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This is the first time I use Stack Exchange. Here are my backgrounds. I am a first-generation poor male immigrant from China to America. None of my members have education beyond middle school. So they cannot help me. Because I was 19 years old, I was too old to go to high school. I attended a community college, transfered to Berkeley to study nuclear physics. I am now a Physics PhD student at MIT. I am now a naturalized U.S. citizen. I applied for all fellowships that I am elligible such as NSF, DOE CSGF, DOE SSGF, Hertz, Soros, Ford, SMART, and NDSEG. I get rejected by Hertz for two cycles and NSF, Soros, DOE CSGF so far. I still have 5 fellowship application pending (DOE CSGF and DOE SSGF are not submitted yet).

I just wonder how to win (or even just get honorable mention or even just move to the interview) these fellowships. I have similar experience when I applied for REU. I applied to about 20 REUs and got an only one REU because the PI was Chinese. I suspect there are connections requirement for some fellowships, which I obviously do not have. Do you think you have any suggestion for my future career in academia if I end up with not getting any fellowships. I also attach the comments of my reviewers from NSF GRFP here. NSF GRFP Comments. Thank you for your inputs.

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    Have you discussed this with your advisor? Or any of your professors? They are the contacts who could be helping you with your applications. Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 16:01
  • I have rolled back the edit so that the question and answer can be of help to others with similar problems. If you want the question deleted please just use the "delete" option.
    – Drecate
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 23:35
  • @Drecate: A user can't delete their own question if it has an upvoted answer, an accepted answer, or multiple answers. All of those apply here. Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 23:47
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    @user67369: I wouldn't know off the top of my head whether any particular person got fellowships or not. (That's some indication of how little it matters.) But lots of academics have CVs on their website, and those would usually list fellowships if they received any. Remember, though, that correlation is not causation - even if a high proportion of successful people received fellowships, it does not follow that a fellowship is necessary, or even significantly helpful, in achieving future success. Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 23:51
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    In addition to what @NateEldredge says, please don't take as example someone who started their career almost 70 years ago: the academic market changes with time, and such an example is nowadays totally irrelevant. Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 19:55

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Most physics graduate students at MIT (and elsewhere) are not supported by fellowships. Certainly, a fellowship would not hurt, but whether or not you get a fellowship will have very little impact on your future career. What will matter in the long term will be the quality of your research.

As a graduate student, both your research output and faculty members' evaluations of your research skills will be important. As you advance further, it will be your personal research quality that will most matter. Other factors, like the quality of your teaching and presentation skills, will affect whether you get good jobs, but whether you had a prestigious fellowship in graduate school will be basically irrelevant.

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  • Thank you very much for you answer. It is quite frustrating not getting one fellowship. I am worried about my future grant applications if I plan to stay in academia. I think I just do not understand how to get funding. I think I should talk to my advisor for my next year's application. This is my first year and I have not done a lot of research. I think my advisor will be able to help me in my next year's application.
    – user67369
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 18:42
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    Having seen many applications, it is easy to tell which students had advisers who had looked over the application and given their input, and those who hadn't. That's because you can't write good applications (or papers, or basically anything else) if you don't know how good applications look like. You should definitely talk to your adviser about this. Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 1:33
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The undergrad REU is a very different species compared to graduate fellowship, and if I were you I would not draw too much parallel between them.

From the NFS reviewer's comment you linked to in your question, I think the problem with your application is not with your technical background, but it has more to do with a lack of "soft skills" and a clear understanding of the funding agency's requirement. Remember that fellowship application is not just a numbers game. If you make the same mistake in every application, then the chance of rejection is going to be correlated.

As others have made clear, a one time failure in fellowship application is not the end of your career, but I think the failure is nonetheless a revealing experience that should be taken seriously. My suggestion for you is that you should find people with experience in fellowship application and seek out their advice on the appropriate style and scope of such applications. Specifically, you should read the reviewers' comments very carefully to understand why exactly your application is rejected. A broader suggestion, based on your bio, is that you should socialize more with your colleagues who have a better handle of the American culture. As one reviewer for your NSF application pointed out, some statement you made in your application suggests certain language habit that some may consider to be naive and lack in sophistication. Although this is probably not a make-or-break problem for your career, knowing how to put things in a diplomatic way will certainly reflect well on you in the long term.

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  • This: "If you make the same mistake in every application, then the chance of rejection is going to be correlated." Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 1:35

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