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Demystifying distinguished graduate fellowships

NSF Graduate Research Fellow features in first of 'A Culture of Pursuit' series

Photo of Joshua Brooks, Program Manager of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships at ASU

Joshua Brooks, program manager of distinguished graduate fellowships will author a new series highlighting strategies to win prestigious scholarships from current awardees.

September 03, 2018

Editor's note: To demystify the process of attaining distinguished graduate fellowships, ASU Now will feature a multipart series of interviews with distinguished graduate award recipients from across the ASU community. The series will showcase the achievements of ASU’s distinguished graduate award recipients and highlight the strategies that led to those achievements. 

Distinguished award winners within the Arizona State University graduate community are not uncommon — as demonstrated by its 50 current NSF Graduate Research Fellows.  

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program “recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.” NSF Fellows typically become globally engaged knowledge experts and leaders who contribute significantly to research, education, and innovations in science and engineering. Fellows are selected by a national competition from a pool of 12,000-16,000 applicants from across the United States and its territories. Success rates for NSF-GRFP applicants range from about 12.5-16.5 percent over the last five years. 

The NSF-GRFP is a highly-sought-after and competitive award because of both the practical benefit and associated prestige of the award. Fellows receive three-years of funding within a five-year fellowship period in the form of an annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees. GRFP alums include 40 Nobel laureates, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, and many other notable leaders in STEM fields.

In addition to the benefits noted above, the Graduate College administers the NSF-GRFP for ASU awardees and provides additional tuition and fees support, health insurance, and a $750 allowance per on-tenure year to further support research.

Fellows also have opportunities for additional funding and support from the NSF by applying to the GRIP and GROW programs. 

  • The Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP) provides professional development and funding to fellows through internships developed in partnerships with federal agencies and national laboratories. 
  • The Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) program provides fellows with opportunities to engage in international collaborations with investigators in partner countries around the world. Through GROW, fellows engage in international research with partners developed by the NSF, including counterpart funding organizations in other countries. These counterpart funding organizations may provide additional funding (e.g., $1,500–$2,200 monthly) on top of the $5,000 award that the NSF provides. GROW offers funding for international stays of two months to one year, with the duration varying by country and partner organization. The NSF is prepared to fund up to 400 GROW awards each year. Applicants must be current NSF Graduate Research Fellows. 

The first interviewee for "A Culture of Pursuit" is NSF Graduate Research Fellow (2015) and GROW recipient (2018) Andrew Burchill. 

Photo of NSF-GRFP Fellow Andrew Burchill in the field

Andrew Burchill in the field (photo by Kelly O'Meara)

Burchill attended the University of Chicago as an undergrad (BS, 2014) and was admitted to the ASU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, School of Life Sciences PhD program in animal behavior in 2015. Burchill is also a 2015 Congressional Award winner (the highest civilian honor awarded by the U.S. Congress for public service), as well as the recipient of many other distinguished awards.  Burchill spoke with ASU Now from Australia — his GROW research location. 

Question: If you had one piece of advice for your fellow graduate students regarding their current and future careers, what would it be?

According to Burchill, the biggest issue he’d like to address among the graduate community at ASU is imposter syndrome. “A lot of graduate students are self-effacing. They don’t want to think about what they do in a positive light — they can’t see themselves in a positive light.”

What helped him in this regard when it came to distinguished awards applications was this: “Thinking of the CV as a video game. Thinking of yourself as a character in a video game where you can collect items or bonuses that increase your value or stats. A lot of people say, ‘I’ve never done anything that should go on a CV.’ But, many things are CV material if you think it through.” For example, Burchill participated in the largest scavenger hunt in the world while he was an undergraduate at UChicago. For his part in organizing the scavenger hunt, he organized the meals. On his CV, he noted that he managed finances and logistics for hundreds of people for a large, well-known public event. 

“Pretending that you’re a video game character allows you to find fun and interesting ways to explain yourself in a way that’s good for the CV. When you look back at ALL the activities you've done, don't ignore the ones you initially feel are insignificant. Try imagining all the bonuses or power-ups each could give your character. Worked as a summer manager at Arby's? +1 to Organizational Skills and +2 to Leadership!”

Q: What motivates you to seek distinguished fellowships and awards?

Burchill's pursuit of distinguished awards is the natural evolution of him pursuing his interests. He wants to research. Researchers need funding. So, he applied to the NSF-GRFP. 

When considering how to develop his PhD program into something significant, he happened to hear about the Global Development Research Program here at ASU (sponsored by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and USAID) and applied to be a fellow, which he became in 2016.  As a matter of pragmatism, occasionally the opportunities and awards that are available will mold the direction and substance of future research — a little bit, anyway. On the other hand, Burchill's first order of business when it comes to distinguished awards is finding the opportunities that are available that will allow him to pursue things he’s already interested in. Essentially, he said, “Money doesn’t usually change the topics I focus on, but it does allow me to do different things.”

Q: Do you strategically build your resume, or have your accomplishments happened in a more ad-hoc fashion?

Burchill said that he built his resume simply by pursuing things he wanted to do. He doesn’t worry about strategic accomplishments. Rather, he simply goes out and does things that are challenging and fun (or at least interesting). He also notes that where his strategy comes into play is in how he explains his accomplishments on his resume. To his mind, this type of strategy is vital to the pursuit of distinguished awards.  

Q: How do you choose which awards to spend precious time applying for?

Essentially, if people in the know tell Burchill that he’s a good candidate, he applies. Knowing how many awards to apply to and how often to apply is a tough balance, he said. On the one hand, students need to keep up with their research work. On the other hand, the opportunities afforded by distinguished awards are significant. Burchill isn’t sure he keeps the best balance. He said sometimes he’ll spend most of his time pursuing distinguished awards — finding awards, researching awards, writing for awards, etc. Other times, his workload and timeline will be such that all he can do is conduct his program research. As he said, it’s difficult to manage, but a successful researcher will need to do both.

Q: How did you get into your field of research?

Burchill said the evolutionary history of his career trajectory started out somewhat at random. As an undergrad at UChicago, he managed to find a job in a lab that studied ants. He discovered that ants were interesting and that he’d probably enjoy a career centered around the study. So, he pursued that PhD program.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

Simple — Burchill wanted to study ant behavior. He said ASU is one of the best places in the world to study ants and all sorts of other insect topics. At ASU, there are many different experts on every social insect topic you can imagine under one roof.

Q: What motivated you to apply to the NSF-GRFP, specifically?

“It’s a crazy opportunity,” said Burchill. Once he started thinking about what he could do with the funding and support provided by the NSF-GRFP, he got excited about applying. He had a year off between undergrad and grad school — during which he signed up with AmeriCorp and, incidentally, also earned his Congressional Award. He also spent that year polishing his application for the NSF-GRFP.

Q: Is there any advice that you’d like to give potential NSF-GRFP applicants — something that helped you, perhaps?

Two things, according to Burchill: First, applying to the NSF-GRFP is not applying to do a project, as much as it seems like it is. Rather, it’s demonstrating your ability to conceive of and potentially carry out a research project. The application is a demonstration of oneself. It demonstrates that the applicant is uniquely situated to carry out a type of research — namely the type of research indicated in the research proposal. The NSF is really evaluating the applicant as a future scientist more than the actual project within the application itself.

Second, after you’ve written your first draft of the application, the applicant should just “sit with it for a long time,” and then pick it up, again, later, to review and edit. The NSF-GRFP isn’t something that should be done last minute. An early draft is important. Turning that early draft in to several subsequent drafts over a period of time — especially after having others review it and critique it — is very helpful. 

Q: You’re also a recipient of the GROW award. Why did you apply, and where did you go with it to research?

Only Graduate Research Fellows can apply to GROW. Most significant to Burchill was the fact that this meant the applicant pool would be small and, therefore, the chances of receiving the award would be statistically quite high. The other thing that motivated him was that, as a biologist, he wanted to research in Australia. GROW provided him an opportunity to go there, establish connections, publish, and generally become familiar with the research community within his field in Australia. Burchill is quick to note, also, that while the GROW award provides travel allowances, he still needed his host country  to provide funding for his extended stay.  For him, this came through the Endeavour Research Fellowship provided by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training.

Q: How do you deal with career-related stress and anxiety?

Counterintuitively, Burchill takes quite a few breaks — probably more than most people, according to him. “Not in a bad way,” he said. He engages in healthy self-care. Most work and career related issues aren’t emergency situations that need to be done right now, “except for when they are.”

Q: Do you have an idea of what you’d like to do once you receive your doctorate?

“If I can continue doing research, that would be amazing. Getting positions in academia is becoming more difficult. That in itself can be a source of stress.”  

Q: What are your hobbies?

“Brewing alcohol. I work in a social insect lab. That means bees and honey — that means mead.” 

13. What type of fiction do you read?

Burchill calls science fiction his escapism. An example is “Perdido Street Station” by China Miéville. He also said he'd read anything by Miéville.

14. What’s your favorite TV/streaming show?

“True Detective — the first season, obviously.”

15. Favorite movie?

“Memento — especially recently because I’ve been forgetting … things.”

16. Favorite nonfiction book outside of your field?

“'Big Bang' by Singh. It’s about the Big Bang theory. It’s oddly exciting. It’s about the history of a theory.” 

Learn more about the NSF-GRFP

Joshua Brooks, formerly the e-Government Fellow of Cornell Law School and an ASU alum, is the current program manager of distinguished graduate fellowships — a new office jointly administered by ASU’s Graduate College and the Office of National Scholarship Advisement at Barrett, The Honors College. Brooks will host an information session on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018 at 10:15 a.m. in the Memorial Union (MU 202). This information session will feature current NSF Graduate Research Fellows who will take questions from attendees after a presentation. 

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