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Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP) Proposal Hints


The following suggestions are based on my experience assisting with the Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP) selection process once at the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and then applying for a GSRP at GSFC, the Johnson Space Center (JSC), and NASA/Headquarters (NASA/HQ). The process may vary from year to year and from Center to Center and the suggestions below will not guarantee you a GSRP award, they will only increase your chances of getting one. The key to winning is having a good proposal! If you have any questions while you are preparing your proposal, feel free to contact me at bjr@pcwru.edu


What is the GSRP and who is eligible?

The GSRP attempts to ensure a pool of highly qualified scientists and engineers to work with NASA programs and contribute to the national development of scientific and technical capabilities by awarding fellowships to graduate students whose research interests are compatible with NASA's programs. Each year approximately 150 new fellowships are awarded agency-wide; approximately 60 are directly through NASA/HQ and the rest through field Centers. The offices at NASA/HQ that fund awards are Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications (Code U), Space Science (Code S), and Mission to Planet Earth (Code Y). If awarded through a field Center, the fellow has a NASA technical advisor who collaborates in the research project. The program is open to US citizens that are full-time graduate students enrolled in an accredited US college or university. Fellows remain in residence at their home universities, but may elect to spend a portion of their time in residency at a NASA field Center collaborating with the NASA technical advisor. You may apply any time during your graduate career or prior to receiving your baccalaureate degree and awardees (unfortunately) incur no formal obligation to the US Government. The program supports approximately 400 students annually.

How much is the fellowship award and what can it be used for?

Fellows receive a $18,000 stipend plus a $3,000 student allowance and a $3,000 university allowance. First hint: claim the entire $24,000 when writing your budget. Don't think that you'll have a better chance if you claim $22,693.45 (which I have seen done) because you have saved the government $1,306.55. The student and university allowances can help defray tuition costs, and purchase books and software, or to provide a per diem and travel for the student and/or faculty advisor. The student allowance may also be used to help defray living expenses during periods of Center residency. In addition, the university allowance may be used by the faculty advisor for supervision of the student's work and for travel to the NASA facility to oversee the progress of the student. Alternative uses for this allowance may be requested, but must be consistent with the intent of the program. Since the fellowship is considered a training grant, none of the funds can be used to purchase equipment. The fellowship is for one year and funding must start between July 1st and October 1st. It may be renewed annually for a total of three years and renewal is based on satisfactory progress as reflected in performance evaluations by the faculty advisor. Once accepting the award, fellows can concurrently receive no other Federal fellowships or traineeships.

What are some of the advantages of getting a GSRP over other graduate grants?

  • It can open doors for you at NASA (both during your studies and after graduation).
  • It gives you more freedom to direct your research efforts.
  • If you finish early, another student at your university can receive the remaining funds.

How does the proposal and selection process work?

The first step is writing a good proposal and submitting one original and five copies by February 1st of each year (deadline may vary) to the appropriate NASA facility (NASA/HQ or field Center) from which consideration is being requested. The abstract and description of the proposed research and/or plan of study can not exceed five single-spaced pages. Depending on the proposed research topic, applications can be submitted to more than one facility, but one original and five copies of all materials (coversheets, forms, etc.) must be submitted to each facility for which consideration is sought. Regardless of the proposed research topic, ALWAYS SUBMIT YOUR APPLICATION TO NASA HEADQUARTERS in addition to the appropriate field Center(s).

SOME WORDS OF CAUTION: Some Centers, and especially some offices at NASA/HQ, are VERY strict with their application deadlines. A February 1st deadline means the proposal has to be in their office before 08:00 on February 1st. At most universities, the proposal has to be routed though the Office of Sponsored Programs which may add a few days or even a week to the proposal preparation process.

Once the proposal is received by the field Center, it is distributed to the appropriate Directorate and at least two readers. Each Directorate returns a prioritized listing of the proposals from their Directorate. You want to be ranked at the top of this list! The readers, who also sit on the review panel later in the process, evaluate the proposals they receive (see the next question) and score them on a percentage (100% high) scale. The review panel then gets together to discuss the Directorate rankings and readers' scores and recommends who should receive GSRP awards.

What is the review and selection panel looking for?

Although each evaluator might look for something different, they generally consider the following:
  • Proposal technical merit and innovation
  • NASA relevance and interest
  • Proposed interaction with the NASA facility and utilization of its research resources
  • Quality of the proposed research or plan of study
  • Student qualifications and ability to accomplish the defined research
  • University and advisor qualifications

Each of the above areas receive a different weight, but approximately half of the score is the proposal technical merit and innovation. The remaining half is for NASA relevance and interest and Center interaction, and student, university, and advisor qualifications.

How do I write a good proposal?

There are some things that you have little or no control over at the time of application such as your grade point average, your qualifications, and the quality of your academic institution. However, there are some things that you can do to increase the quality of your proposal (listed from what I consider most important to least important):

1. Finding the appropriate NASA Center and utilizing their facilities.

You want to make sure that your proposed research fits in with the mission statement of the particular NASA facility. It is very important that you do your homework and become familiar with the type of research the NASA facility is doing to make sure your proposed research complements it. How will you interface and interact with their activities, personnel, and facilities? What unique NASA facilities that you do not have access to at your university do you plan on using? It better include more than just using their library and talking with a few NASA folks on the phone. How much time do you plan on spending at the facility? Remember, your student and university allowance can be used for travel.

2. Developing a good idea.

Your idea does not have to come from those listed on the areas of research activities at NASA Centers section of the GSRP web page. Use those listed to get a better idea of what type of research the NASA facility does. Ask faculty members at your university if they have any ideas. Pay attention at the Academy poster and oral presentation as someone else's DDF project or DDF PI may spark an idea that may become your thesis. Make sure you do your homework by talking with researchers in the proposed field and do literature searches. Again, make sure the idea fits in with the NASA facility's mission.

3. Finding a good NASA technical advisor.

It is EXTREMELY important that you contact a researcher (who will become your NASA technical advisor) at the appropriate NASA facility. Use the researchers listed at the end of each project description in the GSRP booklet as a start. It is your NASA technical advisor that can make sure you are a top priority when their Directorate ranks the proposals by making their "bosses" and other researchers at the NASA facility aware of why your research is important. DO NOT BLINDLY SEND IN YOUR PROPOSAL WITHOUT A NASA TECHNICAL ADVISOR IN MIND! Even though there is not a place for it on the proposal cover sheet, type your advisors name on the cover sheet.

4. Submitting a well written proposal.

This includes the obvious like no spelling and grammatical errors. The evaluators and selection panel are intelligent scientists and engineers who have experience writing proposals so avoid using BS in an attempt to "fool" them. Make sure you cover the minimum areas that the GSRP booklet suggests, such as:

  • Plan of Study How does the proposed research fit in with your plans to finish your MS? your PhD? How are you going to utilize NASA facilities? NOTE: Even if you think there is no way you will ever go on for a PhD, write your proposal as if you are. You never know, you could change your mind later and decide to go on for a PhD. You might limit you chances of getting selected if you say you're going to stop after your Master's degree.

  • Research Objectives What are you trying to accomplish? Remember, your proposal can be no more than five single-spaced pages so do not include a lot of background. Describe what you're trying to accomplish and why it is important to the NASA facility.

  • Schedule When do you plan on finishing your MS? your PhD? When will major objectives of the research be accomplished. This can be combined with the "Milestones" section.

  • Methodology How do you plan on accomplishing your research objectives?

  • Key Elements Make sure any important aspects of the research objectives are clearly stated.

  • Milestones What do you hope to have accomplished by the end of the first year of funding? by the end of your MS? by the end of your PhD? This can be combined with the "Schedule" section.

5. Having good letters of recommendation.

You want a glowing letter from your thesis advisor at your university as well as an equally strong letter from your NASA technical advisor. Both letters should reiterate why your proposal meets the criteria spelled out in the "What is the review and selection panel looking for?" section of this paper. It would be ideal if your thesis advisor and NASA technical advisor complemented each other in their respective letters. No one knows you and your accomplishments better than you. After reading this, you will have insight into what should be in a GSRP letter of recommendation. Most professors, scientists, and engineers will not mind if you draft a sample letter for them to "massage." This way you will be assured that your letter will contain all the necessary parts. Make sure your letter is sent to a specific person or a group of people (i.e., "Dear Selection Committee"). A letter addressed "To Whom it May Concern" does not come across very well.

What is the difference between a good letter of recommendation and a bad one?

Although the content of a letter for a GSRP proposal is a little different than that of acceptance into the NASA Academy, I have included an example of a bad and a good letter from those I have seen used for admission into the Academy.

BAD LETTER (this is an actual letter)

21 June 1997

To Whom It May Concern
NASA Academy
Cleveland Space Center

The purpose of this letter is to strongly recommend Mr. Miles F. Standish for the NASA Academy at the Cleveland Space Center during the summer of 1996. Miles' academic performance has been excellent as evidenced by his GPA.

I have had Miles in a senior level class, ENAE 550 Space Systems Design, in which he clearly deserved an A. I can assure you that scoring an A in that class is not easy.

Miles has actively sought to broaden his experience by working summers at various aerospace enterprises in Wherever, USA. He is also an instrument rated pilot with over 200 hours to his credit.

In addition, Miles has shown evidence of leadership potential by accepting positions of leadership in various student organizations. Joining the NASA Academy will help him improve his technical skills as well as his already evident inter-personal skills.

Again, I strongly recommend that Miles be given the opportunity to join the NASA Academy.

A BETTER LETTER (this is a combination of a few actual letter)

Dr. Cal Ripken, Jr.
University Affairs Officer
NASA/Cleveland Space Center
Mail Code 2131
Baltimore, Maryland 12345

Dear Dr. Ripken:

This is a strong recommendation for Miles Standish to attend the NASA Academy at the Cleveland Space Center this summer. I have known Miles for over two years and in a variety of situations, and in that time I have known him to be a talented researcher, a competent and dependable employee, and more importantly, he has shown the leadership talent necessary to really ignite the future of the space program. He has an intense desire to pursue his dream to contribute to the space program, and I have no doubt that he will play a major role in its future.

Miles brought a strong work ethic to HP University, and never ceased to amaze us with the number of different projects and activities he was involved in. He is a real self-starter and stimulates other students and has shown great management skills in working on multiple projects simultaneously and successfully completing them on time.

He is very outspoken, and readily shares his opinions with others. Miles is very willing to help others and with creating or analyzing new ideas. His experiences with different engineering specialties and on spacecraft hardware projects helps him provide invaluable insight into the link between the academic theory and the reality of spacecraft design.

Of all the students I have come in contact with over the past 30 years of my academic career, Miles stands out because his strengths extend far beyond his technical skills. He is one of those rare students who only comes along once in a great while. My first recollection of hearing specifically about Miles was in the form of words to the effect that "we can all expect to be working for Miles one of these days." I am confident that Miles would be a great addition to your program this summer and I hope that you will strongly consider his application.

Where can I find additional information on the GSRP?

NASA Education Division GSRP Information (GSRP Booklet and necessary forms) http://education.nasa.gov/gsrp/

Center Information
(If a Center is not listed, it does not mean they do not have a GSRP program. It just means that I was not able to locate their individual GSRP page on their Center web page.)

NASA Headquarters

Which NASA Academy Alumni have been awarded GSRPs?

Check http://www.nasa-academy.org/alumni/accomplishments.html#gsrp for the current list of NASA Academy Alumni who have been awarded GSRPs.