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Spotlight on Brandon Hellman - ARCS Foundation and the NDSEG Fellowship

Submitted on November 9, 2017
Image of Brian Hellman

Hello fellow funding seekers!

My name is Brandon Hellman, and I am a third year PhD student in Optical Sciences. I am developing new LIDAR (3D mapping, input) and 3D display (output) systems. LIDAR is very important for autonomous vehicles: a traditional camera does not offer clear enough depth-perception information for a car to drive itself. 3D display . . . and who doesn’t want to see a floating Princess Leia hologram?

In my first year of grad school I submitted applications for three fellowships: the Ford Foundation, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship Program.

The NSF GRFP is unique in returning feedback to applicants. The essays are graded on two main criteria: “intellectual merit” (IM) and “broader impacts” (BI), as defined by the NSF GRFP Solicitation document. I had three readers, so I received in total 6 scores on a scale of “fair”, “poor”, “good”, “very good”, and “excellent”, as well as specific comments.

My scores:

Grader 1 – IM: Very Good. BI: Excellent.

Grader 2 – IM: Good. BI: Good.

Grader 3 – IM: Excellent. BI: Excellent.

Quote from Grader 3: “This is an outstanding application.”

Quote from Grader 2: The application would have been more competitive with more specific information.”

I received an Honorable Mention for the NSF GRFP, and simple rejections from Ford and NDSEG.

So, what happened? Grader 3 clearly had Choco-Blasted Os for breakfast, while Grader 2 was left with off-brand High Fiber Multigrain.

Two real takeaways:

1. 17,000 applicants and many, many graders lead to variability across readings. Though Grader 3 thought I covered the criteria, my work was not sufficient for Grader 2. I must better engineer my application to perfectly cover the criteria.

2. Luck plays a part (and I don’t have any control here).

In my second year of grad school I submitted applications for two fellowships and a scholarship: NSF GRFP, NDSEG, and the ARCS Foundation Scholarship. Learning from my previous GRFP application, I researched the application process for all three applications. This involved learning about the respective audiences, criteria, and goals of each program. In particular, I found it useful to translate densely worded criterion into simpler concepts, and make sure each sentence in my application was specifically supporting the argument for my selection (i.e. evidence for my proposal, not just a long-winded discussion of science).

My NSF GRFP Scores, Round 2 (back when two attempts were allowed):

Grader 1 – IM: Very Good. BI: Excellent.

Grader 2 – IM: Very good. BI: Very good.

Grader 3 – IM: Excellent. BI: Excellent.

A significant improvement (by skill or luck) with graders more closely agreeing my application was well written, but I still received an Honorable Mention. I ended up receiving the ARCS Foundation Scholarship and the NDSEG Fellowship, both of which I attribute to paying more close attention to the specific application questions, the audiences, and the goals of each program.

My particular advice:

  1. Engineer your application.

    After building a bridge, a civil engineer doesn’t just “hope” it can hold up a car; s/he/they designed the bridge by following specific, tangible engineering principles. Engineer your application so that any reviewer will read your application and know that it is a winner. (i.e. Thoroughly research/understand what criteria the reviewers are looking for, and plan your argument accordingly.)

  2. Keep writing. Seek readers until you get harsh, constructive criticism, and keep writing. “It’s good” or “more commas” won’t make your application a winner. Early on, seek big-picture feedback.

  3. You can’t escape the luck factor, so apply, apply, apply.

Then research, and don’t forget to enjoy grad school.

Brandon Hellman