Tuesday, July 3, 2012


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

Good luck!


Anonymous said...

I thought they liked cook and look proposal, as they outline a specific plan? why do you think they should be avoided?

Anonymous said...

Janus, can you please comment on which directorate this is? I would imagine some of your suggestions are discipline specific (like cook and look, and the hyp. table)

Anonymous said...

It always irritates me how they like to see: "show how your work is different than your advisor's." I'm sorry but most PhD work is not that different form the advisor's work. Everything is kind of the same but a little different. If you truly did something different it would take you many more years to truly establish yourself. It's these types of games that make academia a real turn-off.

Janus Professor said...

The panel usually shuns "incremental" work, and cook and look falls in that category.

Directorates I've sat on include ENG, MPS, and some EFRI

Yes, I am also irritated about the whole differentiation between myself and my adviser, but if that's what it takes to get money, then I'll do it.

Anonymous said...

Can you show an example of what exactly you mean by an observation-hypothesis table?

Anonymous said...

Ok, this is anonymous 1. Then, maybe I don't understand how cook and look = incremental?
why would it be if there is specific and concise plan?
or maybe I misunderstood your example of C&L.

Arlenna said...

Anonymous 1, I think it's because in the example you'd just be looking at the same thing in three incrementally different ways, rather than pushing into totally novel territory.

I'd also love to see a version of the Observation->Hypothesis table. I have been close on a CAREER for at least one of my two submissions, and only have one left now to try to get it. I'm thinking of waiting until next year because I need to get papers published this summer rather than work on another proposal.

Anonymous said...

I'm Anonymous 2. I think NSF just hates cook and look. As an engineering faculty myself, it is another annoying aspect of NSF that you must present hypothesis-driven research. A lot of research in engineering is NOT hypothesis driven. They are trying to make engineers into scientists. So, when I write NSF grants (or NIH, etc.) I must reformat my project into hypothesis-driven research which may or may not make sense.

Academia is so stifling. Yes, I understand you can't have faculty sitting on their a$$ dreaming about the next big thing, but at the same time all these rules and games prevent real innovation to come through. Imagine if Albert Einstein was forced to write a CAREER proposal and word his research in just the right way? Writing so many proposals that have less than 10% chance of being funded is SUCH a waste of time. Faculty should be working on research and asking for money when it is truly needed to make the research happen. But that can't be in this day and age when universities are starting to be run like businesses. They want research money just for the sake of getting research money. It's the end not the means to an end.

End Rant.

remy martin said...

Everything is kind of the same but a little different. If you truly did something different it would take you many more years to truly establish yourself.

Ewan said...

Thanks for this. Mine's in - first-ever NSF submission, but likely my only shot so may as well take it. Not the best I've written, but then the best I've written didn't get funded :).