NDSEG Fellowship Tips
I might as well talk about it, this will be my second time applying for NDSEG, so today we’ll go over exactly what that is, why I’m doing it, and why, if you’re working on a PhD, you may want to do it as well. NDSEG is tricky, but if you get it then you should be pretty well set for funding, it’s a great program, but it also means you’re being funded via the DOD.
For my case, that is exactly what I want. Since I got out of the Marine Corps due to injury, I’ve only ever really wanted to help service members coming home. The transition is hard, I know that first hand. It’s even harder when you don’t have a fully functioning body. In a case like that, you’re making several life altering changes and they come at you faster than you can handle.
However, DOD funding isn’t for everyone. I can respect that people looking to do some research may not be comfortable discussing explicitly the military applications of that research, even if they exist. In that case, you still have two of the big three that you can go after NSF and NIH, both of which are great if you can get one!
NDSEG is a whole different beast though. It’s not just the requirements that make it tricky, unlike NIH and NSF, you don’t get to ask why your proposal was rejected and they certainly do not tell you. In fact, they tell you flat out not to ask and to not email the directors of the program you are applying to for clarification on anything. What they give you is what you get and that’s all, no more, no less. DO NOT EMAIL THEM ABOUT YOUR APPLICATION! Seriously, just don’t do it. It sucks, I know, but listen to the website.
For today, I think I’ll cover the basic requirements and touch on some of the tricky bits. There are a few things that aren’t so easy to understand with the NDSEG application, so I’ll try to clarify those things here for you. That way if you’re thinking about applying, you know exactly what you’re doing. Or at the very least, you won’t have so many questions about what things mean.
Let’s start with the requirements. For a fellowship application NDSEG is pretty easy! They ask for your history of course (applicant info), GPA, former schools, current schools, etc. You need three references (references section). That is not to be confused with letters of recommendation! NDSEG is unique in that they send out a link to a questionnaire and give the reference a space to make additional comments about the applicant. Talk to your references BEFORE using them and give them plenty of time to respond, even though it’s not as time consuming as writing a letter of recommendation, it’s still time they are taking for you, so my only advice is be polite and respectful when asking for help. You may also want to mention you don’t need a formal letter of recommendation for this application (again as of this writing! If that changes, someone please drop a comment, I want this to remain helpful over the years).
They also ask for previous publications, jobs, awards, and patents. Now, if you jumped right into academia from high school, jobs are probably going to be left blank. You may or may not have awards depending on where you are in your career and how well you’ve done. However, you may have publications or even a patent. The important thing to remember is that the publications and patent don’t have to be about the thing you’re going to research, they are asking for work related to your previous studies. For me I made the jump from design engineering to brain-machine interfaces, so I gave references to previous papers I’ve published on biomimetic joint designs. That’s a far cry from what I’m proposing to work on! They get listed because they show my ability as a student though, so if you have them I suggest you do the same.
They also ask for your CV/Resume, which is straightforward (I used my NSF biosketch since I just happen to have a current one and you can generate and modify one pretty easily here). They also request official transcripts, which ironically aren’t official. Instead of emailing them to NDSEG directly, you send them to yourself, download them, then upload them to the website. Meaning that even though they are “official” technically they are not. It’s a weird quark of NDSEG, but you need to order official transcripts for that part, trust me. They also ask for your GRE scores and official record, but if you did not take it or it’s been more than 5 years, you can explain that and they won’t count it against you (at least not this year).
Now for the two important bits. You have a personal essay. To get you ready the current prompt is, “What are your short and long-term professional goals? How did these goals develop? How have you already begun to lay the foundation for these goals? How does this fellowship fit into these goals?” and you have 500 words or less to answer it. There’s no real tips or anything for this section, you copy and paste your response directly into a text box they provide so no formatting or anything and the response is so personal it doesn’t make sense for me to suggest anything.
You also have your proposal. You get (as of this writing, again please comment if that changes so I can update accordingly) three pages plus an additional page for your citations. Formatting is the only restriction placed on you and you can have images if you want/need/have room. You need to have a minimum of 0.5″ margin, times new roman font and 12 pt. Figure captions and references can be smaller, but if your margins are less or font for your proposal smaller or different style then you will get automatically rejected. My captions were an 8pt font this year and since I had quite a few references and needed them all to fit on a single page, those were 8pt font as well.
Here’s the big thing and this will take some work on your part no matter what. Your proposal needs to fit into one of the broad agency announcements (BAA’s). These change yearly and they provide links to all of them in the proposal section when you make an account and login. My advice is find the line(s) in the announcement that pertains to your application and quote it directly. They also ask for you to list your BAA when you submit your proposal. There is a separate field that asks, “List the BAA number that relates to your research proposal,” so you don’t need to list it in your proposal directly. That number is found in one of the PDF packets that you’ve selected (broadly listed this year as air force, army or navy. I recall the Marines had one the last time I applied, but not this year I could be wrong about that though).
For example, the BAA I am responding to is listed under the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the BAA for that is listed on the second page and is confusingly called “announcement number” and the number should look like this: FA9550-19-S-0003. They also ask you to “List the title of the BAA that relates to your research proposal.” That would be the main category that your proposal falls under (there are subcategories, my proposal has two sub categories that it falls under, but you only list the main category).
As always, check the eligibility, as of 2021 you need to be in the first or second year of your Masters or have at least three years left for your PhD (confusingly they state you need to be in the first or second year, this works if you’re planning on doing a PhD in five years, which is typical, but you can and people do, take longer). You can check the 2021 eligibility here.
That’s basically all there is to it. If you’re interested in applying here’s the link for the website (Thanks to the influx of people reading this, I’ve updated it with the 2021 info, I’ll try to be better about this in the future since we’re already about halfway through the submission window). With this information you should be in pretty good shape to get it done properly. As a friendly reminder, everything is in PDF format, ALL OF IT! Apply early, this year (updated as of 2021!) the deadline is Nov 19th.
That’s a few weeks earlier than the previous year, but Something to remember when you apply is to keep an eye on the deadline (as this will fluctuate, last year was Nov 2nd).
Lastly, if you think you want to do it, but are scared or worried you wouldn’t get funded, please remember one thing. Do it. The worst that could happen is they say no, but you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Take the shot and if you don’t get it, well try again, but maybe you will get it. There’s really only one way to find out. So good luck to those who are applying this year and for anyone who stumbles across this post in the years to come. If I remember, I’ll update the info accordingly, if I forget, well there’s a comment section so feel free to update as needed!
2021 update! Welcome to another year of NDSEG, who’s ready to get hurt? Seriously though, good luck to anyone applying and if you see anything here that is not currently correct please let me know (comment, email, carrier pigeon, sky writing, Ouija Board, whatever) and I’ll make an honest attempt to edit this as quickly as possible. If all else fails and you don’t get awarded, remember there are other pathways to funding, I just recently found one for myself, so just stick with it.
One last helpful tip for the 2021 crowd, if you need to reach out to a PI, but don’t know how (or aren’t incredibly confident in your ability to do so) I wrote a little guide to help you out, which you can find here. Again, good luck! I’m excited to see who gets awarded!