by Adam Feinman
Becky Wilson is a graduate student in Chemical Engineering who applied for and was awarded the NSF GRFP fellowship in the 2013-2014 school year. Her graduate advisor is Mark Thompson. The two of them are working on developing more efficient and longer-lasting solar energy cells. We asked her about her experiences applying for fellowships and what she has gained from both the process and the fellowships themselves.
Adam Feinman: What fellowships have you applied for? How did you find out about them?
Becky Wilson: I entered graduate school with a Viterbi Fellowship, which pays a stipend for that first year when you’re taking classes. I later got an email from the Viterbi School of Engineering about an info session for the NSF GRFP and DOD NDSEG fellowships. I attended the sessions and applied to both of those fellowships. I was awarded the NSF fellowship. Part of the reason that I applied to the NSF fellowship is that winners can apply for additional funding to do research in another country. My graduate advisor, Mark Thompson, knew that I wanted to do some research in France and told me about a different fellowship from UCSB’s International Center for Materials Research. I applied for that fellowship and won a $5000 grant, which I used to travel to France! I worked with Louisa DeCola at the Université de Strasbourg.
AF: What was the application process like for you? What do you feel you gained from the process itself?
BW: The first semester of graduate school can be an emotional and stressful time. I had applied to grad school on a whim, so I didn’t have a graduate advisor yet, but had ideas about what I wanted to work on. One of the biggest benefits of the process itself is that it forced me to figure out why I wanted to be in graduate school and to get specific about the research I wanted to attempt. My writing skills really improved through the process too.
AF: How did you recruit people to write your letters of reference?
BW: I had done research with two different professors during college, and they were happy to write letters for me. I was more nervous about approaching my advisor; lots of people want to work with him and he isn’t able to take most of them. But he wrote a letter for me. I ended up writing my essays around research that would be compatible with working in his lab.
AF: Do you have any specific advice for writing the NSF GRFP application?
BW: I would say that it’s a very long process. I revised my application so many times. I showed it to lots and lots of people, and had a number of revisions to do each time. You also need to plan on spending a lot of time just in the thought process. During the last two weeks before the deadline, I spent many, many hours just thinking.
AF: Why so much time spent in thought?
BW: Writing a proposal like the NSF GRFP is very different than typical essay writing. The format and goals are very different, and it’s worth taking the time to learn about that before starting. The difficulty of writing a good “Broader Impacts” section shouldn’t be underestimated. But it’s a topic that I am passionate about, so that helped me convey strongly and clearly what the benefits of better solar cells are for society.
AF: How did you decide upon a research project to write about?
BW: At the time that I was writing the application, I knew that I was interested in working on solar cells, but didn’t know a lot about the topic. I had to do lots of background research just to choose a project to work on, and had to rephrase the things I was learning about into simpler language. That helped me write the proposal so that people who don’t work on solar cells could understand what I wanted to accomplish and why it was beneficial for society.
AF: Why do you think you won the NSF fellowship and not the NDSEG?
BW: Honestly, I didn’t put the same time and effort into the NDSEG application. The NSF one was really time consuming, so I tried to use the same materials for both applications, but the NDSEG application is actually very different from the NSF one.
AF: How have the fellowships you’ve been awarded changed your graduate school experience?
BW: Well, I got to go to France!
AF: True! But what about the day-to-day benefits?
BW: The NSF fellowship has a $32,000 stipend per year, and the Viterbi Fellowship provides an additional $5,000 per year for years 2-4 of graduate school. My tuition and fees are also covered. All that funding affords me a lot of flexibility with my research and the way I spend my time, and my advisor is more supportive of independent projects. I really feel like I can do what I want, and the fellowship offices are very supportive. I’m so thrilled with how things have gone that I’m definitely going to be applying for more fellowships!