Hello Graduate Students,
Our GradFunding Advice this month comes from Logan Pearce, a PhD student in Astronomy. She shares her astute approach to fellowship applications and some excellent tips for success.
My name is Logan Pearce and I am in the 2nd year of my PhD program in Astronomy. I study how planetary systems form around stars. More specifically, I use a technique called high contrast imaging to study the few planets we can directly observe with a telescope and search for more planets. Observing planets directly is extremely difficult because they are faint and close to their bright host star, so we use advanced optical observing and data reduction techniques to remove the starlight and reveal the faint planet light hiding underneath. I am beginning a project that involves imaging young planets that are still forming from the dusty disk material around their star.
Throughout my college experience, I have had the attitude of “casting a wide net” – apply for everything you can and some of them just might land. This approach has served me well in undergrad and in my first years of grad school; I’ve had many successful applications, but I’ve also had plenty of rejections! With each rejection, I teach myself not to take it personally and to recognize that that was simply not my path. I will end up on a different path than I expected, and that’s ok. It can sting, of course, but I try to focus on what I learned from the process and where I can go next. Here are some of the tips I have learned along the way from both my successes and rejections:
Find the right fit
Recently, I applied for the Pat Tillman Foundation Scholarship for veterans. I did not make it past the first round. But through that process, I learned that the fellowship did not really match my direction for my career, which was an important lesson. Fellowships usually come with obligations beyond just receiving the money, so it’s important that the fellowship is a good fit for you as well as you for them.
Start early and get feedback from multiple perspectives
I received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP) in 2019, my senior undergraduate year. Because I was not yet in graduate school, I did not have a plan or even an idea for a thesis project; in fact, I didn’t even know where I was going for grad school. For that reason, it was a big challenge to craft a compelling research proposal for the GRFP as an undergraduate. I started early (in August for an October deadline) and worked with a faculty member in my research group to develop a solid project idea related to the work I had done in undergrad. I asked my research advisor to review my proposal as well. Additionally, I asked another astronomy faculty member who did not do research in my field to review the proposal to ensure it was not too technical. I revised many many times. I believe all of the feedback was key to my success, which is why it is vital to start early and seek multiple avenues of feedback.
Seek out examples
One thing I found essential in crafting my personal statement is to see examples of successful applications. I found a website that collects successful astronomy GRFP applications and reviewed many of them, noting the things they all had in common and how they differed. This research helped me refine the style that would work best for my story. You can also ask around your department for examples of previous applications. Seeing many examples of applications is, I think, is a vital part of the process.
Pay attention to all the review criteria
One critical piece of writing for fellowships is to clearly address all the review criteria. With the GRFP, and any NSF funding opportunity, pay attention to the Broader Impacts section! A key part of the getting the GRFP award is to have strong scores on Broader Impacts, not just Intellectual Merit (the other review criterion). The Broader Impacts can be tough to make compelling, and I think applicants can tend to focus on research and minimize it. I believe my application was strong because the Broader Impacts connected deeply to my story and my background, and I could advocate for those impacts from my lived experience.
I am now an Editor for the OFCE GRFP Application Development Program. I love being able to pass on everything I’ve learned through my many applications and help people develop their own compelling applications. Remember, cast a wide net and don’t worry if you get some rejections! You’re bound to get some acceptances too! It’s all part of your academic journey.
The GradFunding Newsletter is a service of the University of Arizona Graduate College, Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement. You may distribute this article but please acknowledge the University of Arizona Graduate College Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement.