Tips for Preparing your CAREER Proposals

The deadline for CAREER (NSF 17-537) proposal submission, 18 July 2018 is fast approaching. We have updated our tips for CAREER submissions. You will also want to consult the current Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG NSF 18-1). For more information there are also extensive FAQ available online.

You may also want to check out our prior postings on helpful suggestions from our colleagues in the Division of Environmental Biology (DEB).

Here are some tips from IOS program officers on preparing your CAREER proposal:

  1. Panel Review: Although there is a separate solicitation for CAREER proposals, most clusters in IOS assess these proposals in review panels that also review full proposals submitted through the core IOS solicitation. Your proposal will also be sent out for “ad hoc” review by experts in the field(s) represented by the proposal, individuals who are familiar with the conceptual framework and techniques. The panel itself will have reviewers who can evaluate many proposals at the panel and thus may not be experts in every proposal on the panel, but will be generally familiar with the broader research topics at the panel.
  2. Intellectual Merit: The same criteria apply for CAREER proposals and regular full proposal submissions; for details see the NSF Merit Review Criteria document. Whether the work is hypothesis-driven or discovery-based, a clearly articulated conceptual framework should be in place, with the aims thematically linked, but not tightly dependent on each other. The work proposed should fit realistically within the five-year duration required by the program. It is not helpful to present an overly ambitious research plan. The goal is to make it clear to the reviewers that significant biological questions are being addressed through well-designed approaches. Show, don’t tell: Rather than explicitly announcing the research to be novel, important, or potentially transformative, it is better to leave it to the reviewers to reach conclusions about the merits of the project. Preliminary data, although not required, is strongly recommended. Any data included should be chosen and explained carefully, with the intent of providing the key observations motivating the project and proof-of-principle studies for difficult or risky experimental approaches. It is also important to consider alternative strategies (experimental or technical) or how you will deal with unexpected results during the project.
  3. Educational Component and Broader Impacts: These are key to the success of the proposal. Many CAREER proposals are not funded because the educational and outreach component is viewed by reviewers as being insufficient. A common criticism from reviewers of CAREER proposals is that, although the proposed educational plan and activities are fine for a regular proposal, they do not meet the CAREER requirement for integration of research and education. Keep in mind that the CAREER award program represents NSF’s “most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a  firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research,” (from NSF 17-537). Therefore, this component of your CAREER proposal should explain how you will integrate research and education to meet specific goals in the context of your position at your institution. What contributions will you make to enhance the education and research experiences for students at your institution, and to your own development as an academic leader? In addition, these activities should resonate with the research being proposed; i.e., they should, in some way, be related to the scientific research being proposed. We ask reviewers to look for real integration of research and education/outreach efforts, with innovative approaches whose creativity and extent go considerably beyond what is expected for the broader impacts in a regular proposal. Be sure to include an adequate budget for your educational and outreach activities.
  4. Departmental Chair’s Letter: These are reviewed carefully by the panel and often factor into rating decisions. It is helpful for the letter to convey the department’s strong commitment to the success of the project and the PI. Specific departmental contributions to the project’s success (time, space, equipment, etc.) should be described. This document should NOT be a reference letter for the PI.
  5. List of Suggested Reviewers or Reviewers Not to Include: This list is optional, but it is recommended that you provide a list of suggested reviewers (including email addresses and organizational affiliations) for your proposal. Be sure your suggested reviewers are not on your COA list. The list should be submitted as a single copy document (further instructions are in the PAPPG). It is the decision of the Program Officer handling your proposal whether these suggested reviewers are used.
  6. Budget Justification: It is recommended that the budget justification (a  required element, see PAPPG) follows the same organization as the budget sheets. For example, each section of text should have corresponding headings (e.g., “C. Fringe Benefits” or “G.1 Materials and Supplies”).

For more information on preparing and submitting you CAREER proposal, contact the cognizant program officer in the IOS program to which you intend to submit.