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Editor's note: To demystify the process of attaining distinguished graduate fellowships, ASU Now will feature a multipart series of interviews with distinguished graduate award recipients from across the ASU community. The series will showcase the achievements of ASU’s distinguished graduate award recipients and highlight the strategies that led to those achievements. Look for "The Culture of Pursuit" series by Joshua Brooks, program manager of distinguished graduate fellowships, on ASU Now and in the Graduate Insider newsletter.
Arizona State University is home to 49 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows.
One of these distinguished awardees is Andrew Burchill, a 2015 NSF Graduate Research Fellow and 2018 GROW recipient. He attends the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Life Sciences PhD program in animal behavior. Burchill is also a 2015 Congressional Award winner (the highest civilian honor awarded by the U.S. Congress for public service).
Pursuing distinguished fellowships and awards
“My pursuit of distinguished awards is a natural evolution to doing what I want to do. I want to do research, and researchers need funding,” said Burchill.
He applied to the NSF-GRFP when considering how to develop his PhD program into something significant. He heard about the Global Development Research Program at ASU (sponsored by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and USAID). He applied to be a fellow, which he became in 2016. Andrew’s first order of business when it comes to distinguished awards is finding the opportunities, which will allow him to do what he’s already planning.
Why apply to the NSF-GRFP
“It’s a crazy opportunity,” said Burchill. Once he started thinking about what he could do with the funding and support provided by the NSF-GRFP, he got excited about applying. He spent the year between undergrad and graduate school polishing his application for the NSF-GRFP.
Why the GROW award
“The thing about GROW is that only Graduate Research Fellows can apply. This means the applicant pool is smaller, therefore, the chances of receiving the award would be higher. That motivated me to apply,” said Burchill. The other thing that motivated him was that, as a biologist, he wanted to research in Australia. GROW provided him an opportunity to go there, establish connections, publish and generally become familiar with the research community within his field in Australia. While the GROW award provides travel allowances, he still needed his host country (Australia) to provide funding for his extended stay. For Burchill, this came through the Endeavour Research Fellowship provided by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training.
Choosing which awards to apply for
“Essentially, if people in the know tell me I’m a good candidate, I apply. But, knowing how many awards to apply to and how often to apply is a tough balance,” said Burchill. Students need to keep up with their research work, yet the opportunities afforded by distinguished awards are significant. Burchill admits he oscillates between the two. Sometimes he’ll spend most of his time pursuing distinguished awards, finding awards, researching awards, writing for awards, etc. Other times, his workload and timeline will be such that all he can do is conduct his program research. Burchill said, “It’s difficult to manage, but a successful researcher will need to do both.”
“ASU is one of the best places in the world to study ants and all sorts of other insect topics. At ASU, there are many different experts on every social insect topic you can imagine under one roof,” said Burchill.
Advice that he would like to give potential NSF-GRFP applicants
“Applying to the NSF-GRFP is not applying to do a project, as much as it seems like it is. It’s demonstrating your ability to conceive of and carry out a research project,” said Burchill. Your application should show that you are uniquely situated to carry out the type of research indicated in the research proposal. The NSF is evaluating the applicant as a scientist more than the actual project.
After you’ve written the first draft of your application, sit on it for a long time and then pick it up again to review and edit,” suggests Burchill. The NSF-GRFP isn’t something that should be done last minute. An early draft is very important. Turning that early draft in to several subsequent drafts over a period of months, and having others review it and critique it, is very helpful.
Future goals after receiving a doctorate
“If I can continue doing research, that would be amazing. Getting positions in academia is becoming more difficult. That in itself can be a source of stress,” said Burchill. He intends to just keep doing what he’s doing, for now.
Advice for fellow graduate students regarding their current and future careers
The biggest issue Burchill wants to address among the graduate community at ASU is “imposter syndrome.” “A lot of graduate students are self-effacing. They don’t want to think about what they do in a positive light. They can’t see themselves in a positive light. But, they have to in order to apply for distinguished awards,” said Burchill. “Try thinking of your CV as a video game. Thinking of yourself as a character in a video game where you can collect items or bonuses that increase your value or stats. A lot of people say, ‘I’ve never done anything that should go on a CV.’ But, many things are CV material if you think it through.” For example, Buchill participated in the largest scavenger hunt in the world while he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. He organized the scavenger hunt and the meals. On his CV, he noted that he managed finances and logistics for hundreds of people for a large, well-known public event. “Pretending that you’re a video game character allows you to find fun and interesting ways to explain yourself in a way that’s good for the CV,” said Burchill.
If you want to pursue NSF-GRFP, be sure to attend one of the two information sessions offered this year:
Thursday, September 6, 2018 at 10:15 a.m., Tempe campus, Memorial Union 207 (Gold room)