Fellowships, grants, and award applications season is here! This can be a daunting time because, as many can agree, applying for such things can be a tedious process and the uncertainness of the future can make almost anyone nervous. Often times people will think that we win things out of luck, and I do not know if luck is truly a thing, but that idea of luck would not exist if our actions did not put things in motion. Hence, the first piece of advice is that you should APPLY!
For many people, in particular for students from underrepresented backgrounds and identities in mathematics, it is difficult to express your thoughts and experiences on applications (why this is requires a longer reflection and current research exists… so look into it!). In fact, many people I reached out to were hesitant to contribute to this post because many felt that they were “just lucky to get them.” I believe, THIS IS NOT TRUE. While there are human components to getting chosen to receive any award, we must acknowledge that we have worked hard and deserve every chance to apply and win these prestigious awards.
Dr. Jiuya Wang (Phillip Griffiths Research Assistant Professor and Foerster-Bernstein Postdoctral Fellow at Duke University) who won an Association for Women in Mathematics Dissertation Prize in 2018 for her dissertation in Number theory, wrote to me and mentioned that she let her advisor nominate her for that award. This may seem unusual for some, but sometimes it is in our best interest to self-nominate or ask others to nominate us for the prestigious awards that exists. In winning this award, not only did Dr. Wang get national recognition for her amazing work, she writes that “she [got] the chance to say thank you to the people [she] values in public.” As a recipient of a 2017 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRF), I can also add that we should not be embarrassed, afraid, etc., to ask for nominations or help. When I was applying for the NSF GRF, I recognized that I did not have the strongest writing background, so I sought the help in mathematical writing from my two master’s thesis advisors and my now PhD advisor and for the personal statement I sought the help from the fellowships advisor at my master’s institution (Advice: look to see if your institution has a Fellowships Office or Office of Nationally Competitive Awards, or something similar and seek out support from them).
While I hope that some of the advice shared in this post will help current applicants submitting applications to prestigious awards, I also hope that some of the readers are also people that will consider applying in the future (advice here applies also to finishing undergraduate students). With that said, TIME AND PLANNING ARE IMPORTANT! Dr. Marissa Loving (NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech) mentioned to me that she began preparing for fellowship applications “(both mentally and by purposefully building [her] broader impacts/research portfolio) years in advance.” For her, the NSF Postdoc application was already on her mind from Day 1 of graduate school. While this may not be the case for some of you, I hope that you do consider applying to the NSF Postdoc and realize that time is essential for planning. One influential piece for her NSF Postdoc timeline was some job advice listed on Dr. Chelsea Walton’s website: https://faculty.math.illinois.edu/~notlaw/JobAdvice.pdf
Below are the experiences and advice of a diverse group of students and professionals who have received prestigious awards during their time as graduate students or shortly before/after. As my friend, Dr. Loving also mentioned to me, it is also helpful to share that she along with some of the other contributors on this blog post are women and people of color who have been very successful in applying for these awards. My hope is that as you read their replies to certain comments, you can get ideas on how to better your applications, manage the application timeline, and realize that there is a support system when applying for these awards. Additionally, I hope that readers recognize that the applicants are more than “just mathematicians”: they are people who come from all backgrounds, perspectives, experiences, and mathematical/personal interests, which you see below.
Thank you to all the contributors, many of whom I consider great friends!
Contributors: Jessica De Silva, Katie Taylor, Amzi Jeffs, Theo McKenzie, Elaina Aceves, Rob Davis, Nohemi Sepulveda, Darleen Perez-Lavin, Chase Ashby, Liam Solus, Anastasia Chavez, Jiuya Wang, Marissa Loving
Awards Represented: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, Fulbright Award, Department of Defense’s SMART Fellowship, NASA Pathways, National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship
Name: Jessica De Silva
Current Position/Institution: Assistant Professor of Mathematics at California State University, Stanislaus
Award Received and Year: NSF Graduate Research Fellowship awarded in 2013
Advice for future applicants: Do your best to give the application reader a good sense of who you are, what you value as a person, and how it leads to you pursuing a graduate degree in Mathematics. I suggest trying to connect the reader to you in this way at the beginning of the personal statement, that way they feel invested in you while reading the rest of your application. For the personal statement, this also allows you to have a less modest (and therefore prouder) tone when discussing your accomplishments and their broader impacts. At the end of the personal statement, be sure to include your plans and goals as a graduate student and in your professional career.
First two weeks of September:
- Identify who will write your letters of recommendation. Meet with them (in person) to ask if they will write one for you. Let them know that this is different from a graduate school recommendation and give them print-out information about the fellowship.
- Write a first draft of the personal statement.
- Determine the premise/title of your research proposal.
Last two weeks of September:
- Have at least three different faculty members (letter writers in particular) read your personal statement.
- Write a draft of your research proposal.
Until the deadline:
- Have peers read your personal statement to fix any last minute typos.
- Have at least three different faculty members (letter writers) read your research proposal.
- Revise and submit!
Benefits from receiving this award: The application experience in and of itself was extremely beneficial. Since the due date was early in the Fall of my senior year as an undergraduate, I already had letter writers and a personal statement ready to go for graduate school applications. The research proposal gave me a glimpse of a researcher’s perspective in identifying and motivating the questions they aim to answer. I also made sure to include a sentence in my personal statement stating that I applied for this fellowship. I believe this showed that not only do I set goals for myself, but I am able to commit to executing the appropriate steps to achieve that goal.
Non-mathematical activities: Spending time with my hilarious family is my favorite way to spend my non-mathematical time. When I’m not at my parents’ house barbecuing tri-tip and ribs, you will probably find me at the gym lifting weights and putting that protein to use!
Co-PI on an NSF grant to hold the 2019 Pacific Math Alliance Conference (Fall 2019)
Women and Mathematics Ambassador for the Institute for Advanced Study (Fall 2017)
PureMath@SACNAS Mini-Collaboration Grant (Fall 2016)
Additional comments: Although my advice is primarily for the personal statement, don’t forget that the research proposal needs to be equally as strong. In the comments I received from the reviewers, they noted that my research proposal was not as strong as others. I strongly encourage you to seek advice from research advisors and mentors on how to best prepare this portion of the application.
Name: Katie Taylor
Current Position/Institution: 1st Year PhD Student in Mathematics
Graduate Institution & Research Area: The University of Alabama, Undergraduate Research in Mathematics Education
Award Received and Year: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2019; I did my proposal in STEM Education.
Advice for future applicants:
- Utilize prior applicant examples to gain ideas of how to format your application (you can find these online or possibly reach out to students who have one at your school).
- Pay attention to the formatting requirements as they are REQUIREMENTS, and there is no need for something like font or text to cause issues in your application.
- Ask your possible recommenders if they would be willing to support you at the start of your application process…mention to them that you will send along a draft of your application/completed application closer to time.
- Having done previous research will be extremely helpful in the application process as this fellowship application asks you to do a research proposal.
- Aim to find someone, even if not in your department, who has experience with the application and would be willing to read over your applications. If you have done research, your PI is also a wonderful person to have look over your application as your application will likely reference that research often.
I did not find out about the program until mid-September. That was enough time to set up a timeline, receive feedback from mentors, and really create an application that told my story. I wanted to make sure that my passion was clear as well as explain well what activities/past research I had done that confirmed this passion. I had over 5 full drafts where one or two of them were complete redos.
Benefits from receiving this award (more than financial benefit): This award allows you to focus on your coursework and research without an additional workload. During the decision process, it can also act as a reason for Universities to want you in their program.
Non-mathematical activities: I love to play piano, pet kittens, and spend quality time with my friends (game nights are frequent).
Additional comments: Remember you can only apply as a graduate student if you have completed no more than 12 months of graduate study at the time of application (i.e. you are a first or second year student), and you can only apply ONCE as a graduate student. Thus, if you do not feel your application is strong enough in your first year, there is no benefit to sending it in the first year as you will not be able to try again.
Name: Amzi Jeffs
Current Position/Institution: 4th year graduate student at University of Washington Seattle, working with Isabella Novik as my advisor.
Research area: Convex and discrete geometry.
Advice for future applicants: I received the NSF GRFP after my second year of grad school. I had also applied unsuccessfully two years earlier, during my senior year of undergrad at Harvey Mudd College. I think there were two main improvements in my second application. First, I had a far stronger “broader impacts” portion, which is not to be underestimated. In my unsuccessful application I focused on teaching and mentorship as broader impacts. While not awful, this failed to meaningfully address issues of equity, representation, and broader society from a mathematical perspective. In contrast, for my second application I was able to write about teaching a math course at a women’s prison, and how this had shaped my approach to all pedagogy and my understanding of the position of the mathematical community in society. I emphasized that as mathematicians we have the chance to make a big impact through service activities, and this is not just some abstract moral “duty”—it has direct benefits for the research that we do every day, and the way that we think about and communicate math. Second, and related to the point above, my second application had a far better focus on the “big picture” and my trajectory within it. I was able to contextualize my research and outline future areas of work that seemed productive to pursue. In other words, I had a “plan” that was specific to my strengths, and a plausible set of tools to execute that plan. This analysis was viewed very positively by the reviewers.
Lastly: Take your application to your local campus writing center!!! I did this with mine and ended up with a far more effective and “punchy” structure, as well as improved wording and grammar.
Application timeline/schedule/goals: It gets said a lot, but you should plan to complete a rough draft (however shoddy) of you entire application at least two weeks before the submission deadline. This will give your letter writers something to reference and build from, which is hugely helpful. It will also give you the chance to make lots of edits. An application which has been worked over for style and flow will go a long ways.
Benefits from receiving this award (more than financial benefit): The most significant benefit of the GRFP—besides being slightly more able to afford rent in Seattle—is that it freed me from teaching duties. This gave me a huge amount of free time, which I’ve used to get involved with all sorts of exciting activities on campus and beyond (see below). With time to pursue my interests further, I was more excited and motivated to return to research, and also had the ability to travel to various conferences/talks when the opportunity arose. Another opportunity I wouldn’t have been able to take if I had teaching duties: I was offered the chance to teach a “math in society” class at Cornish College of the Arts this Fall. It’ll be my first time teaching my own course, and I’m excited to teach in the context of an art school. Class started; wish me luck!
Non-math activities: I’m an active organizer with UAW4121, the union of grad students and postdocs at UW. Through the union I’ve had the chance to fight for demands that benefit the whole campus: better mental health care, justice for trans students and workers, robust protections from harassment and discrimination, and better wages to name a few. The union gives us a lot more power than our graduate senate or other forms of activism: our contract is a legally binding document that we can hold the university accountable to, and with 5000 members we have a lot of collective power to enforce it!
I’m also active in the Seattle branch of Socialist Alternative, and have been involved with campaigns for renters’ rights, indigenous struggles, anti-ICE work, and more through them. The synergy between my work with UAW and my work with SA has been a huge benefit to both. vMore recreationally, I enjoy a hell of a lot of cooking, some parkour around town, and rock climbing in the Cascades.
Other accomplishments: During the last year I’ve managed to produce a whole lot of papers, including my first published single-author paper, which you can check out here.
Name: Theo McKenzie
Current Position/Institution: PhD Student at UC Berkeley
Graduate Institution & Research Area: Probability theory and combinatorics
Award Received and Year: Ford Foundation Fellowship and NSF Graduate Research Fellowship
Advice for future applicants: Get a large set of people to look at your application. Advisors should look at it as they’re familiar with your research and known what it takes to receive a grant. You can swap fellowship applications with other STEM students to see what ideas they have. Have someone in writing/humanities look at your application to complement on your writing style.
Application timeline/schedule/goals: Over the summer I talked to my advisor about what would make sense to submit as a research project. I also made sure to have a final draft ready at least a month before the deadline so that you can get feedback. This was crucial for me.
Benefits from receiving this award (more than financial benefit): This has given me a lot of flexibility. I’ve had the ability to go to conferences and present my work without worrying about missing teaching duties. Also I’ve built a network of other scholars through meeting people who have also gotten the fellowship.
Non-mathematical activities: I’m the lead instructor for a math class at a California State Prison. I also play squash.
Other accomplishments: I’m proud to have won a mentorship award last year.
Additional comments: I would start on your application as early as you can! Things can always get crazy during the semester. Good luck!
Name: Elaina Aceves
Current Position/Institution: Math PhD student (fourth year)
Graduate Institution & Research Area: University of Iowa, Topology
Award Received and Year: Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship received in 2018-2019 academic year
Advice for future applicants: The most important advice I can give is to have non-mathematicians read your application and make sure they can understand the research centered essays. I think that as mathematicians we get too comfortable thinking only other people in our research area or other mathematicians will read our work. However, in a fellowship application like this, it is essential that someone from any area of study can read and take something away from your essays about your work.
Application timeline/schedule/goals: I began working on my application in September 2018 when I started writing all of the essays needed for the application. My adviser was very supportive and took the time to read through a draft of one of my essays every week so I was continuously improving my essays throughout the semester. Once my essays were all mathematically correct and the prescribed page limit, I took my essays to the Graduate Success Office at the University of Iowa. This office has personnel who are available to read scholarship and fellowship applications, provide feedback, and meet with students to discuss their comments and suggestions. This step was crucial because after the revisions, I was sure that my essays were readable by a general audience and still maintained their mathematically correctness especially in the Previous Research and Proposed Plan of Research essays. In regard to the letters of recommendation, I selected professors who could speak about the various experiences I had described in my essays. One of my letter writers was my adviser who could speak about my research. Another writer was a previous teaching supervisor who could discuss my teaching ability and positive reviews from students. Since I had talked about outreach to the community through Sonia Kovalevsky Day, I had one of my letter writers be the organizer of SK Day who could testify to my participation and leadership in the activities of the event.
Benefits from receiving this award (more than financial benefit): I am now a part of a large organization of very supportive and encouraging students and professionals. As a mathematician, I have a great opportunity to talk about mathematics to scholars from other fields of study and represent a field that doesn’t receive enough attention or appreciation.
Non-mathematical activities: Binge watching Psych episodes, reading fantasy books, Listening to 80’s music
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Minority Ph.D. (MPHD) fellowship recipient
Graduate College Iowa Recruitment fellowship recipient
Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) fellowship recipient
Additional comments: I was the only mathematician to receive the Ford Foundation Predoctoral fellowship during my year of admittance. Please everyone, apply to this fellowship program if you qualify! Mathematics needs more representation in these national programs.
Name: Robert Davis
Current Position/Institution: Assistant Professor, at Colgate University
Graduate Institution & Research Area: University of Kentucky; Combinatorics, discrete geometry, applied algebraic geometry.
Award Received and Year: U.S. Student Fulbright Grant. I spent the 2013-2014 working with Alex Engström’s research group at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland.
Advice for future applicants: The Fulbright website has statistics on applications and awards funded in recent years. You can use this data to see (very) roughly how “competitive” it is to receive a grant from a particular country. That said, don’t read too much into these statistics, as each application cycle contains a ton of unpredictable elements that are out of your control. Do keep in mind that programs in different countries may have different expectations, even though they are all Fulbright programs, so make sure that your goals mesh well with the particular program to which you apply. Make sure to reach out to your institution’s office for external grants, as they will almost certainly need to submit some information as well. They should also be able to help you out with any statements you write, which you should give yourself a lot of time to do. The people evaluating your application will very likely have little mathematical background, so you have to convey the importance of your project without getting bogged down in technical jargon. I found that very difficult to do, and I had to start my statements from scratch several times until it was in good shape. If you are awarded a grant, make sure you look into the process for obtaining a visa or residence permit promptly, because it can take a while.
Application timeline/schedule/goals: I brought the idea of studying abroad to my adviser, Ben Braun, in the early summer of my second year of grad school — around June 2012. I originally just intended it to be for a summer or semester, but the most straightforward way to spend some extended time abroad seemed to be through a Fulbright grant, which was a year long. Since my goal was to finish grad school in five years, I was about to enter my third year, and my last year would be filled up with teaching and a job search, I had to apply the following October, about four months later. That seemed to be an appropriate length of time, since I had to rewrite my statements multiple times. Looking back, I wish I had given myself another month or two, but four months worked.
Benefits from receiving this award (more than financial benefit): One of my goals during the grant period, which I was able to do, was to give talks and attend conferences at other universities that I wouldn’t normally have had the chance to visit. They gave me great opportunities to meet lots of people who work in my area and nearby areas. I learned a lot about how academia in Europe works, how to find out about more job opportunities, and a whole lot of new math. Even just the process of applying to the Fulbright was very helpful. I’ve applied for a variety of different awards and grants since then and had a much easier time writing project descriptions and summaries because of it.
Non-mathematical activities: The Fulbright group in Finland organized a number of trips during the year, which gave us a chance to see much more of the country than we otherwise might. Also, I lived in a building occupied mostly by students of the University of Helsinki, and I was fortunate to get swept up with a great social group. We were from all over the place: the U.S., Mexico, Ukraine, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, and lots more were in the group. We often took trips together, ate meals together, and generally got to be good friends, which really helped out with being away from home for so long. And of course, I became very familiar with saunas: going to them is practically a required activity in Finland.
Other accomplishments: In terms of external math awards: AMS-Simons Travel Award; NSF Collaborative Grant (co-PI with Tianran Chen at Auburn University in Montgomery), under the Algorithms for Modern Power Systems program.
Additional comments: If you’re reading this and have any questions about applying for a Fulbright grant that I didn’t answer, feel free to send me an email directly! I had such a great time that year and would be happy to help others how I can.
Name: Nohemi M. Sepulveda
Current Position/Institution: Williams College Alumni
Graduate Institution & Research Area: N/A at the moment
Award Received and year: Fulbright Teaching Assistantship in Spain, 2018
Advice for future applicants: Go for it and apply! Sometimes these prestigious awards can seem a bit intimidating, and perhaps impossible to get, but at the end of the day everyone has something strong to offer the program, and you may be just exactly what they’re looking for. I didn’t learn about this fellowship until late in the summer before I applied, so even if you feel like the deadline might be slowly approaching, still try and get that application in! Don’t let fear keep you from applying. There’s so much potential that each and every single one of us has to offer. Simply taking that first step and deciding to apply is very important and you deserve credit for it!
Application timeline/schedule/goals: As I mentioned above, I actually didn’t learn or know about the Fulbright fellowship until late in the summer before applying—sometime in August to be exact. After I finished a teaching internship that I was doing in India that summer, I returned home for about 3 weeks, and this is when I was able to work on the application and on the essays. I returned back to college early September, and the campus application deadline was in mid-September. After submitting my application to my school, I had to do a little mini interview with the fellowship office where I was asked questions like “Why do you want to do this fellowship?” and what qualifications I had. They also ended up reviewing my essays and they gave me feedback on them. This was very useful in that I was then able to make some last-minute changes that later strengthened my application. After this, you’re basically in charge of submitting the application online yourself by the deadline that Fulbright gives you, which is in early October.
Benefits from receiving this award (more than financial benefit): The greatest benefit in receiving this award was honestly having the opportunity to live in another country for a year, and also meeting some very wonderful people in the process. I was a teacher in a private catholic school in La Rioja, Spain and I really enjoyed my time there. I taught some really cute 5th graders, and then grades 7th all the way up until the 12th grade. I believe that my students ended up learning a lot from all the different types of presentations and activities that I had for my classes, and in the end, I was also able to start a vigorous math program that helped to increase the participation of young girls in the STEM fields. Since aside from teaching you are also in charge of having a side project, then this ended up being my side project throughout the year! Another really great thing that comes with this award is that you have 3-day weekends where you can basically travel in and out of the country and explore new places. Since I love traveling, this was something that I really, really enjoyed. Fulbright does great in that it gives you plenty of free time and opportunity to explore the country where you’ll be living in, so you end up learning a lot about the local culture there!
Non-mathematical activities: Some non-mathematical activites that I included in my application were being a college senior advisor for a program called Matriculate, volunteering at my local immigrant center, interning at the Williamstown Historical Museum, working at the Mexican Red Cross, being a teacher in India as well as in Mexico, and doing human rights research abroad in Nepal, Jordan, and Chile.
Other accomplishments: I received some awards from my college such as: The Class of 1951 Scholarship, The International Public Service Fellowship, and The Ware Scholarship.
Additional comments: Apply, apply, apply!
Name: Darleen Perez-Lavin
Current Position/Institution: Graduate Student at University of Kentucky
Graduate Institution & Research Area: University of Kentucky, Number theory
Award Received and Year: SMART Fellowship funded by the DoD, awarded 2017
Advice for future applicants: Pick your top 3 labs you would like to be placed at. Do some research on each lab and try to understand what they do. Answer questions like: What type of research do they do? Who do they actively service? During these searches, you should be asking yourself: How do I fit in? Are these things something I want to work on? The application has various writing statements. Each statement should encompass your strengths. I would encourage portraying your strengths and how they would benefit the lab in their current research goals. Talk about why you want to be there as well as how you are qualified to be there.
Application timeline/schedule/goals: The application is due early – mid January. I highly recommend you start as soon as possible since this application has a lot of parts. To help with length and time, I set weekly goals. Even if it was a section that took 5-10 minutes, it was better than doing everything at once. It felt less taxing this way. I also had various people read over my statement drafts. Pick letter writers that will display your strengths in different areas. For example, have someone outside your department write a letter that will show a strength outside of your academic achievements.
Benefits from receiving this award (more than financial benefit): With this fellowship, you get a lab sponsorship. I am required to do internships during the summer while in graduate school and work at the lab for the amount of years funded. I find this extremely beneficial because I have a job when I graduate that will provide me with work experience on research areas outside my thesis work. During each summer, I get a taste of what my life will be like when I graduate. I spent this past summer at the naval lab in Charleston, SC and it was a great experience. I have a better understanding on how the lab functions and what I may be working on when I get there. You also get the benefit of getting a security clearance. This process takes over a year sometimes and heavily delays you being able to be hired at the NSA, for example, or other government agencies. If you decided to leave after your years of service, having clearance will be a bonus if you would like to move to a different government agency.
This fellowship allows you to continue teaching if you would like but does not require you to teach. This allows you to have more time to focus on your research. It helped reduced my stress level since I had less demanded requirements to do each week. I chose not to teach but I have met other fellows that teach one class each semester so they can get an academic job once they finish their time at the lab. The lab does allow you to teach while you work there but you still required to do your 40 hours a week.
Non-mathematical activities: (As part of the SMART Fellowship) You are encouraged to do community outreach event and attend workshops / conferences. Since I work for a naval lab, there are different rotations to apply for at the office of naval research.
(Personal) Dancing to salsa, jazz and hip hop. I enjoy yoga, hiking and paddle boarding.
Other accomplishments: Awarded the NSF – MSGI internship program with the Department of Energy. To be honest, I’m most proud of getting the SMART Fellowship. With the lack of support from the department since I struggled to get my prelims done, it gave me purpose, hope and sense of belonging to be award a competitive fellowship. It made me feel like I deserved to be here. I just have a different purpose.
Personal accomplishments: Doing yoga on a paddle board! I’m still working on it but it’s a rush to be able to achieve balance on the water.
Since you will be working for the government, they only expect you to work 40 hours a week. If you work over 40, you can save those hours for time off. For example, some people work 4 – 10 hour days to have a long weekend every weekend. There are limitation and rules to follow but you get the make your work week within reason. This forces work – life balance, which I find to be important. This also allows you to do something outside of work, maybe continue your thesis work or collaborations, maybe even learn a new sport or hobby.
Name: Chase Ashby
Current Position/Institution: Ph.D. Student at University of Kentucky and Civil Servant working in the Computational Aerosciences Branch of the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Division at NASA Ames Research Center.
Graduate Institution & Research Area: I’m currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky researching in the field Computational Fluid Dynamics with applications in Aerospace Engineering. My research is focused on developing approximation methods for adjoint PDE solutions on structured curvilinear meshes.
Award Received and Year: Accepted into NASA Pathways Intern Employment Program in 2019.
Advice for future applicants: Network. Network. Network. NASA employees are a passionate group of individuals who enjoy both sharing their experiences and assisting motivated students. Be willing to explore and put in the hard work. NASA truly seeks people who have a passion for research and community. Email current employees, even if you’ve never met them before. Someone will likely respond, and you may just end up with a spontaneous interview.
Last year I was a struggling graduate student, however, simply being willing to ask for and take opportunities allowed me to find a solid foundation within a year’s time. Thus, my main advice is to be daring even in the presence of overwhelming self-doubt. Knock on those unopen doors and don’t be afraid of the work waiting on the other side.
Application timeline/schedule/goals: Applications appear on USAJOBS.gov as funding becomes available throughout the year. I first scheduled a phone call with someone to simply discuss what they worked on and my interests (this was obtained from a distant family connection). I simply couldn’t hide my excitement for the work being done at NASA Ames and they decided to forward my resume to their supervisor. Within a few minutes, they emailed me to schedule a phone call, which ended up being a surprise interview for an internship and the only interview throughout the whole process. After the interview, which took place in late December 2018, they decided to offer me an internship position for Summer 2019 in early February. They remained in close contact to ensure I found housing arrangements and eventually suggested that I apply for the NASA Pathways Program. Once the link went live on USAJOBS.gov, I filled out a medium length application that took around an hour to complete, including intermittent coffee breaks. On my way to the internship, I was notified of the offer!
Benefits from receiving this award (more than financial benefit):
- Hired on as a Civil Servant (federal employee), which comes with Federal Employee Health Benefits, retirement plan, life insurance.
- Competitive Salary. For my position as a student trainee in engineering: $75,000.
- Most Pathways students transition to fulltime employees after graduating.
- Students can actually be converted to other federal positions after graduating, e.g. FBI, CIA, NSA, DOD, DOE.
Non-mathematical activities: Acoustic guitar, hiking/camping, reading.
- First-generation college student
- Graduate Scholar in Mathematics Fellowship
- Bob Gaines Research Fellowship
Additional comments: Readers may feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn or my university email. I’m very willing to and happy to discuss my experiences in further detail.
Name: Liam Solus
Current Position/Institution: Assistant Professor of Mathematics, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden
Graduate Institution & Research Area: University of Kentucky, Combinatorics and Statistics
Award Received and Year: 2016 US NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship
Advice for future applicants:
0. Ask previous winners of the fellowship you are applying for if you can see their application as an example. While the content of your project is fundamental and novel to you, writing a grant/fellowship application that presents your proposed work in a clear, concise, and well-supported way is formulaic. A well-structured proposal will make it easier for the reviewers to follow your points, and it can even make it easier for them to argue on behalf of your proposal when discussing with the rest of the committee. Successful proposals will often have such a structure, and there is no reason for you to re-invent the wheel. Ask people who you know have been successful if you can see their successful proposal as an example when writing your own. If you don’t know such people, ask your mentors or other mathematicians you know if they know someone who you could ask. Just like in math, grant writing should start with an informative example.
- Get detailed feedback from mentors and get it from more than one of them. Get as much feedback as you can, and if you can get it from people who have written successful grant or fellowship applications then even better! Writing fellowship/grant proposals, like mathematics, is not something are born able to do. Just like mathematics, we need to learn from people who have been doing it longer than ourselves. Using the examples of successful proposals, you have available as guidelines, write the best proposal you can, and then send it off to at least two mentors for feedback. Different readers will see different things, so having more than one take a look at it will be helpful.
- Don’t fear critique. Remember the people who you picked to read your proposal are your mentors. They are people that support you and your ideas, and they want to see you succeed. Any comments they have or changes they suggest, no matter how seemingly drastic, are aimed at helping you present your ideas in the best possible way. More comments are not a sign of your failure, but a sign that your readers really care and want you to succeed!
- Don’t be afraid to start over. Sometimes the feedback you get is going to suggest a lot of changes. So many in fact, that you may realize that you are essentially rewriting the whole proposal. Be willing to do this. Think about it like a math problem: you were trying one approach to the problem, and then your mentors came by and gave you good evidence why that approach may not work. So, try attacking the problem from a new angle based on their expert advice.
- Start early. A well-thought-out proposal takes time, and the time invested in the proposal often shows. Having a first draft months in advance of the deadline gives you ample time to let your mentors read it, and for you to make major changes. Even before that, just musing about the problems you will propose and the general structure of the proposal months before you start writing it can really help you present clear, and well-thought-out ideas.
- Always apply and apply to everything. There is no reason not to apply to a fellowship that you think you might want. In the worst-case scenario, you don’t get the fellowship, but you did learn a ton about writing a proposal. This is still better than if you had not applied at all. The experience of writing a rejected proposal still gives you insight into how to better prepare the next one. Which is why you should apply to anything that seems of interest. Just like with mathematics, the more experiences you have with writing proposals, the more success you will have on future ones.
Application timeline/schedule/goals: My personal application timeline starts about 6 months before the due date. At this point I’m thinking about what I want to include in the proposal, and perhaps the general structure of how I will include these things. This is also the time when I’m asking people for examples of the successful applications. During this time, I write a lot of outlines, and small pieces of what I think I’d might include, by hand. Three months before its due I try and have my first draft prepared, and then I send it out to mentors/colleagues/etc. for their opinions.
Benefits from receiving this award (more than financial benefit): The NSF postdoctoral fellowship really changed my future. It gave me ample time, time that I would otherwise not have, to really engage with my research. During this time, I believe I produced some of my best work to-date. I was also able to broaden my mathematical interests significantly, investing time in learning things about new and exciting fields related to the problems in my proposal. Beyond this, the NSF postdoctoral fellowship took me to Stockholm, which has since become my home.
Non-mathematical activities: Surfing, snowboarding, rock climbing, exercising, skateboarding, and playing violin
Name: Anastasia Chavez
Current Position/Institution: NSF Postdoctoral Researcher and Krener Assistant Professor at UC Davis
Graduate Institution & Research Area: University of California, Berkeley; Combinatorics
Award Received and year: Ph.D. in mathematics in 2017; NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship 2018
Advice for future applicants:
Some of the best advice I received was to make the research statement include enough evidence showing you fully grasp the difficulty level of your research goals and the necessary plan to achieve them. Personally, this meant doing a little extra work to gather examples, work out small cases, employ computer algorithms, and do whatever seemed appropriate for the tasks outlined to ensure I could show I knew what these projects really required. Also, it showed I could be realistic about my goals and what was achievable in the time period the award offered. That means, if a problem seems hard, it is ok to acknowledge that then followed by how you will address it. Be clear, concise, and honest.
Another great piece of advice I received was to find and include collaborators who were skilled in the machinery needed for the research program outlined. This, again, shows the feasibility of success for the project and that experts are interested and want to work on your problems. Plus, it means you can begin building a network of collaborators and expand your math community.
If possible, it is great to have a diverse group of folks willing to read and edit your statements. These can be people who are experts in your field and those who are tangential. Not too many of course, but enough to have a diverse opinion if your statements are well written, your research program is outlined clearly, if your program shows agency, and if the purpose of the research program is clear. Moreover, you will generate many iterations of your statements, which is great! Make every word used count!
Ask fellow applicants (perhaps fellow grad students, former grad students, new faculty) if they are willing to share their application packet with you. There is a lot of technical formatting that you need to adhere to, and documents types that are not so common. Getting examples from others, especially successful applicants, will be a great guide to developing your own. Plus, it’s great to have a work buddy to keep you on track. So, finding a comrade during the application season you can share tasks of editing, reading each other’s work, and setting deadlines to complete drafts, will make it a much more enjoyable process.
Last, imposter syndrome is something that can creep up, if it hasn’t prior to the application process. If you find yourself feeling lacking in any way around your abilities, competency, and value during this time, here’s a small exercise I use often (actually, I used it just the other day preparing for a talk!). I first recognize the nervous, anxious energy that wants to eat up my time worrying about my competency and confidence. Then, I ask myself, “Do you want to spend the next chunk of time worrying? Or would you like to take the action that will prevent the outcome you are so worried about?” Often, that builds enough strength and resolve to diminish the worry so I can complete my tasks at hand. The best part is, I have evidence that I am capable, and I can build that confidence back.
I hope this of use to you, and best of luck in your application process and award acceptance!!!
Application timeline/schedule/goals: I am currently finishing my 2nd of a 3 year NSF postdoc and plan to be applying for academic and possibly non-academic jobs in Fall 2021. My goals are a little vague, but I believe the next step will include elements of mathematics, education, and technology.
Benefits from receiving this award (more than financial benefit): The greatest benefit has been the opportunity to explore new mathematics and branch out of my graduate research while building a great mentorship relationship with my research mentor. It has also allowed me the time to dive deeply into projects on my own schedule, without juggling classes, teaching, etc. so common in graduate school.
Non-mathematical activities: I enjoy camping with my family, playing softball, learning the guitar, walking our two dogs Big Boy and Hope, and dancing.
Other accomplishments: I have an amazing, supportive partner and together we have been blessed to be parents to two incredibly inspiring and creative children. My daughters are probably my greatest gift and I’m profoundly grateful for all they teach me.
Additional comments: I’m a firm believer in the following advice from a mentor on how to find the right work-life balance: “You first have a life, then you find out how to fit your work in, not the other way around.” If that resonates with you, enjoy!
Now, go and APPLY! You got this!
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