The National Science Foundation (NSF) awards fellowships for graduate study in science, mathematics, and engineering. The fellowships can support students for one year or more, and the stipend is generous (in 2009 each fellow received $30,000 for a 12-month tenure), with an additional cost-of-education allowance granted to the fellowship institution ($10,500 in 2009). Therefore, these awards are highly competitive, and the selection panels—made up of professors, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers—are most interested in students who will have a great impact on their fields and bring further reputation to their institutions. The NSF program also allows for a one-time international research travel grant if the student seeks to do research in a foreign country for at least three continuous months. Letters of reference for NSF Fellowships should be written with the above facts in mind.
Writing the National Science Foundation Fellowship Recommendation
The Fastlane website, which NSF candidates and their recommenders must use to process the application, details the criteria that recommenders should address in their letters (3), as follows:
Intellectual Merit: The intellectual merit criterion includes demonstrated intellectual ability and other accepted requisites for scholarly scientific study, such as the ability to: (1) plan and conduct research; (2) work as a member of a team as well as independently; and (3) interpret and communicate research findings. Panelists are instructed to consider: the strength of the academic record, the proposed plan of research, the description of previous research experience, the appropriateness of the choice of references and the extent to which they indicate merit, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) General and Subject Tests scores, and the appropriateness of the choice of institution for fellowship tenure relative to the proposed plan of research.
Broader Impacts: The broader impacts criterion includes contributions that (1) effectively integrate research and education at all levels, infuse learning with the excitement of discovery, and assure that the findings and methods of research are communicated in a broad context and to a large audience; (2) encourage diversity, broaden opportunities, and enable the participation of all citizens—women and men, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities—in science and research; (3) enhance scientific and technical understanding; and (4) benefit society. Applicants may provide characteristics of their background, including personal, professional, and educational experiences, to indicate their potential to fulfill the broader impacts criterion.
The best NSF recommendation letters include thorough detail about the student as a scientist, mathematician, or engineer, with special attention to the student’s ability to make significant contributions to research that will have broader impacts in the field. Effective letters discuss such quantitative measures as a student’s grades, GPA, GRE scores, and class ranking, but also give special attention to such qualities as a student’s willingness to represent the college at functions, attendance and presentations at meetings or conferences, work as a teaching assistant or lab assistant, quality of the student’s publications, if any, and temperament and vision as a researcher.
Common problems in NSF recommendation letters are a failure to demonstrate the student’s potential in a manner specific to a discipline, and a lack of context or commentary by the letter writer about the student’s research goals. You should not hesitate to obtain more detail from the student if it helps you write a more thorough letter, and you should also feel free to create the proper context by discussing the type of research or teaching that the student has done or will be doing. Students prepare extensive essays as part of their application, including a plan for graduate research, and it is critical that recommenders read and comment on these documents.
Note how the first sample NSF letter in the pdf link below provides abundant detail about the student’s research project so that the selection committee can judge the worth of the student’s work as a researcher and assess the student’s ability to work as part of a team. Some readers might even say that the letter provides excessive detail about the science, but the writer prepares us for the lengthy science discussion with the sentence, “To emphasize the scope and importance of Janet’s work, a summary of the relevant science follows.” The second sample letter focuses more on the student’s temperament as a researcher, using superlatives including “well-organized,” “quick,” “confident,” “cheerful,” and “helping.” These superlatives are effective because they define exactly the qualities the student possesses without overstating them.
Special Categories of NSF Fellowships for Women
In awarding fellowships, the goal of the National Science Foundation is to “ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering in the United States and to reinforce its diversity” (4). Although awards are first made on the basis of merit, other considerations such as gender are also used as secondary criteria. Thus, some recommenders see the letter as an opportunity to comment briefly about whether or not women are underrepresented in the student’s chosen field (the second sample letter in the pdf linked below provides such a comment in its closing paragraph). Whether such commentary is offered or not, some awards are reserved each year for the categories of Women in Engineering (WENGS) and Women in Computer and Information Science (WICS).
To help you prepare your letter, you can browse relevant pages on the fastlane.nsf.gov website as well as my sister webpage for students applying for the NSF: