Applying for National Fellowships as an Undergraduate



By Alayna Johnson, 2019-2020 SCS Student Advising Leader:

If you’re thinking about going to graduate school, you might be wondering how you’ll pay for it. The good news is that most Ph.D.-level programs in the chemical sciences will cover your tuition and provide a modest living stipend. However, it’s still advantageous to seek outside scholarships and fellowships. For one, earning a fellowship will mean a little more money in your pocket every month. They also look great on your résumé and will make it easier to join a research group once in graduate school.

Your first step should be to look around the web for fellowships that you might be eligible for. Consider checking out the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP), the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG), the Ford Foundation Fellowship, and the Hertz Foundation Fellowship. Once you’ve found a few, gather information about the scholarship size, application requirements, and essay prompts.

The application process is similar to applying to graduate school programs. You’ll need to gather transcripts, ask for letters of recommendation, and draft a strong statement of purpose. The key difference is that most fellowships require a research proposal. This is the most important part of many fellowship applications and–for me–was the most difficult. Your proposal should answer the following questions: 

  • Is your work likely to advance knowledge in its field?
  • Does your work explore creative, original, and transformative concepts?
  • Are your proposed activities well-reasoned and well-organized? 
  • Is your work likely to benefit society?
  • Will success in the technical component have implications for other areas of inquiry?
  • Will your work lead to improvements in education, increased public scientific literacy, or innovative technologies?

Read the directions carefully and follow them precisely. Ask your graduate or post-doc research mentors to edit your proposal and have your advisor look through it (more than once, if possible). Also, consider searching online for examples of successful proposals to get an idea of what the awards committee is looking for. 

Another key challenge about applying as an undergraduate is that you’ll likely be submitting your fellowship applications at the same time as your graduate applications while also taking a full course load and balancing your research commitments. This makes for a busy semester. I decided to focus on school during the week and block off every Sunday for application and fellowship preparation. For more tips on mastering this juggling act, see my blog about Staying Sane During the Graduate School Admissions Process. 

Applying to prestigious fellowships can be daunting, especially since you’ll potentially be competing against experienced graduate students. Luckily, Illinois provides great resources to help you be successful. If you’re a senior in the specialized chemistry program, look into enrolling in CHEM 592: Preparing Graduate Fellowships. Using the NSF-GRFP as an example, the course provides the students with guidance about preparing grant applications. It is geared toward graduate students, but select undergraduates can enroll with instructor approval. Additionally, all students have access to the National and International Scholarship Program Office, located at the Campus Center for Advising and Academic Services.