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Ndseg Fellowship Essay Examples

Fellowships & Awards

The single most useful piece of advice I was ever given for fellowship essays:

These are not literature, don't write like it. An essay for a fellowship is not a novel, it is not even the standard "essay" as you were taught in high school.

You do not have to obey the simple paragraphs of text layout style. Add bold words to draw attention to your key points, use whitespace however you want. Your goal is to make things as easy for the reader as possible.

The NSF requires that you specifically address the "Intellectual Merit" and "Broader Impact" of your proposal—put in section headings with exactly these titles and write about them. You don't need "transition sentences". In this context, they're nothing but a waste of precious space that could instead say something to bolster your case; worse, as a reader, they're just crap that I have to wade through to get to the relevant parts of your essay. The last thing you want to do is annoy your reader. Think of the volumes of essays they're reading, then put away the thesaurus and get to the point.

At the end of the day, that's really the goal: minimize the crap the reader has to process to get what you're trying to communicate. Don't let the word "essay" get in your way, if a bulleted list makes the most sense, put in bullets.

Below I've provided my essays (winning and losing) as well as any reviews that were made available to me. Hopefully they can serve as helpful examples. Particularly note the change in style from my (losing) 2012 NSF, which I would consider a "traditional essay", to the (winning) 2013 NSF, which I would consider a "fellowship essay".


Fellowship Homepage:


Fellowship Homepage:

The NDSEG has fairly restrictive rules (2013 rules). In particular, you're limited to only 3,000 characters, which requires your "essay" to be extremely concise.

Qualcomm Innovation Fellowship

Fellowship Homepage:

This fellowship is really interesting as it requires you to have a partner. I worked with Brad Campbell, a pretty awesome dude in my lab. The fellowship is (was) only open to a limited set of schools as Qualcomm grows the program. They've been adding schools every year thus far, so check the website for updated information.

  • 2013 (Won Honorable Mention [$50k instead of $100k])


In 2017, I was honored with the College of Engineering's Richard & Eleanor Towner Prize for Outstanding Graduate Student Instructors and the Rackham Graduate School's Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor awards.

While it is my supposition that these awards are highly dependent on the supporting letters and nominations (a big thank you to Marcus Darden, who led my nominations, as well as all others who wrote letters of support!), a few folks have asked me to share my statements, which I'm happy to do here:

  • College of Engineering Towner Prize – Application [pdf]
  • Rackham Graduate School Outstanding GSI – Teaching Philosophy [pdf]

Below are some examples of some of the larger OGE administered fellowships. This by no means includes all opportunities available. Please see the Fellowship Resources section of OGE’s website for more options and information. MIT’s administrative contact for all opportunities listed below as well as general fellowship information is Scott Tirrell, OGE’s Manager of Graduate Fellowships.

Jump to:


National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program

What sets the NSF GRFP apart from other fellowships is the emphasis on two specific review criteria. The first is that the applicant and his/her research have the potential to advance knowledge and understanding within the field or across different fields (intellectual merit) and that the applicant and his/her research benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes (broader impact). The entire application including the personal statement and the research proposal should touch upon these two criteria. Along with these two main review criteria, the NSF also is interested in creative, original, or potential transformative concepts; that the plan is well-reasoned, well-organized and based on sound rationale; that the plan incorporates a mechanism to assess success; that the applicant be qualified to conduct the proposed activities; and that there are adequate resources available for the proposed activities. The NSF funds the student not the project and they are looking for future STEM leaders, not just scientists and engineers. Mainly, the NSF wants to see if you can write a clear and well thought-out proposal that askes a solid research question.

Below is a list of questions you should ask yourself when preparing your research statement:

  • Do you touch on the intellectual merit (advancing knowledge) and broader impact (benefit society) of your proposed research? How would answering this research question change science (Intellectual Merit) or society (Broader Impacts)?
  • Do you have a clear knowledge of what you are proposing (are you comfortable with the topic)?
  • Do you have a clear research question that you hope to answer?
  • Do you have a plan that is well-reasoned, well-organized and based on sound rationale? With built in measures of success?
  • Can you actually carry out the needed research? Do you know how you will accomplish this plan and does your university/ PI have the adequate resources?
  • Why should the NSF fund you specifically, and not just this research question? What innovation do you specifically bring to the table?
  • What are your qualifications?

Below is a sample organization for an NSF GRFP research proposal (please also see general information on research proposals). This proposal should be heavy on the intellectual merit criteria, but should still address the broader impact criteria. It should demonstrate why the broader scientific community/ society should care about this research:

  • Introduce the scientific problem and its impact on society (i.e. address Review Criteria 1 for Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts)
  • Outline your research plan (Intellectual Merit focused)
    • Show the major steps that need to be accomplished.
    • What is the creative part of your approach?
    • Have you thought of alternatives for hard or crucial steps?
    • What skills do you have to make this plan successful?
    • Conclude with the impact this project will have on your field, general science, and society (address Broader Impacts).

Below is a sample personal statement organization (please also see general information on personal statements above):

  • Hook (~1.25 pages). This is where you tell your unique story of how you became interested in science. It is a great place to mention if you had to overcome any hardships or would be adding to the diversity of the STEM field. Use this section to address the Broader Impacts criteria. Make sure you have a good “hook” that makes you stick out as an individual and shows your passion for the field.
  • Relevant Background (~1.25 pages). Hopefully you already have research experience, so explain how that experience has prepared you for success in graduate school and beyond. Mainly use this section for Intellectual Merit, but also highlight the Broader Impacts of your research experience.
  • Future Goals (~0.5 pages). This is where you tie your personal background and scientific background into one cohesive vision for the future. It is a good place to indicate how you plan to make a broader impact on society.

National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program

This fellowship is a Department of Defense (DOD) fellowship, but does not include any service requirements. The main aim for the NDSEG is to increase the number and quality of our nation’s scientists and engineers. Their rationale is that a higher number and stronger quality of scientists and engineers benefits the security of the nation.  Although the NDSEG has rather civilian intentions and is reviewed much like the NSF GRFP by qualified scientific researchers, it is still a DOD funded fellowship. Application content and research proposed for this opportunity should have at least some military applications. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be building the better missile. The DOD has many guises and covers a large area of expertise from building bridges to supply chain to computer systems.

The NDSEG application is a pretty standardized online form. It does not require a typical research proposal and personal statement, but instead breaks up the information typically included in these essays over a series of specific questions. The NDSEG website provides a good quantity of specific information on the individual sections of their application as well as a detailed FAQ page.

Students should pay particularly close attention to the area of specialization section (shown below):

2. Area of specialization – Describe your area of specialization, if any, within your chosen discipline. For example, an applicant applying within the Physics discipline might enter ‘optics’ or ‘acoustics’ in this text box. If you do not have an area of specialization, enter the discipline.

To learn more about the areas of interest to the DoD, applicants are encouraged to consult the Broad Area Announcements for the Army Research Office, Office of Naval Research, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

The different branches of the DOD choose research of interest to them from these specializations. Basically, applications are reviewed by the NDSEG to produce a pool of qualified applicants, and then the branches of the military choose from this pool the research of strategic interest to them.  You should be sure that whatever you enter in this field you can (1) demonstrate in your application and (2) it is an area that the Army, Navy and/or Air Force is likely to fund. If you are unsure of the areas the branches of the military are interested in, you should do some research by looking at the lists included on the links above. Ideally, a student should choose a specialization that is in all three lists. This may increase your chances of receiving this fellowship by giving you the broadest appeal. It may take some thinking out or the box, but it is worth it.

Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship Program

The Hertz if a very prestigious fellowship offered by a private foundation. It is arguably one of the most competitive external fellowships that the OGE administers. As it is privately funded, it can be combined with government funded fellowships like the NSF GRFP and the Hertz foundation are actually quite flexible to allow this to happen. The goal of the Hertz Foundation is to provide fellowships to the nation’s best and brightest students who also have solid knowledge of and can apply the physical sciences. The Hertz fellowship also has a very patriotic focus, this is very important in framing the application material. Applicants offered the fellowship must make a formal commitment to make his or her “skills available to the United States in times of national emergency”. For more details, students should be sure to read over the commitment section on Hertz’s website.

The actual application is rather standard, but again students should pay attention to showcasing that they are a patriotic American and that they are astute at the application of the physical sciences. The unique part of the application process is that it is one of only a few external fellowship opportunities that require a two stage interview process. Questions on a variety of topics could be asked during these interviews from your understanding of mathematical equations to moral and ethical issues. They vary greatly from person to person. As the Hertz Fellowship has a strong focus on the application of the physical sciences, you should be sure to have a basic knowledge in a variety of areas related to physics, chemistry, and mathematics. You should also be sure to bring intelligent questions for your interviewers.