on fifteen years ago), I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do as a student, other than it was computational rather than experimental. Therefore, my application was all over the place, talking about three different types of projects I might want to work on as a graduate student (and I ended up choosing none of them in the long run!).

However, I get the impression that today such an essay wouldn't be suitable for the application, and that a more narrowly tailored essay is required. At the same time, there's also the challenge of ensuring that the research problem can be done at the school one has chosen, and not narrowing things so specifically that the student is too "boxed in" or too opaque for a review panel to see the merits of.

So how should students thread the gap between vagueness and specificity in writing these and other fellowship applications?

  • 6
    The fellowship is awarded to the student, not to the research proposal.
    – JeffE
    Oct 8, 2013 at 2:11
  • 2
    Best bet is to check with your school's scholarship/fellowship office, as they tend to have copies of successful in-house applications. Use those as a guide for recent standards.
    – Thomas
    Oct 8, 2013 at 20:17

1 Answer 1


I think this is an issue that a lot of students struggle with; at least I did when I applied last year. I was rejected, so probably take what I say with a grain of salt. They say some things on their website that are important to note.

  • Keep in mind that NSF does not just seek to fund scientists and engineers; NSF seeks to fund future STEM leaders.
  • Use appropriate scientific form (hypothesis, figures, references) in the Graduate Research Statement.
  • Instead of elaborate details on theory, focus on the rationale for your studies and the existing literature as it supports your proposed work.

The students that I know that were given the award properly addressed these issues. My proposal did focus on one research idea and that was rewarded with comments on the creativity and feasibility of my proposed idea. One of the critiques I got in my review was "While the applicant does demonstrate an excitement of discovery and should be able to communicate his results to a large audience, ... Broad societal impacts are not evident with respect to encouraging diversity and enabling the participation of underrepresented groups."

The feedback that I got was based on two scores: Intellectual Merit Criterion and Broader Impacts Criterion. I would make sure that your students take both into account. As far as the research proposal goes, I what JeffE said is true. It is an opportunity for the students to show that they are familiar with the current research and are able to come up with an appropriate idea to pursue.

  • How the heck are results from scientific research (not in a field like sociology) supposed to increase diversity??
    – user124384
    Sep 11, 2017 at 21:13

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