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NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

1 October 2012 3,205 views One Comment
This column is written for statisticians with master’s degrees and highlights areas of employment that will benefit statisticians at the master’s level. Comments and suggestions should be sent to Megan Murphy, Amstat News managing editor, at megan@amstat.org.

Contributing Editors
Meredith Berthelson is pursuing her PhD in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Montana. She earned her master’s of interdisciplinary studies at the University of Montana, and her undergraduate career was spent at Montana State University, where she earned her BS in mathematics.
Jennifer Slimowitz Pearl serves as a program director in the Division of Mathematical Sciences at the National Science Foundation. She earned her PhD in mathematics, specializing in symplectic geometry from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and her BS in mathematics from Duke University.

Many students getting ready to graduate with their baccalaureate degrees contemplate graduate studies or plan to continue their education. One of the major obstacles can be funding: Students who have just finished their undergraduate education may not want to add more tuition bills to the pile. If only there were a way to help them continue their education and execute some of the research they wish to do. Ah, but there is! One of the most valuable funding mechanisms for mathematics and statistics graduate students is the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).

Director of the NSF Division of Mathematical Sciences Sastry Pantula stated, “[The] NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (or an honorable mention in the competition) is certainly a feather in any future scientist’s cap! There are many well-qualified mathematics and statistics students in this country, and I would love to see many, many more of them take advantage of this excellent opportunity.”

Tips for Students

To enter the competition, you need to submit a complete application via NSF FastLane. The application consists of a personal statement, description of previous research experience, proposed plan of research, and transcripts. Part of the application also includes three letters of reference, submitted separately via FastLane by the reference writers.

Reviewers evaluate the applications based on intellectual merit and broader impacts. For intellectual merit, you will need to demonstrate your academic capability and other conventional requisites for scholarly, scientific study. Details such as the ability to plan and conduct research, work in a team as well as independently, and interpret and communicate research are useful.

To demonstrate broader impacts, convey how your research will contribute on a larger scale to society and the breadth of its audience. Will it encourage diversity, broaden opportunities, and allow participation of all citizens in science and research? If so, this should be evident to the reviewer.

When preparing your application, you should be clear and specific, so the reviewer doesn’t struggle as he or she is reading the application. Describe your experiences—whether they are personal, professional, or educational—that have been factors in your preparation and that have driven you to pursue graduate study. Be detailed about your involvement in any scientific research activities and what you learned from those experiences. If you have not been involved with any direct research, then describe any activities you think have prepared you to start research. Also don’t let the reader try to glean from your writing that you “could” be a leader in some capacity. Instead, describe your leadership potential directly. How do you see yourself contributing to research, education, and innovation? Provide the reviewers with your career aspirations and specific goals you hope to accomplish. You need to sell yourself in your application.

In 2012, the GRFP awarded 2,000 fellowships; only 75 of those were to students in mathematics and statistics (3.75%).

What are the key elements of the fellowship? It is a five-year award worth $126,000. The NSF graduate fellow receives three years of support (useable over a five-year period). For each of these three years, the fellow receives a $30,000 stipend and the graduate institution receives a $12,000 educational allowance to cover tuition and all required fees. The fellow also has access to international research opportunities and supercomputing resources.

Eligible applicants must be either a U.S. citizen or national or permanent resident and an early-career graduate student pursuing a research-based master’s or doctoral degree in an NSF-supported field. In mathematical and statistical sciences, the following categories are included:

  • Algebra, number theory, and combinatorics
  • Analysis
  • Applied mathematics
  • Biostatistics
  • Computational and data-enabled science
  • Computational mathematics
  • Computational statistics
  • Geometric analysis
  • Logic or foundations of mathematics
  • Mathematical biology
  • Probability
  • Statistics
  • Topology
  • Other (related fields)

Applicants must be planning to enroll in an accredited institution in the United States by the fall following announcement of the award. Anyone who has already received a graduate degree is not eligible.

Adam Kapelner and Gina-Maria Pomann, two current NSF graduate fellows, hammer home the importance of some of these requirements. Adam earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science at Stanford University and is working on his PhD in statistics at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His research involves machine learning and model selection. He attributes the GRFP for giving him the time to be able to immerse himself in his research and, as a result, submitting his work to and publishing in various journals. He is helping lead the charge in assisting interested students in his department with their applications to the GRF. When asked what advice Adam could give students interested in applying to the GRF, he stated his best recommendation would be for candidates to describe their research experience. “Can you make an impact in science? You need to illustrate your potential in research,” he said. He also acknowledged that he heard about the fellowship through a friend who thought it might be beneficial when applying to graduate school.

Gina-Maria Pomann is pursuing her PhD in statistics at North Carolina State University. Her research interests are functional data analysis with applications to magnetic resonance imaging and dynamic treatment regimens. She thinks the GRF, in combination with her AT&T Labs fellowship, has allowed her to work on an array of projects as well as with different mentors.

Gina-Maria started out earning an AS degree from Middlesex County College and then transferred to The College of New Jersey, where she earned her bachelor’s in mathematics with a minor in statistics. Gina-Maria first learned about graduate school and the GRF at the Mathematical Science Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP). MSRI-UP also took Gina-Maria and her fellow participants to a Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) conference, where the students were further informed about the GRF and other opportunities. Her advice to students seeking a GRF is, “Get as much undergraduate research experience as possible!” She said her early research experiences helped her focus her research interests and write her GRF application.

For the NSF solicitation, more information, and tips from awardees and reviewers, visit the NSF GRFP website, call (866) 673-4737, or email info@nsfgradfellows.org. For access to online applications, user guides, and other official announcements, log on to the FastLane website.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of IMS Bulletin.

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