I understand reviewing literature is an important part of completing the application. Do most applicants develop a plan independently solely based off of the articles they read or do faculty advisors usually give students a specific question to write about? How feasible are the research plans written by say a first year grad student who is new to their field? Is the intent of this part of the application just to demonstrate that the applicant is familiar with their field and can formulate a research plan or is it meant to be an actual plan of action for their grad student career.

The context of my question is I am considering whether to apply to the nsf fellowship this year or next year. I would say I have done enough literature review to identify holes in the literature that I could possibly propose a research plan for, but I am not sure if it would be something I would actually study or not because there are many things up in the air in my lab related to available facilities/research direction, etc.

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    As academic staff who has presented on the GRFP application process and helped people with their documents, I wonder - have you talked to your PI/advisor or undergraduate mentor/advisor about the feasibility of your proposed project? Follow Buffy on that. Also look into what writing support services are available, because they may be able to help you pitch your writing to a more general (field-specific) audience. Probably half of what I do with individual applicants is point out how they can make their "Intellectual Merit" or "Broader Impact" more specific, compelling, or clear. Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 16:59

2 Answers 2


Having reviewed GRFP applications, and gone through the NSF orientation sessions, I'd say it depends very much on the level of the applicant, but generally, literature reviews are not anywhere near as important as you thought they were.

This process only vaguely resembles a research grant review, primarily because there is ZERO effort to match reviewers' expertise to those of the applicants. Broadly, electrical engineers will review applications of electrical engineers, and biologists will review applications from biologists, but that's as fine-grained as the process will guarantee. This means that you can't display fundamental gaps in knowledge that any practitioner in your broad field should know, but in all likelihood, nobody is going to go check your sources, or know much about the very special second messenger system that impacts a new subtype of cation channel that 2 people in the world study.

As to where the research plan comes from, that's going to vary incredibly by the level of the applicant. A student about to start a program, who hasn't even set foot on their campus yet, is very different from a student that's been placed in a PI's lab for a year, and both can get funded! For the young student, reviewers are looking for your ability to put together a cogent hypothesis-driven study and communicate it well (and not many reviewers would believe this is the study you will actually do your graduate work in) along with a somewhat viable path to get yourself established with the type of resources you would need to actually do similar research, and somewhat more than that for an experienced student. My recollection (though I could be wrong) is that there is some earmarking of awards to the four levels of application status, and that young applicants will get a competitive amount of awards, even though the experienced students clearly have more polished packages.

Reviewers are trained to assess you in two areas; "Intellectual Merit" and "Broader Impact". Both are rolled together to make a holistic assessment of your application package. Reviewers are looking for evidence that 1) you've got the intellectual goods to thrive in science, 2) you've made opportunities for yourself and have taken advantage of them, and 2) that you see areas where you can bring your skills to the larger community. I can't say that you'll be successful if you can demonstrate success in these areas, but I can say that you won't if you can't. Using your literature would be a part of this, but I'd say that if you don't make any mistakes in your use of the literature, you won't be hurting your application.

As to whether you should apply this year or wait until next year, that's a tough call. The risk with the "make believe" type of applications, where you aren't even affiliated with a lab yet, is that one reviewer might not buy that the path you've outlined is viable, and considers this to important to recommend funding (I try hard not to do this, myself, though naivete can certainly be a strike against intellectual merit). This will kill your application. I don't believe you are excluded from applying a second time, though, so the risk of application this round seems minimal. You should verify eligibility for a second submission on your own, though (i.e., don't take my word for it).


There are a wide variety of solutions for this, but, mainly, the advisor/PI is a good source for advice and even for a specific problem.

Some people come up with their own ideas independent of an advisor, though I think that this isn't the most common path. But at least, if you are able to come up with what you think is a plan, then your advisor should be able to give you good advice about its potential and any caveats that there might be.

A new researcher will generally (not always) find it difficult to measure the potential outcome of a research plan. Some ideas are too big to study as a student as the field isn't "ripe" for their solution and it would be unlikely to result in success. Others are too small to be worth studying as the results might be seen as trivial. Ideally you want a "just right" sort of problem and the advisor may be a better judge of that at the beginning than the student is capable of. So, get advice.

My own study was instructive. I worked under a really great mathematician on three problems. One of them was so easy that I could generate a new theorem and its proof every day or so. Kind of fun, but lacking substance. Another was so hard that I couldn't see any crack in the problem that might be exploited into a solution. The third problem was "just right": hard and significant, but do-able. It resulted in a really great dissertation, but I couldn't have predicted that at the beginning of the exploration.

IMO, a literature review probably isn't enough, though you indicate you have found some holes that might be filled. Write up a couple of those and ask your advisor what s/he thinks about them as potential problems. Advice is good. Forgoing it is just thrashing in the dark.

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