Featured Fellow: Jia Wei Zhang
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP)
Jia Wei Zhang, an undergraduate in psychology, went on to win the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP) in his first year of his PhD program, immediately following his graduation from SF State. Zia Wei shares here his experience in applying for the NSF. Thank you Jia Wei!
FELLOWSHIP I WON AND WHEN
I was awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2012, during my first year of doctoral studies in Social/Personality Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
MY MAJOR/MINOR AND AREA (S) OF ACADEMIC/PROFESSIONAL INTEREST
I studied Psychology at San Francisco State University as an undergraduate. My early studies in psychology can be traced back to City College of San Francisco, where I was mentored by a psychology professor who opened my eyes to the discipline. It seems that I was more or less destined to study psychology. I have always wanted to study a subject other than those stereotypically associated with what Chinese immigrants pursue: accounting, pre-med, physical or life sciences, and business. I wasn't good at any of these anyway, and I'm having much more fun in psychology. Given my interest in observing individual behavior, psychology was my first choice. I jumped at the opportunity and have never looked back.
THE SUBSTANCE OF MY FELLOWSHIP PROPOSAL
The theme of my proposal was whether the concept of money diminishes feelings of compassion. To test this question, I proposed three studies using multiple methods. For instance, in one study, I asked participants to count a stack of bills versus pieces of papers. Afterwards, I measured participants' respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) response to a compassion induction slideshow. The RSA is a measure of the vagal nerve activation, which is a part of the autonomic nervous system. RSA is assessed by examining the covariation between respiration and heart rate and co-occurs with feelings of compassion. In my experience of reading the proposals of prior winners, these proposals tend to include multiple studies that use a variety of methods which converge to support a hypothesis. The evidence resulting from these studies tend to be convincing and rule out alternative explanations of a process.
LOW POINT IN THE APPLICATION PROCESS
I didn't really experience any low points, though I did have a hard time deciding whom to ask for my letters. I had developed a close relationship with two professors at SF State and one professor at Berkeley. My advisor at Berkeley is a famous professor in Social/Personality Psychology, but I was new to the program and we had not yet worked on anything together. In the end, I went with my SF state references and the Berkeley professor with whom I had worked for a while. It seems that I chose well: one of the NSF reviewers mentioned that my recommendations were very strong.
HIGH POINT IN THE APPLICATION PROCESS
The best part of the application process was all the support I received. On 'day one' at Berkeley, I was told that all incoming students are 'unofficially required' to apply for the NSF. I was also told that the Social/Personality area has had a very successful history of graduate students receiving the NSF. At that point, I thought I would soon join the portion that doesn't get funded. But at our weekly Social/Psychology graduate student meeting, I was paired with two prior winners who helped me tremendously with proofreading and editing. The department also kept a binder of essays by NSF winners: these successful essays were there for me to peruse as I pleased! How amazing. My advisor also gave me feedback on my research proposal, and suggested substantial revisions to it. I believe that I would not have received the award had I not adopted these suggestions. I was very lucky, indeed!
MISADVENTURE(S) DURING THE FELLOWSHIP
I didn't start my writing until October and had to rush edits. If I had it to do over, I would have started earlier. A good time might have been the summer before I applied – at least to take notes and brainstorm sections of the essays.
BEST MOMENT DURING THE FELLOWSHIP
When I entered my Ph.D. program at Berkeley, I received a two year university fellowship. The NSF provides three years of funding, which means that if I am able to complete the program in five years, and I will have secure funding throughout my graduate studies. Sweet.
BENEFITS OF THE FELLOWSHIP
The NSF offers 3 years of funding at $30,000 per year, plus approximately $12,000 for tuition. In addition, there is the prestige that comes with the fellowship.
ADVICE TO APPLICANTS
Starting early is very important – as is seeking a great deal of feedback from those in a position to advise you: past winners, advanced graduate students, etc. It can be difficult to see your own mistakes, and others may be able to help you identify bad writing habits. Also, seek out departmental resources. There might be resources available to you that you aren't yet aware of. Look for them. Each student has three opportunities to apply for the NSF: the senior year, and the first and second year in graduate school. Do it again, if you must.
WHY I'D DO IT AGAIN
Had I not received the fellowship, I would have had to reapply – but honestly, I'm glad I won't have to. I spent most of my first semester in graduate school working on this application.
WHAT I'M DOING NOW
I am continuing my studies in the Social/Personality Ph.D. program at Berkeley with Professor Dacher Keltner, collaborating with a couple of graduate students on various projects. To learn more about my current research and publications, click on my name under "Graduate Students" of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory: http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~keltner/people.htm. I am really enjoying my time as a graduate student: I am among the few who can say that they are doing something they truly enjoy for a living!