Are you an incoming or 1st/2nd year graduate student? If so, you should be applying to fellowships! Fellowships like the NSF GRFP and the DOD NDSEG will pay for your graduate education and provide you with a living wage to focus on your research! This advice column will focus on the latter of the two: the NDSEG.
This fellowship is for anyone who intends to get a PhD in the field of science or engineering whose research may be beneficial to the department of defense (DOD)! It is highly prestigious and very competitive and they only award between 100-150 promising students each year. What is cool about this fellowship is that it is "no strings attached," once you get it, you just continue doing your research and get paid to do so! There is no job commitment to the DOD afterward or even to the specific research you proposed. The DOD does not "check-in" on you or your research, they only require your PhD advisor to say you are meeting your degree requirements and research goals each year. The goal of the fellowship is to support students and advance the higher education of students in fields that the DOD is interested in. Pretty cool!
But first, make sure you are eligible to apply (scroll to eligibility quiz below)!
The purpose of this blog is to provide advice to graduate students who may be unfamiliar with this fellowship, specifically those whose research isn't obviously applicable to the department of defense. This fellowship is widely known in the engineering disciplines, but not very advertised in other fields, specifically biology. It's easy to understand how research in engineering or physics may have applications to the department of defense, but less obvious for biology students. However, this fellowship doesn't just award applied research, but basic research as well! I know few of my fellow biology peers who have applied, even though their research has tangential applications to the navy, airforce, or military. Additionally, there aren't many resources for students (biology or otherwise) on the tips and tricks for applying, so I hope this is helpful to a broad audience.
I am a rising 3rd year biology student (in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department). I applied to the NDSEG 2 times: my first and second year as a PhD student. The first year I applied, I did not make it through the first round of reviews. The second year, I was awarded this fellowship. Both times, I applied with the same research, but the second time I did a lot of things very differently. While I really only have my experience to reflect on, I do feel like I learned a lot about how to approach this fellowship from a biology (basic research) perspective. I also contacted 4 other winners who are in the field of biology or oceanography and asked them for advice and there seems to be some trends from the biology awardees that may have led to our success (N=5). So while the sample size here is small, I hope you find these tips useful!
Other winners contacted*:
*These past winners have not read through this blog post. The winners I contacted provided me with specific advice via email and while I incorporate it into this blog post, this post ultimately reflects my opinion.
It sounds so intimating and specific for your research to be of interest to the Department of Defense. How do you know? In my case, did the Navy really care about fish noses?? Well, it's our job to show them exactly how your research could be helpful to them! It doesn't hurt to apply and even if you aren't awarded it will be a great learning and writing experience.
Example biology basic research the DOD is interested in (this list is not exhaustive by any means):
Unlike the NSF GRFP, the NDSEG is less interested in the student holistically, but more interested in the student's research. The most important part of the application is the research proposal. A large database was composed by applicants in the 2019 cycle, and the winners were not those with the highest GPA and GRE scores. Additionally, the winners were also not the applicants with the most publications. Of course these things help, but I think that they are more interested in the research and if you have previous research experiences that will allow you to conduct that research.
Plan to start writing early so that you can get feedback from your peers and advisors/professors. Your department may also have writing workshops or a writing center where you can get helpful feedback. If you are a biology student, it may also be helpful to have an engineer or someone who works in the field that relates to the applications part of your proposal read over your application as well. When researching all the applications my basic research could have, I made sure to have an engineering professor read over it to make sure those applications were realistic.
Don't be discouraged by criticism and know that a heavily edited draft is a helpful one! But also, don't feel obligated to take every suggestion, trust your gut! You know your research better than anyone.
If you don't have any peers in your department applying (like me), I found the Grad Cafe website to be a helpful resource to talk with other applicants (or just commiserate together).
Choosing your agency (navy,airforce, military), BAA (broad agency announcement), and Discipline (mine was biosciences) should not be taken lightly. This will determine who sees and evaluates your application.
Make sure to:
1) put in the research to figure out which BAA and subheading within that BAA relates to your research (this was possibly one of the hardest parts for me as there wasn't a specific objective that related to my research. If you are like me, then choose the BAA and subheading that relates to your applications. For example, I am researching fish noses, but not designing a sensor. BUT, my research could be later applied to aquatic sensors, so I choose the subheading that had to do with aquatic sensors. For some fields of biology, there is a subheading within the BAA that relates specifically to you, for example, I remember seeing a section on whale communication and another on bioadhesion.)
2) additionally, find out what code within your agency (navy, airforce, military) relates to your research and cite this in your proposal as well. For example, while I couldn't find a BAA that had a subheading that related exactly to my research, I was able to find a code in the Navy that did. For example, if you go to the ONR website, you can look through their different research thrusts that they title "codes." Code 34 (Bio-Inspired Autonomous Systems) related to basic research of fishes, so that was perfect for me!
3) Make sure the BAA you choose is not expired, but other than that you can choose any BAA.
On the NDSEG website (systemsplus) they linked a website to the most recent BAAs. You don't have to use that one though, as I used an older one. Make sure the BAA you choose actually lists different research elements in it, as I found some of the BAAs did not have these so it wouldn't make sense to choose those. In that 2019 applicant database listed above, I was the only person who chose the BAA that I did, which makes me wonder if the more "popular" BAAs also have more competition internally, but that is very anecdotal. The most important thing is to choose the BAA that relates the best to your research.
Make sure to fill out your application carefully, I assume the first step in the application process is a check to make sure it is complete. Fill out all boxes. There are a lot of different tabs and things to click so make sure you have filled out all the boxes. Also, even though you are attaching your CV, make sure to list all your awards in the awards section. Fill out everything as though they won't see your CV.
Ask for your letter of reference (you will need 3) a month in advance and remind your writers periodically. When there is only a week left to submit, I would email them every other day. This will ensure your letter writer has plenty of time and is in a good mood when they write your letter. Although, I think most profs are notorious for writing last minute letters, at least it is THEIR choice to do so if you gave them ample time. Keep your writers happy!
Unfortunately, there aren't any other online resources that I know of for application advice. There are so many resources out there for the NSF GRFP but I could find hardly anything for the NDSEG, especially advice for a biologist applying. What I found most helpful was contacting other winners directly and using the GradCafe website. But hopefully, this website can be a new resource for students!
Subdivide your research proposal into different sections. I had headings that were: “Introduction,” “Study System,” “Proposed Research” and then “Methods” with the methods section with various subheadings as well and “Conclusions.” This was also the structure of 2 of the previous winners I contacted.
Have figures. I had 2 small figures, one of mine was a picture of the animal's different noses and the other was preliminary data. They also had short captions.
Tailor your research proposal to what you think the DOD is interested in, especially your division (ONR etc), when possible try to use the jargon or words that are in their mission statements or BAAs.
Don't feel the need to write on every aspect of your PhD research, choose the parts/chapters that you feel are of most interest to the DOD. For example, while I am also interested in the evolution of the fish I study, I only wrote my research proposal on their “design” so that the implications for biomimicry were clear.
Be super specific with the applications for the DOD- why do they care about your research? Since my application was that my research can be applied to aquatic sensor technology, I didn’t just stop with saying that statement alone. I looked up the latest aquatic sensors and found the current limitations of their designs. I mentioned specific AUV models and how my system could specifically help with many of the limitations of underwater sensors. I also mentioned the applications throughout the proposal, rather than only at the end. I mentioned the applications in the introduction, worded my methods and hypotheses so that the applications were also clear, and had a conclusion paragraph at the end that again stated how this research could be useful and lay the foundation for many future applied studies.
I think this is the main difference of a biology major vs. an engineer applying. If your research is not applied (ie. basic) then you really need to convince the reader of the applications. The first time I applied, I had a small paragraph at the end talking about how my research will have "applications for aquatic sensor technology" but I didn't explain this in any depth. The applications were clear to me, but obviously were not clear to the reader. The second time I applied, I made my applications known throughout the WHOLE proposal.
In your text, explicitly state how your research relates to the specific BAA. For example, the last sentence of my “proposed research” section I wrote “This research aligns with the research thrust of Ocean Battlespace and Expeditionary Access of Division 321 (Maritime Sensing) under the ONR BAA N00173-19-S-BA01.”
Have a catchy title that emphasizes the applications if possible, mine was “Biological models for underwater chemoreception: Batoid fishes." This is different than the title of my PhD research, but instead emphasizes the applications of my research.
Be super specific in your methods. I think this is really important and also one of the main reasons my first application didn't make it very far. This also seemed to be a theme with other previous winners. I think the DOD really wants to see that you know EXACTLY what you are doing and have researched it enough. I think (if possible) it is also stronger to have some preliminary data and show that you are already starting to see some cool things. It is also important to ensure the readers you have the resources to continue (in my lab I have equipment xyz..). I also listed the materials I would use and the exact parameters to test my question(s). I would also say to make sure it sounds obtainable. Instead of trying to explain all the chapters of your PhD (you only have 3 pages here), choose the most important one(s) that seem like they are of the most interest to the DOD. I think it’s better to explain one thing really well, than a bunch of things vaguely.
The personal statement is where you list the experiences and background you have that make you qualified to research what you want. The main focus of this personal essay should be your previous experiences and qualifications. Assume the reader didn't see your CV.
The majority of the text should be research experiences.
Then list your research interests (all tailored to DOD) and professional goals.
Weave your interests and goals around your experiences.
My general format:
p1: fishes are cool, I am inspired by them and they offer cool opportunities for bioinspired design
p2: research experience
p3: research experience
p4: through these experiences, I learned these skills and I can do research
p5 I want to pursue a career in xyz and I want to study xyz and this relates to ONR code 34
I also cited myself in the text after my research experiences (Rutledge, 2019) to show that my research experiences resulted in publications. I honestly don't know if this was clever or too over-the-top. This was not something that I saw past winners do, but I guess it worked for me.
Have a clear focus and direction (even if you are unsure in real life). All your research experiences should be leading you up to the research you are proposing in your research proposal. Personally, in my career, I kind of switched to a new discipline for my PhD, so some of my previous research isn't as related to what I am doing now, but I still tried to find a way to make it all seem connected and related.
Just like any other fellowship, there is a huge element left to chance, or luck. Even if you are super qualified and your application is very strong, you may not get it. Your reviewer could be having a bad day- they could just have gotten in a fight with their partner before reading your essay, or they could just hate your study system. You hope this is not the case and that each reviewer is fair and objective, but at the end of the day they are people too, and people have biases- whether implicit or explicit. Don't be discouraged if you aren't awarded- this will not make or break a career, it is essentially just an "added bonus." Winning this fellowship does not mean you will be successful, and the same goes for not winning it.