Tips on Organizing for STEM Fellowships

fellowship memeNow that I am through the struggles of the 2014 fellowship application process to pay for graduate school, I can finally relax and share my story while offering advice along the way. This blog (though long overdue) will hopefully act as a guide to prepare you or someone you know for the road ahead. Many other bloggers have gone through great lengths to describe the application process for well known fellowships in the Science, Technology Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. I’ll be referencing one NSF Fellow whose website really helped me out during my application process. However, my main goal here is to shower you with organization so the process isn’t as daunting as it seems. As a result of advice from other websites and the advice I give below (listed in bold italics for your skimming pleasure), I was awarded the 2014 National Science Foundation GRFP Fellowship, the 2014 Graduate College Fellowship at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and an Honorable Mention for the 2014 Ford Foundation Fellowship. It’s possible if you believe!

To be honest, I never really took the fellowship application process seriously until my sophomore year in college. Why so early? I wouldn’t need to apply until senior year or later, right? Well, I had a friend who already completed graduate school and jumped at the chance to tell me the importance of fellowships. They pay for your graduate education and pay you at the same time, no need to say more. So, I decided to make a list of all fellowships that I will qualify for, and store it on a spreadsheet. Don’t have time to make a spreadsheet? POOF!! It’s done:  Fellowship List Template. To figure out which fellowships I should apply for, I did an online search and asked my undergraduate adviser about possible fellowships. Here’s one website that I found useful, kindly disregard the older due dates: Don’t worry about bugging advisers and mentors about possible fellowships. They most likely received emails from other students requesting letters of recommendation on the popular fellowships in your field, which actually works in your favor to narrow down the huge fellowship lists scattered on the Internet. My adviser told me to apply for a fellowship that she never knew about until a student in the past requested a fellowship letter of recommendation. With all that said and considering my field of plant biotechnology, here are the five fellowships that was interested in as a recent Bachelor’s graduate:

– National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program Fellowship
– GEM Engineering Fellowship
– National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellowship
– Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship
– Hertz Foundation Fellowship

Once I knew that I was going to dedicate more time into the application requirements for these fellowships, I made a fellowship application checklist listing critical information. Feel free to use my checklist as a guide: Fellowship Application Checklist. Your welcome.

I also added the fellowship due dates and bi-weekly recommender reminders onto a calendar, whether that be in an agenda book, online or otherwise. Trust me, do this! My life was haywire from October 2013 to January 2014 keeping track of due dates for fellowship applications, but I definitely felt less stressed when I laid out all dates and reminders onto a trusty calendar to bear my burden. Add your graduate school application due dates on there as well, calendar won’t mind.

I made a fellowship folder on my computer to organize all of my fellowship websites and related documents with separate subfolders for each fellowship. That may seem like an intuitive move, but that folder was actually a reminder to me to save any important information that I stumbled onto while browsing the fellowship websites, and I managed to save important fellowship guides that I might have otherwise looked over and lost. Here are examples of some important documents that I saved:

– National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program Fellowship NSF Presearch Proposal WorksheetFellowship Information
– Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship Research Proposal HelpHelpful HintsFellowship Information

In addition, I prepared a spreadsheet that categorized recommenders according to the fellowship and graduate schools that I assigned to them. Whhaaat o.O? Here, check it out:  Recommendation Letters Checklist Template. This document is yours to keep. I’ve kept my fellowship and some graduate school information along with my recommender check marks to serve as examples.

I also prepared a recommendation letter information sheet for my professionals extracted from the Recommendation Letters Checklist Template. As an example, here is the PDF document that you would send to your professional with the editable (not edible) spreadsheet:  Recommendation Letter Information EXCELRecommendation Letter PDF.

What good is that? Well, let’s just say that I didn’t give myself much time to request the letters of recommendation. I asked at least nine professionals to submit at least three letters, possibly requesting more if I lost contact with one or more recommenders. It was like sipping nightmare fuel from keeping track of all of my recommenders’ letter submissions until I made this sheet. Just mark off which professionals you emailed (I added a “1” under their name to keep count), then mark which letters are successfully submitted (I shaded the cells lime green) so you don’t have to keep logging into the fellowship pages or grad school pages to check. I had 34 letters of recommendation in total to check for submission between four (not five, explained below) fellowships and six graduate schools. Yes, this spreadsheet kept me sane (at least I thought I was sane…enough).

I’m probably going to be flamed for this, but it’s okay to drop some fellowship applications that you started if you are overburdened, if necessary! Why? Because quality over quantity. My genius self decided to write my research proposal from scratch at the end of September 2013 while I was studying for the GRE’s (that I had PLENTY of time to take over the summer #procrastinationproblems). That move didn’t give me much time to properly complete the Hertz Foundation Fellowship considering it was the first fellowship due on my list, so I decided to abandon ship and direct my energy to other fellowships.

In doing so, I was able to focus more of my attention on the NSF GRFP Fellowship during the time that my abandoned fellowship was due. Considering the competitive nature of this award, I decided to call on my mentors to guide me through the writing process. At least that’s what I wanted to happen…it didn’t. I didn’t reach out as much as I should have. I was looking at DOOM in the face.

That’s when I looked to websites to guide me throughout the NSF Fellowship writing process. A 2010 NSF Fellow, Alex Lang, made a fantastic NSF Fellowship website: His page details the steps to complete the NSF Fellowship writing requirements, with writing samples with reviews from past fellows.  I owe him a chocolate chip cookie for assembling this page. I ended up writing my NSF research proposal from start to finish with no mentor guidance (it’s possible), only information from websites like Lang’s.

I attended Fellowship Application Panels wherever I could find them. Of the two panels I visited, both were for the NSF GRFP Fellowship. What is so great about these NSF panel seminars is that they are run by NSF fellowship reviewers. You have the opportunity to speak with the very people who may be reviewing your fellowship, so ask questions! Use this time as an opportunity to ask basic questions that you would have asked to your mentors, but save the more personal questions specific to your research proposal ideas.

Feel like there’s no hope of being awarded a fellowship? Keep in mind that you can waive graduate school application fees to certain graduate schools just for applying to particular fellowships, whether you were awarded or not. My GEM Engineering Fellowship application submission allowed me to waive my graduate school fee for UIUC even though I was not awarded this fellowship. Also, your graduate school application doubles as an institution-specific fellowship application if you submit your information by the deadline. That’s how I was submitted for the 2014 Graduate College Fellowship at UIUC. Everyone’s a winner!

Remember that this fellowship application process is a lot smoother with a support system, whether it be mentors, family, friends, websites or blog posts dated years ago, you can do this! I sure did ;).