"OK, so ten out of ten for style, but minus several million for good thinking, yeah?"
-- Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Scientific research requires a tremendous amount of time and energy from talented, well-trained individuals. The last thing anyone wants to worry about is whether or not he or she needs to look for another job in six weeks. This is why Cornell Astro guarantees support for tuition and living expenses; as students and young researchers, we are more effective if we can concentrate on our work without fear of going broke. In addition, the department pays for student health insurance for its graduate students.
Note to international students: This guide is applicable to all fellowship applications; however, we have not been able to find many relevant fellowships available to non-U.S. Citizens (or non-permanent residents). It is strongly recommended you look into any fellowship resources available from your nation of citizenship, as well as the Cornell Graduate School Fellowship Database. The Cornell Astronomy Graduate Network website also has a few fellowships, listed on the "Fellowships" page (click on link in the left menu of the main page). The two main documents are titled, "Four fellowships for international students" and "Fellowship information from Sarah Hale...".
A guarantee in funding is nice. That said, there are many reasons you might want to apply for a fellowship.
Experience writing grants.
Your success as an independent scientist depends not only on the quality of your work, but also on your ability to maintain a steady supply of funding to support your research. Even if you are a salaried professor/researcher, you need to write (and win) grants to recruit and train students and research assistants, and acquire the equipment and resources you need to do your work.
Many fellowships provide more money than the standard TA stipend. What you do with that extra cash is your choice, though it's never too early to start investing for retirement, saving for a mortgage, or planning that honeymoon in Paris.
Helps your advisor/the department.
Science is a collaborative enterprise; we need each other to learn, to work, to succeed. This is true not only intellectually or technically-it is also true financially. When one person wins a fellowship, it's obviously good for that person. However, it also helps the fellow's research group, since it helps the advisor make ends meet. This, in turn, might mean more money available for travel to conferences and workshops. Pressure on the department as a whole is reduced, which can free up more money for social and co-curricular activities, like barbeques and coffee hours.
(May) help you finish faster.
A fellowship will provide you with the freedom to take additional courses or conduct research earlier in your graduate career. This, in principle, may shave some time off your time to completing the PhD. But your mileage may vary. At any rate, life should be slightly less stressful if you don't feel compelled to take a full course load, TA, and start a research project. In other words, even if you don't finish faster, you may have slightly more of your sanity intact at the end of it all. :)
Helps your career/future.
While there is little correlation between winning something like an NSF fellowship and becoming a good scientist, it is a mark of prestige and accomplishment. Like all marks of prestige, you shouldn't take it too seriously or to heart. However, it will give you additional credibility, both within the scientific field and outside of it (e.g. policy, education). The fellowship process rewards initiative as much as talent; so does the rest of the world.
Remember: you can't win a fellowship if you don't apply. Why not give it a chance?
There are many reasons you can invent for not applying; all of them are bogus.
Poor undergrad record
Ah, did you buy/extort/mooch your way through undergrad? Well, now it's time to make amends. If you work hard in grad school, you can put your checkered past behind you. If you're here, you probably didn't do that badly. If your application impressed an admissions committee, your fellowship application will probably look equally appealing to a fellowship review committee. Low self-appraisal is the worst reason to avoid applying. If you don't value your own work, no one else will. And you should value it: you're a brilliant, clever gal/guy!
Also, don't underestimate the value of extracurriculars, even at this stage in your academic life. If you have done anything related to your field--outreach, service, policy, management, etc.--you may be able to highlight this to add some shine to a lackluster academic record.
Antagonized all your undergrad recommenders? Did they write letters only to get rid of you? Ah, so you did buy/extort/mooch your way through undergrad! Even so, chances are that there are at least three or four people who know your work and would write you a letter of recommendation, if not vouch for your status as a human being before a judge. It's time to start talking with people in the department, whose letters and connections will matter much more for your future--in both the short and long run--than all those professional bridges you burned in your past.
Lousy GRE scores
Let's say, hypothetically speaking, that your GRE score hovers somewhere around your IQ. While this isn't great, it's not a good enough reason to not apply for a fellowship. If you were accepted to a graduate program, your application indicates you are a strong enough candidate to complete an advanced degree in astronomy. Admissions committees are staffed by veteran professors who know that GRE scores are a very poor indicator of a student's promise as a researcher. Fellowship review committees are similarly aware of this. A lukewarm GRE score can be offset by strong outreach or research experience. If you really, really did tank it, then go ahead and retake the exam. GRE scores might be used to help sift between borderline candidates, but they are not, nor ever will be, the defining factor in an application (regardless what ETS marketing may tell you).
The NSF and other fellowships require you to write a research proposal. I have it on good authority that the purpose of this is to see that
Talk with your professors. They are professors because they have interesting research ideas and know how to follow through on them, and are interested in the welfare of the next generation of scholars.
Consider the amount of time spent on a set of fellowship applications. Then consider the amount of time spent teaching class after class after class.... Now consider that while teaching is a valuable experience in itself, that there are no degrees awarded solely for teaching (in this department). Also consider that your advisor may have funding one year, but not the next; RAs are a privilege, not a right! Finally, consider that convincing others to give you money is a useful and important life skill, important in any job, but absolutely essential in research.
If you have no clue what you want to work on, or who you want to work with... well, that's tough. However, it helps a lot to have a professor in the department who will write a letter of recommendation for you. Also, these professors will have research projects and ideas that are just waiting to be converted to PhD theses. Ask politely to read a professor's grant applications/ telescope proposals. They will provide insight into both interesting research areas and the funding process.
Here is a checklist to help you organize your application:
Research fellowships and choose the relevant ones. One place to start would be the Cornell Graduate School Fellowship Database. Shorter lists, slightly more relevant to astronomy, can be found on the Astronomy Graduate Network website. (Click on the Fellowships tab in the menu on the left.) Sarah Hale's document ("Fellowship information from Sarah Hale...") is a good starting point.
Make a calendar of all deadlines.
Talk to potential recommenders, and choose three (or four) who know you and like you.
Create an organized list of all fellowship application deadlines and details about the information each requires. Give this list to each of your recommenders EARLY.
Send out all relevant test scores (e.g. GRE general and subject) and transcripts early. You can request your GRE scores here.
Choose a project that you would like to work on during your fellowship tenure.
Find some review articles/old proposals that will give you an overview of the state of research in your field, and how your project contributes to scientific understanding and progress in the area. Articles/proposals provide you with the background you need to write intelligently, as well as excellent examples of the organization and style required in a professional proposal.
Write a draft application for each fellowship. Using the same proposal for all fellowship applications is not recommended, since each fellowship has its own mission/review criteria. Sample essays for the NSF and NDSEG are available on the AGN website.
Ask a professor or senior researcher (preferably the one you will work with) to review your essays. Send a copy of your application essays to each recommender, even if they can't return a copy with edits. The draft will help your letter-writers compose a more relevant and focused letter of support.
Edit/rewrite drafts until you get something that works.
Submit your application materials ahead of schedule; most websites that take electronic submissions crash the day of a proposal deadline.
Thank your recommenders, editors, and anyone else who helped you through the process.
Give your recommenders the following:
Your resume/CV. Provide additional biographical information to your letter-writers, especially if they don't know much about you. Include extracurriculars if you think they would be helpful to illustrate your character and personality, as well as your levels of commitment in your professional and personal spheres.
Your transcript (unofficial is ok). Look here for information on requesting an official Cornell transcript.
A copy of a decent draft of your application essay. This will help them coordinate what they write with the intent of your essay.
Detailed list of application deadlines. Ann Martin has graciously provided a sample summary sheet available on the AGN website.
GRE scores. These won't be particularly important, but they can only strengthen your case.
A big thank-you for their time and generosity!
Note that you should check in with your recommenders periodically a few weeks before the deadline. Some will submit the letters the night before; some will do it weeks in advance. Remember, they are doing you a favor, so be as polite and gracious as possible.
You will need time to assemble letters of recommendation, transcripts, the required information, and to write your essays. Even if you are organized, efficient, polite, and persistent (especially about rec letters), expect this process to take a long time.
Why should they fund you? Yes, your project might be interesting. It might even be important. But how important? Will other fields benefit from your project? Does it have the potential to create new fields, or new technology? What about its impact on society, the quality of life, national security? Can this help with problems great and small in America and the world today?
Not all of us have projects which will cure cancer, or save the human race. However, everyone, hopefully, has a sense of how their individual work fits into a broader whole. Without that, it becomes very difficult to convince an agency that they are funding something other than an obscure sideshow. More seriously, without that sense of how your work is connected more broadly, you run the risk of losing your way in graduate studies, becoming frustrated, unmotivated, or otherwise discouraged. Think big - it will help you and help the world.
Identify the mission/goals of the granting agency.
Every organization has a mission and a goal. It makes sense, then, to tailor your application to fit that goal. But do not lie. Not only is it bad for your heart; if you promise to do something for which you have little interest or ability, it probably means you won't write a good application, and your reputation will suffer. However, certain projects are more likely to get funded than others. Save yourself time and trouble by focusing on the fellowships whose mission/interests match your own.
UPDATED 10-2007: Sarah Hale pointed out that the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program recently posted some helpful information on their website.
If your field is interdisciplinary, focus your application on the fields which are better funded. Emphasize the interdisciplinary aspect, but not at the cost of diluting the case for a particular agency to fund your project on its impact and merits within the field of interest.
For example, the NSF fellowship weighs broader impacts equally with scientific merit. Broader impacts could mean a number of things. It could mean that your work will help solve a critical problem facing America today (e.g. energy policy). It could mean that your work will be critical to opening up a new area for research. It could mean that you personally are acquiring the skills, connections, and mentality to be the exemplary citizen-scientist who will be both influential and essential to the 21st century.
Note: Some NSF fellowship recipients changed the focus of their research while in grad school. Often the fellowship agency, with proper notification and modest explanation, will be flexible enough to continue funding research. In one somewhat extreme case, a graduate student at Harvard successfully switched his NSF fellowship from physics to the history of science (with a dissertation on Maxwell and 18th century Scottish Enlightenment).
Many agencies (esp. federal ones) have outreach as a key required component of both graduate fellowships and research grants. If you have limited outreach experience, consider joining some projects in our department (e.g. Ask an Astronomer, Expanding Your Horizons, Focus for Teens, etc.). You can also check out the Cornell Astronomy Education/Public Outreach website. The Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR) also has a very healthy and organized outreach program.
If you're unfamiliar or uncomfortable with outreach, give it a try. Remember the people who first taught you about stars and space, or took time to teach you cool things about the world? Well, now is your chance to experience that same warm fuzzy feeling as you guide young minds toward truth and beauty.
Narrow your focus.
For most fellowships, you need to write a research proposal. You must be specific, concise, and clear. Make sure your project can be completed within a typical PhD student's career (5-6 years), and is not contingent on projects that are likely to be cancelled. Think about what can be done with the facilities available to Cornell; describe a plan for securing other telescopes/ resources, if you need them.
Use references. While the reviewer will not have time to look up the referenced papers, it demonstrates that you have thought about this project and carefully studied how it builds upon/ extends known results. This preparation will also actually help you organize your thoughts and complete the project.
Make your proposal crystal clear.
Most of your reviewers won't be intimately familiar with your subfield and its associated jargon. Write for an intelligent, scientifically literate audience. Use active voice. Break up long, complicated sentences into many shorter ones. Also, this should go without saying, but bad grammar and typos will torpedo your prospects. (Caveat emptor: Do not use this guide as your model for pristine English.)
You may want to use some of your scarce space to put a diagram in your proposal. A picture can be the simplest, most direct way of expressing important information.
Pay attention to format requirements.
Many agencies, NSF in particular, have stated explicitly that they will reject proposals without review if they do not follow the formatting instructions. If it says two pages max, then keep it under two pages. Better yet, make your proposal shorter than the maximum permitted, and you will earn brownie points from your exhausted reviewers. Don't tweak the margins or the font. Your reviewers have PhDs, have taught many students, and know all the tricks of the trade.
Write many drafts, and use outside readers.
Writing drafts will help you narrow your focus and improve the flow of your application. An outside reader (especially your advisor or another student) will help tremendously on both counts. The professors and researchers in this department have years of experience writing proposals. Ultimately, to become a successful, independent researcher, you must be able to learn not only how to do science, but to fund a research group. Someday, you too may have hungry little grad students coming to you with broken code and distraught faces.
Note: one of my colleagues pointed out that the fellowship rules change every few years. Consequently, it might be more helpful to have a current graduate student evaluate your essays. The ideal reviewer would be a graduate student who has successfully applied for and received a fellowship, to evaluate your essays. That said, the more sets of eyes that look at your proposal, the more feedback you will receive, and the stronger it will be. I recommend asking at least one grad student and your advisor to help you edit your proposal.
Choose and prepare your recommenders carefully.
Choose people who will be able to speak about you as a person. At the very least, make sure that you have not given them significant offense and have displayed minimal competence in their presence.
It's helpful to provide as much information as possible to your recommenders. They will thank you for your organization. Provide deadlines, organization names, your transcript, some biographical info, a resume/CV, and exact directions on submitting the letters. Make sure your e- mail reminders, which may display increasing panic as the deadlines approach, remain polite. Give them plenty of time to figure out whether they like you or not. Thank them for taking time out of their busy schedules to write you a letter. If you promised them a bribe, make sure you remember to deliver on that promise. You may want to use the sample letter of recommendation summary sheet (courtesy of Ann Martin) available on the AGN website.
Remember: the fellowship committee is looking to fund YOU, not a project.
At the end of the day, you must demonstrate why you-not your project, not your research group, not your instution-are worth supporting. The private insecurities and doubts everyone has do not belong on an application. Your experiences, both professional and personal, have brought you to a position which few could dream of, and fewer still can realize. You're intelligent, resourceful, charismatic, good-natured, probably good-looking, and far-sighted. (Well, probably near-sighted with violent astigmatism, but you know what I mean.) You've overcome difficulties, or helped others overcome challenges. You know how to get things done, and have the potential to demonstrate the finest qualities of a citizen-scientist. And perhaps, most importantly, you are not afraid to be held accountable to the goals and ideals that you set for yourself, whether on paper in an application, or in your daily life.
Whatever you do or do not accomplish is secondary to the investment in your character and ability. And maybe if you write these fine things about yourself, you will find a new confidence - fellowship or not - that will carry you to honor and glory in every aspect of life.
Fellowships are not a referendum on your worth as a person, or even as a researcher/ academic. Intelligence alone does not create progress, and intelligence alone will not win you a fellowship. Many intelligent, hardworking, resourceful people receive fellowships; many do not. Heck, merit may not carry the day at all; everyone has slim odds, and sometimes the process can be subject to the unknown motives and moods of the specific recommenders/interviewers. What recommender #2 had for her lunch or the fight recommender #3 had with his kid last night might be just as important as your GRE score. So if you win a fellowship, don't get a big ego about it. If you don't, don't worry about it either. Or better yet, use it to learn and light a fire under your belly. William Shockley, Nobel laureate and solid-state physicist extraordinaire, was partly inspired to push himself because he was rejected as a child from Terman's genius study for insufficiently high IQ.
Finally, a fellowship is a means to an end. The end is not the PhD. The end is not the thesis. The end is to become competent in your field and capable of independent, significant research. Through the process, you cultivate patience, persistence, excellent contacts and friends, and hopefully some good memories of a simple time before mega-collaborations, committee appointments, and a mortgage take over your life. Bonna fortuna!