GRFP: A Graduate student’s Reflection on Framing her Potential
by Katherine Lazenby
The University of Iowa
As an awardee of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), I want to share my experience preparing for submission (and deciding to apply in the first place) to the program. I found applying to the program to be a valuable experience, and receiving the award has afforded me many opportunities, such as agency over my research directions and the ability to travel and share my work at conferences. I hope my perspectives will help future graduate students write compelling and competitive proposals!
For those who are unfamiliar with GRFP, it’s a program intended to fund researchers early in their career (senior undergraduates who are grad school-bound, and first- and second-year graduate students). Currently (2019), GRFP provides three years of funding, including a $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 for academic costs like tuition, fees, and travel. (For more info on GRFP, see https://www.nsfgrfp.org/general_resources/about)
The mantra of the program is that they “fund people not projects,” and the stated goal of the program is to support students who demonstrate the potential to be “life-long leaders that contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching.” Ooof, that’s kind of a lot of pressure for a first or second-year graduate student.
When a faculty member at my university encouraged me to attend a GRFP workshop, I knew nothing about the program but wiggled around my teaching obligations to attend anyway. I left the workshop a bit deflated, having interpreted this “life-long leaders in science innovation” description of the program to mean that there exists a subset of people who are high-achieving, brilliant, full of potential, *sparkly* and fundable. The workshop had been attended by students with several years of previous research experience at large research-intensive universities and prestigious internships who asked all the right questions and seemed to have been groomed for the program. I felt that surely I, with all of a semester of undergraduate research experience at a small liberal arts institution, wasn’t the type of person that would be successful in applying to GRFP; I wasn’t like them.
But it is this idea – the idea that there’s a type of person that is likely to be awarded GRFP – that I want to challenge.
The process of writing and revising my application materials into what was ultimately a funded application included feedback from an army of people; I worked with the graduate college at my university, my advisor, CER graduate students and postdocs, previous winners in other departments, our department research and writing support person, and graduate students who had applied unsuccessfully, and little pieces from all of those people ended up in my application. The role of feedback from other people was not to help me figure out which story to tell – I knew my story – but rather help me present my story in the best way, to frame my experiences in a way that was *sparkly*.
It is not easy to write about yourself in this way; as a person who identifies as a Midwesterner (maybe you knew this from the Ooof above) and a female, I had been socialized to communicate about my experiences humbly, to make them small instead of notable, unpretentious instead of worthy of the “life-long leaders in scientific innovation and teaching” description. The tendency for people from certain groups to conform to what is known as “modesty norm” (see for example, Smith & Huntoon, 2013) made this kind of self-promotive writing particularly uncomfortable, but I believe that the challenge of learning to convey my story as extraordinary (in two pages or less) is one that I believe will support me far beyond my GRFP application.
Six months before submission, I wrote what I now refer to as “the roughest draft” with the intention of getting feedback from others in my department. Not much of the roughest draft made it into the submitted materials, but receiving feedback on the roughest draft spring boarded the process of reframing my story. To illustrate, the following passages come from the roughest draft and the final draft, respectively. They tell the same story – that my undergraduate research didn’t go as planned, but I perceive it as an experience that ultimately lead me to pursue CER as a graduate student.
An excerpt from “the roughest draft” of my Personal Statement regarding my undergraduate research experience:
“…involvement waned until I was forced to step in as a CSI mentor to maintain the program at all, virtually abandoning my role as a researcher. And despite dazzlingly underwhelming (and mostly non-existent) results, Dr. X remained supportive and ever determined to instill in me the tenacity and persistence it takes to produce valuable research. From my undergraduate research experience, I did not publish a paper in any journal...”
An excerpt from the final draft:
“I initially set out to characterize the undergraduate mentors' experience through passive observation and pre- and post-experience interviews; however, faced with waning volunteer mentor involvement, I embraced a new role as the lead CSI student mentor, and the research became an immersive, ethnographic experience. Despite changes to the original research plan, my program succeeded in its first aim, to provide an opportunity for schoolchildren to participate in science, and it has continued since my graduation, involving nearly 80 children annually. Additionally, I, too, was engaging in the sorts of realistic activities that science education researchers often do. I had learned to plan investigations of teaching and learning, to ask the appropriate sorts of questions for this field, to collect and analyze qualitative data. I had acquired a realistic understanding of the challenges involved in research, the ability to think independently, and perhaps most importantly, a desire to pursue research in chemistry education and a lasting commitment to educational science outreach.”
When my feedback group finished reading the roughest draft, the feedback was generally that someone who describes their work as ‘dazzlingly underwhelming’ and unpublishable is not the type of person who will be awarded GRFP. And they were right – kind of.
While I initially took their feedback to mean that I was inherently not the type of person who could write a successful application, upon reflection, I don’t think such a thing exists. Between the roughest draft and the submitted draft, I reframed my failing research as a willingness to adapt and take on leadership roles, my non-publishable work as a self-sustaining outreach program, and I claimed for myself an ability to think independently instead of framing any benefits I received as a product of my research advisor’s determination.
I don’t believe that, based on my experience, I can offer the definitively best way to prepare GRFP application materials. However, some of my experiences in preparing to apply for GRFP stand out as major contributors to my success:
Be willing to promote yourself, and recognize that self-promotive writing is both a difficult and valuable skill
Find a “feedback army” from many different backgrounds
Use bolding and italicizing to draw readers’ attention
Allow plenty of time for revisions; start early
There is no type of person who wins GRFP; GRFP winners are those who can convey that a “dazzlingly underwhelming” experience can also be a learning experience and critical point in the research journeys of young scientists with the potential to change the world.