Why don’t superstars always win NSF fellowships?
You did everything right. You compiled all the proof demonstrating how awesome you are, outlined a clear career plan that shows you’ll continue being awesome, and demonstrated a commitment to service that extends your awesomeness.
But you still didn’t win.
Is it just because other applicants were better? No! This isn’t a head-to-head competition against other applicants. You’re judged on the merits of your application alone. The reviewers can always add one more person to the winners list, if you win them over.
Sure, applicants who can’t demonstrate that they deserve the award will lose. Maybe they lack the research experience or skills necessary for the proposed research, or couldn’t articulate that research proposal well.
But that’s not you!
You received an Honorable Mention! You have all the research experience, you did everything your advisors recommended, and you laid out a great project. You are the superstar. And when superstars lose, they receive an Honorable Mention.
The biggest reason that superstars lose is because they didn’t make the reviewers love them.
Two aspects of reviewer psychology cause this to happen:
First, reviewers are pressed for time, and the fastest way to review applicants is to exclude rather than include. Rather than rank ordering 10 applications, they’ll reduce that to 3 before making their recommendations. Reviewers cite a variety of reasons to exclude the superstars. (One of the most common is that the proposed research project is too close to the advisor’s work.) If reviewers love you, they’ll look for reasons to include you instead.
Second, academic culture is predicated on critique. GRFP reviewers often feel obligated to give at least one critique of the application. When GRFP reviewers don’t want to fund a superstar, they often mention something the application didn’t include as their reason. If reviewers love you, they’ll be more likely to treat omissions as minor issues instead of reasons not to fund you.
So how do you make the reviewers love you?
You need to tell your story in a way that creates shared meaning between you and the reviewer, and makes them see themselves in you. Most superstars use an “action” plot to relate their journey from one success to the next. These essays are mostly factual; even if includes emotion, it’s all your emotion, and not a shared feeling with the reviewer. As a result, the reviewer approaches your application from a purely intellectual perspective, and you lose the love.
There are two ways for superstars to create the love:
- If you use an action-oriented plot, introduce (and resolve) some emotional tension that allows the reviewers to see themselves in you.
- Use a different plot structure! Other plot structures can center around your character development or intellectual development.
And there are many ways to avoid being excluded by reviewers. For example:
- If your project is close to what others in your lab are doing, mention exactly how it extends those ideas, or addresses one specific part of the problem.
- If your proposed research includes activities that are new to you, explain exactly how you will acquire the requisite skills, or get access to the necessary equipment.
At Brainsteering, we can help you identify many other possible causes for exclusion in your essays as well!