Many of my pals are writing the CAREER proposals now, and I've been reading their proposals, etc. I thought it might be interesting to post my thoughts on what makes a good CAREER proposal. If you have some questions, you could ask them as "comments" and I'll try to give thoughts on them. I like lists so here is a numbered list:
1. Formatting: Make your proposal look nice. Don't overlook formatting. A bad looking proposal appears disorganized and reviewers may perceive that your research is also disorganized.
2. Spelling: One spelling error can cost you an entire proposal. Don't trust spell check.
3. Hypothesis-Driven: NSF loves hypothesis-driven research. What are your hypotheses? How will you test them? What motivated you to formulate those hypotheses?
4. Observation-Hypothesis Table: I love to have a table of observations and hypotheses to demonstrate the motivation for my proposed work. I saw this kind of table on a panel, and it was very well received. The observations should have citations wherever possible. The hypotheses should tie into your proposed research or proposed tasks. This kind of table explicitly demonstrates your ability to use the scientific method.
5. Attitude: Your writing style should be authoritative, as if you are an expert in the field. Avoid negative language. Avoid bragging.
6. Adviser: It is important to distinguish your proposed work from what you did in your Ph.D. or post-doc. Is your adviser going down the same avenue presently? I had to explicitly state how my work was different because it wasn't immediately obvious to someone outside the field.
7. Audience: Write at the level of the lowest denominator. Your proposal will likely be reviewed by someone in your discipline, but not in your field. You cannot assume that the reviewer will have a priori knowledge of what your field is, or the history of your field. Therefore, you must approach the proposal as if it is a chance to educate and persuade the reader that your field is important and interesting.
8. Cook and Look: Reviewers are always on the outlook for "cook and look" proposals, so avoid proposing that! An example of cook and look would be "Task 1: I'm going to vary pH, Task 2: I'm going to vary concentration, Task 3: I'm going to vary temperature."
9. Finish Early: If the first draft is finished early, then you can send it out to friends and colleagues for their opinion. Consider all suggestions. Take their criticism gracefully.
10: Clarity: If something isn't clear, consider making a cartoon or schematic. Panelists love pictures.
11: References: Oftentimes, panelists will flip to the references section to check how many references were included. I've heard some panelists remark that anything less than 100 is unacceptable. As ridiculous as it sounds, I don't want to anger them, so I have a minimum of 100.
12. My recipe:
p.1-2 Motivation and Observation/Hypothesis Table
p. 2-3 Briefly list Technical Objectives
p. 3 Briefly list Educational Objectives
p. 3-4 Background
p. 5 Qualification of the PI (establish your expertise and your independence from your advisers)
p. 5-7 Preliminary Work
p. 7 Begin Research Plan
p. 7-9 Objective 1
p. 9-10 Objective 2
p. 11- Objective 3
p. 12-14 Educational Plan
p. 14 Dissemination of Results
p. 14 Current NSF Support
p. 15 Summary and Time Table