The University of Iowa

NSF GRFP Fellowship Community

Fellowships Community events for Fall 2020:

  • GRFP Virtual Kickoff - August 6, 2020 (2-3:30 PM Central)
  • Upcoming for Fall semester 2020: GRFP Writing Course (GRAD 5800)
    • The Graduate College is offering a 7-week, 1 s.h. online course focused exclusively on helping you write a strong GRFP application.  The course will walk you through the writing process, give opportunities to hone your statements, learn about how reviewers evaluate materials, and how to write about your work and career path concisely and compellingly.  To get permission to register or learn more, please email Brady Krien (braden-krien[@]
  • On-going: individual advising and writing feedback appointments for graduate students and undergraduates


Fall 2020 Overview grfp logo



The NSF GRFP (National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program) is open to graduate students in research-based Master’s or doctoral programs in chemistry, computer & information sciences, engineering, geosciences, life sciences, materials research, mathematical sciences, physics & astronomy, psychology, social sciences, and STEM education & learning research.  Fellows receive 3 years of support with a $34,000 stipend and a $12,000 cost of education allowance each year.  University of Iowa graduate students applicants are also eligible for the Fellowship Incentive Program ($400 for applying if feedback from both a faculty advisor and fellowships advisor is obtained before submitting to NSF--full details on webpage).

Page Contents

Key Components
Resources for Applicants (including Writing Feedback)
Resources for Letter Writers
Community Contacts
Media Coverage

Key Components

Eligibility:  Official NSF GRFP eligibility information is described here.  Briefly, eligibility is determined by discipline, degree program, citizenship, program stage, and research topic.

  • You must be in a STEM field described in the “Overview” section (and more fully here) pursuing a research-based Master’s or doctoral degree (e.g., MS, PhD).
  • Example ineligible degrees: MD/PhD, MPH, MSW, MD, DDS
  • You must be a U.S. citizen, national, or permanent resident
  • You must have completed no more than 12 months of full-time graduate study by the application deadline (the in-progress Fall 2020 semester is not yet considered "completed".) Current graduate students at the start of year 1 or year 2 of either a research-based Master’s program or a PhD program can apply; if you are starting a PhD program immediately after completing a Master’s degree, you are not eligible.
    • As of 2016, you can apply only once as a graduate student—if you apply in year 1, you cannot reapply in year 2. (More information)
    • Starting Fall 2018, if you have a prior Master’s degree, prior professional degree, or previously completed 1 academic year in a graduate program, you are eligible only if you (1) “have had a continuous interruption in graduate study of at least two consecutive years immediately prior to the application deadline” and (2) "are not enrolled in a degree-granting graduate program at the application deadline" (criterion 2 is new as of 2018-2019)
    • Starting Fall 2019, combined Bachelor's and Master's students will be able to apply only once (i.e., your application will count as the one graduate student submission you are allowed as of policy changes in 2016.)
  • NSF does not fund clinical practice (e.g., counseling, social work, epidemiological studies, outcomes research, health services research, intervention trials) or research that is directly health-related (e.g., causes of diseases, disease diagnosis, disease treatment, any intervention to prevent diseases, community or population medical interventions.)

Application components are described more extensively at the official NSF GRFP page.  Briefly, they include:

  • Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement (3 pages, single-spaced)
  • Graduate Research Plan Statement (2 pages, single-spaced)
  • Reference letters (3 minimum, 5 maximum)
  • Transcripts for all institutions you have attended
  • Follow all formatting instructions in the program solicitation and official FAQs exactly!

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Resources for Applicants

Feedback Appointments

  • The UI Graduate Success Office (grad-success[@] works with UI graduate students at any stage of NSF GRFP proposal development--both planning/advising meetings and writing feedback on any stage drafts.  We strongly recommend booking appointments well in advance, as Fall semester is the busiest season for fellowships.  If you are applying for the NSF GRFP and none of the default online options work with your schedule, please contact us—we will find additional scheduling options.
  • Kelly Thornburg (kelly-thornburg[@] is the Director of Scholar Development at the University of Iowa Honors Program.  Undergraduate applicants can request individual appointments and do not need to be members of Honors at Iowa to access NSF GRFP support.
  • Additional fellowship advisors who can work with students affiliated with specific departments or centers include Amy Charles, Department of Chemistry, Carmen Langel, IIHR--Hydroscience and Engineering, Kristine Hardin (Neurology), and others listed here.


Reference Letters: The best letters are from people who can best comment on your activities and qualities that are most relevant to the fellowship’s evaluation criteria—for the NSF GRFP, your references collectively should be able to address your Intellectual Merit (past research and future potential as a researcher) and your Broader Impacts (ways that you personally make a positive difference in society—can be through research, teaching, outreach, volunteering, etc.). The Graduate College has developed a fillable worksheet for the GRFP that you can share with your advisor to help them write a more effective letter of recommendation. It can be accessed here (with hawkid and password). 

  • Letters of Recommendation” by The IU GradGrants Center, Indiana University (introductory guide to picking and working with letter writers)
  • Writing a Letter of Recommendation,” an extremely useful resource for students and faculty by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (advice is generalizable across fields)



Example Materials

For all examples, please note that formatting requirements may have changed since previous years (e.g., see official FAQs about font size for references in your proposal.)


Incentive Programs:  Preparing a competitive application for the NSF GRFP requires a great deal of thought, time, and effort that helps you further develop your research ideas and writing skills.  In recognition of this investment and the benefits, UI graduate student applicants for the NSF GRFP can be eligible for several different incentive programs:


  • Fellowship Incentive Program (FIP): Graduate students who get feedback on a developed draft of their application from both a fellowships advisor (see list on FIP website) and their dissertation advisor before submitting the final version to NSF can be eligible for a $400 award independent of the funding decision outcome. 
    • If you plan to work with a comparable fellowships advisor not listed on the FIP homepage, please have them e-mail in advance to ensure coordination with the Fellowship Incentive Program. 
  • College of Engineering Graduate Incentive Fellowship (GIF): Engineering graduate students can receive $100 for a national fellowship submission with proof of submission.
  • Supplement for External Fellowship (SEF) Program: Graduate students (A) in a basic science, Biomedical Sciences, Genetics, or Neuroscience Ph.D. program with (B) a faculty mentor in the Carver College of Medicine (CCOM) who (C) win an individual national fellowship (such as either of the Ford Foundation fellowships) can receive an additional $2000 per year that the fellowship award payment is active.


Broader Impacts Resources:  NSF GRFP applications are evaluated on Intellectual Merit (potential to advance knowledge based on your previous experiences and proposed research) and Broader Impacts (potential to make a positive impact on the world).  Broader Impacts can be made through your research and/or your own outreach and volunteering activities.  Here is a non-exhaustive list of campus and area organizations that may align with your own interests.


Official NSF GRFP Resources: NSF is always the final, authoritative source of information about the NSF GRFP.  Read all of their information carefully.


Unofficial NSF GRFP Resources

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Resources for Letter Writers

Review Criteria and Reviewer Perspectives

  • Reviewers for the NSF GRFP are evaluating applicants on not only the rigor of their proposed research project and their previous research experience (although these factors are still important to address the Intellectual Merit criterion!); applicants are also being evaluated on Broader Impacts—the potential for the applicant themselves and their research to benefit society. 
  • NSF seeks “individuals with the demonstrated potential to be high achieving scientists and engineers” (solicitation Introduction); the most helpful recommendation letters will include specific examples and details providing that demonstration. 
    • Asserting that a student is “a great leader” is less persuasive than giving evidence from the student’s activities in lab, courses, teaching, and/or outreach.  Saying an applicant is “the most promising student I’ve seen at this point in a degree program” would be an even more powerful statement with quantitative scope (“[…] in # years of mentoring # doctoral students”) and/or qualitative context (“[…]in terms of initiative to seek further training opportunities and the ability to critically analyze primary research papers”) to clearly state the reasons the student is promising.  With over 13,000 applicants in the 2016-2017 cycle, reviewers will not be able to give the benefit of the doubt by extrapolating possible context from a positive but vague description.
  • Reviewer perspectives, older (ca. 2002) but still useful; content specific to reference letters is in section 4

Reference Letter Resources

  • Writing a Letter of Recommendation”, an extremely useful collection of advice from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (advice is generalizable across fields). 
    • Particularly note pp. 10-11 and 15-19 for examples of how many small word choice differences (often unconsciously done when describing female vs. male applicants) can add up to a substantially stronger or weaker impression of an applicant.
  • A Nature article by Dutt et al. (2016) found that letter writers from the Americas tend to write longer letters than writers from other geographic regions (Table 3).  Be aware of the potential impact of cultural differences in how lengthy or superlative a letter is expected to be—especially if most reviewers will be used to letters from writers in the Americas.
    • Also see Table 2 and “Methods” section for a summary of letter qualities that surveyed senior faculty interpreted as “excellent,” “good,” or “doubtful.”

Official NSF GRFP Resources

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Community Contacts

Fellowships Advisors:

  • The UI Graduate Success Office (grad-success[@] works with UI graduate students at any stage of NSF GRFP proposal development--both planning/advising meetings and writing feedback on any stage drafts.  We strongly recommend booking appointments well in advance, as Fall semester is the busiest season for fellowships.  If you are applying for the NSF GRFP and none of the default online options work with your schedule, please contact us—we will find additional scheduling options.
  • Kelly Thornburg (kelly-thornburg[@] is the Director of Scholar Development at the University of Iowa Honors Program.  Undergraduate applicants can request an individual appointment here, and presentation/workshop support can be requested by email.  Applicants do not need to be members of Honors at Iowa to access NSF GRFP support.
  • Additional fellowship advisors who can work with students affiliated with specific departments or centers are listed on the Fellowship Incentive Program homepage.

Faculty, staff, and students willing to work with graduate student NSF GRFP applicants:

  • Johnathan Culpepper (Graduate Student, Chemistry) – GRFP fellow, student mentor
    • Student Q&A - email
    • Student Q&A - meetings                             
    • Feedback - Extensive (more extensive, may include written/typed comments)
      • Contact: johnathan-culpepper[@], 319-530-8272
  • Cathleen Moore (Faculty, Psychology) – GRFP fellow, mentor
    • Student Q&A - email
    • Student Q&A - phone
    • Student Q&A - meetings
      • Contact: cathleen-moore[@], 319-335-3427
  • Mo Payne (Graduate Student, Chemistry) – Honorable Mention
    • Student Q&A - email
    • Student Q&A - meetings             
    • Feedback - General (overall impressions only, no written/typed comments)      
    • Feedback - Extensive (more extensive, may include written/typed comments)
      • Contact: maurice-payne[@]
  • Mary Hall Reno (Faculty, Physics) - reviewer
    • Student Q&A - email
    • Student Q&A - phone
    • Student Q&A - meetings             
    • Feedback - General (overall impressions only, no written/typed comments)
      • Contact: mary-hall-reno[@], 319-335-1920

For specific eligibility and submission questions, please also contact NSF through the official GRFP homepage: 

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Media Coverage

Read about current and previous University of Iowa graduate student NSF GRFP winners:

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How do I know if my research is too clinical or health-related for the NSF GRFP?

  • NSF describes ineligible topics in Section IV.3 of the program solicitation.  In general, long-term possible benefits to health (e.g., after you’ve completed your graduate program) are acceptable as long as basic or translational research is the primary focus of your graduate research that would be supported by NSF for the next several years.  However, research into the causes of diseases or other health conditions is still considered too clinical.  Because the answer is highly dependent on the type of research you are proposing to do, it is best to ask a Community Contact reviewer (listed above) and/or NSF itself for clarification for your particular project.

What types of activities are considered to be Broader Impacts?

  • The NSF GRFP homepage describes Broader Impacts more fully, as do the official GRFP Powerpoint Presentation and this archived list of example Broader Impacts
  • Broadly speaking, Broader Impacts must make a positive impact on society in ways that NSF considers particularly beneficial.  The type of impact and way in which you make that impact—through your research outcomes, through activities related to your research, or through complementary activities you are doing—are relatively flexible as long as you show a sustained commitment, past, present, and future. 
  • Example Broader Impacts and ways they might be enacted (not an exhaustive list):
    • Science education and engagement across multiple settings and formats
      • Research:
        • Research projects directly related to STEM education
        • Mentoring students while doing your research
        • Developing educational resources as part of your research
        • Involving the public in doing parts of your research
        • Talking about your research to the general public
      • Personal Background/Goals:
        • Teaching, tutoring, mentoring
        • Public outreach, communication, programs
    • Increasing participation in science, particularly women, underrepresented minority group members, and persons with disabilities
      • Research:
        • Talking about your research to community groups directly impacted by the topic
        • Engaging with communities affected by your research to ensure their perspectives are being heard
        • Mentoring students from underrepresented groups while doing your research
      • Personal Background/Goals:
        • Ways your own individual background has influenced your decision to pursue science, outreach activities, and/or longer-term goals
        • Sustained involvement in teaching, tutoring, mentoring students (any grade level) from groups historically or currently underrepresented in STEM
        • Public outreach, communication, programs
    • Individual-level improvements to people’s well-being
      • Research: 
        • New technologies
        • Foundational work that could lead to future, long-term health advances (i.e., not during the scope of your GRFP fellowship)
      • Personal Background/Goals:
        • Previous involvement in projects that had the above “research” outcomes
        • Volunteering
    • Broader, structural improvements to science as a whole
      • Research:
        • New infrastructure or resources directly related to your project that would be shared with other researchers or educators
        • Findings that would improve the US economy, national security, and/or STEM workforce
        • Establishing or strengthening collaborations across different employment sectors (e.g., academia and industry)
      • Personal Background/Goals:
        • Previous involvement in projects that had the above “research” outcomes
        • Involvement in non-research activities or training in multiple employment sectors
        • Developing other research or educational resources (not directly related to your project) that would be shared with other researchers or educators

That’s a lot of possible Broader Impacts activities.   Do I have to be involved with everything on that list?

  • Not literally, no.  Focusing on a few quality Broader Impacts—ones with a substantial positive effect, long-term sustained involvement, and clearly well-planned ways to continue in the future—will be a better demonstration of your own personal approach to making a difference than a long list of activities with only minimal involvement. That said, you absolutely should brainstorm all possible ways you and your project could have positive effects on the world so that you can decide which ones to prioritize for the two essays (and/or ask your reference letter writers to mention.)  Most of the previous UI winners and honorable mentions in our library of donated fellowships (login to Sharepoint using your HawkID--hawkid[@], not first-last[@] password to view examples) discussed at least 2 distinct types of Broader Impacts activities in each essay; their example combinations of activities (not prescriptive) include:
    • Personal Background/Goals
      • Science fair judging, lab tours, K-12 science outreach events, Latinx mentoring; long-term plans for developing mentoring programs with specific resources for students from diverse backgrounds
      • Mentoring undergraduate students of color, volunteer English teaching overseas, role model as a researcher of color
      • Middle school health education program design and implementation; future plans to bring anthropological perspective to public health in collaborations, teach culture/identity applications to health to future health professional students 
      • Tutoring in high school and as undergraduate, undergraduate TA, mentoring middle school and high school students, science outreach event; role model as woman in STEM; plans to continue mentoring with specific local organizations, obtain Certificate in College Teaching
      • Teaching others about the specific subject matter and applications of the broader research approach; previous basic research later translated into clinical settings; K-12 and MESA tutoring, high school science fair coaching; plans for Certificate in College Teaching 
      • Multiple-year involvement in program preparing under-represented students to enter PhD programs, summer STEM tutoring for minority high school students; future plans to expand mentoring with established programs, use Spanish language skills for multiple-language public science outreach talks
      • Undergraduate TA, tutor, supplemental instructor (including for program serving students from culturally diverse backgrounds); continued teaching with emphasis on increasing eventual public awareness of environment via non-majors courses; future plans for museum collaborations, using advisor’s contacts with area schools for educational outreach
    • Research Plan
      • Safer drinking water, K-12 and community outreach talking about research
      • Open source software to share with the scientific community, basic research on proteins also relevant to diseases (long-term possible applications), taught high school students about the project and acted as role model (women in STEM) as part of on-going outreach program
      • Earthquake prediction applications, future plans for museum and K-12 outreach about research, plans to train graduate student peers in outreach activities
      • Latinx conference research talks, mentoring students from groups underrepresented in STEM
      • How individuals understand health messages as applied to their lives, longer-term possible applications to public health
      • Public research talks, basic research about brain could have later translation applications for clinical treatments


I’m a first-year graduate student.  Should I apply in year 1 or year 2 of my graduate program?


  • There is no universally right answer—it depends on when you will be able to present the most compelling case to reviewers relative to other applicants at a similar stage of their program (i.e., year 1 applicants will be compared to other year 1 applicants, and so on.)  Year 2 applicants face the highest expectations from reviewers—it is not uncommon to expect preliminary data for the dissertation research topic, conference presentations, at least 1 publication from your graduate work, etc.  These are all great research accomplishments to aim for anyway, but you should talk with your (prospective) research advisor(s) about whether these outcomes would be realistically achievable for your particular project(s) by the start of year 2--especially if you are in a program that does year 1 rotations.  If not, you may have stronger chances applying in year 1 with a well-developed future research plan.
    • Note: It is all right if your actual dissertation research topics end up changing from your Research Plan as long as your project stays generally within the same discipline (e.g., proposal is Biochemistry and stays in Biochemistry.)  As long you present an example dissertation research topic that you could do as described, you will demonstrate to reviewers that you could plan and do a comparable proposal on a different topic.

How much will my reviewers know about my research topic?

  • Your reviewers will all be STEM researchers (PhDs/faculty) in broadly the same discipline as you—for example, if you are in Engineering and pick the “Biomedical Engineering” subfield, all of your reviewers will be biomedical engineers.  However, there is no way to predict whether you will get a world expert in your specific topic or someone who works in the most different approach possible while still being within the same subfield.  Your application should withstand an expert’s scrutiny yet still be understandable to a non-specialist reader from your subfield.
  • Consulting the list of primary and speciality fields is critical because it determines what information will or will not be common knowledge to your reviewers.  In previous years, the NSF GRFP "Choosing Primary Field" page had listed projected review panels, though they were not posted for Fall 2018.  Fall 2017 context is included below for reference, but please check the official NSF GRFP page for any Fall 2019 updates.
    • [Fall 2017 context] The indented bullet points on the NSF field listing page are the ones you will select on the online application form (e.g., Life Sciences -Proteomics).  However, the projected review panel will be the corresponding section heading with larger font (e.g., Genetics, Genomics, & Proteomics).  Although you may be preferentially matched with reviewers in your specific subfield (e.g., Proteomics), it is best to write to be understood by someone from any of the bulleted categories within the review panel (e.g., Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, Genetics, Genomics, or Proteomics).
      • [Fall 2017 context] Note: Some prospective review panels are especially broad! For example, the "Sociology & Geographic Science" panel includes Geography, History and Philosophy of Science, Science Policy, Sociology, and Urban and Regional Planning.
      • [Fall 2017 context] Note: NSF's "Choosing Primary Field" page includes the following disclaimer: "While it is possible that the actual panel composition may vary slightly based on the number of submitted applications in individual fields, the information [on their page] may be taken as a general guide for the likely panel arrangement."

What is routing, and do I have to do routing for this application?

  • Routing with the Division of Sponsored Programs (DSP) requires the final versions of your materials to be submitted to DSP on their website 5 business days before the deadline on the funding organization’s website (see the DSP website for more information).  Routing is mandatory for awards that require a faculty member or the university itself to submit the application on your behalf (examples: NSF DDRIG, NIH F31/F30/R36). 
  • Because you submit the NSF GRFP application yourself, independently, as an individual, you do not have to complete routing to submit the application.  You, the applicant, are solely responsible for submitting your materials to the funding agency by the deadline.
  • If you win the NSF GRFP, you will need to contact DSP as soon as possible to set up an award management account in the UI system.

Do I need to submit my fellowship application materials to the Graduate College before they are submitted to the funding agency?

  • No.  The Graduate College can give writing feedback on your application (content, clarity, style, accessibility to a non-specialist reader) that we strongly encourage you to utilize; getting feedback from a fellowships specialist is also part of the FIP eligibility requirements.  However, this feedback is not required to submit a GRFP application to NSF.

Does the Graduate College submit my application materials for me?

  • No.  You, the applicant, are solely responsible for submitting your materials to the funding agency by the deadline. 

Is this opportunity Fellowship Incentive Program (FIP)-eligible?

  • Yes, you are eligible for a $400 application incentive award if you work with your faculty advisor and get feedback from a fellowships advisor before submitting the final GRFP materials to NSF.   Read more about FIP here.

Who are the fellowships advisors I have to meet with to be FIP-eligible?

  • The FIP homepage lists many options for fellowships advisors for students in: Chemistry, Social Sciences, Neurology, IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering, and the Carver College of Medicine (CCOM); the Grad Success Office can work with graduate students in any discipline.  If you are working with another fellowships advisor in your department who fills a similar role, please have them contact us at in advance to ensure coordination with the Fellowship Incentive Program. 
  • DSP reviews grant applications only for completion and formatting, not content or clarity of writing style; therefore, DSP routing is not a substitute for feedback from a fellowships advisor.

I’m a previous winner, honorable mention, reviewer, or mentor who would like to be a Community Contact or workshop participant.  How can I have my name added to the list?

  • Filling out this Qualtrics form will let you send us your contact information and the ways in which you would like to be involved.  If you have additional questions, please contact grad-success[@]  Thank you for your willingness to share your expertise!

How much time does it take to write an application for this fellowship?

  • Longer than you may think!  Even though the two NSF GRFP essays are only a total of 5 pages together, shorter applications are often the most challenging because every word is valuable in such limited space.  Writing for a reviewer who isn’t a specialist in your topic (and who will be reading about you and your project for the first time) is a distinct challenge compared to writing for an all-specialist audience (such as a journal, your advisor, and other people in your research group). 
  • The specific amount of time varies, but you should allow ample time for:
    • Brainstorming on your own and with others
    • Contacting prospective reference writers to see if they’re willing to write a strong, positive letter for you
    • Drafting an outline
    • Writing the first draft
    • Revising the draft to where you are comfortable having others read it
    • Getting feedback from specialist readers (e.g., your advisor, other people in your research group) and non-specialist readers (e.g., fellowships advisors, other trusted friends/family/mentors)
    • Making revisions, final editing
    • Sending final or near-final versions of your materials to your reference writers
    • Submitting to the funding agency (NOT at the last minute)

How can I find other fellowship opportunities?

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