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  • Writer's pictureResearch Impact Enterprises [RIE]

Proposal Insights: Five Tips You Need To Know To Obtain an NSF CAREER Award

Updated: Mar 17, 2021


If you are reading this, you have probably considered writing and submitting a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career (CAREER) program. What is the NSF CAREER program? The NSF CAREER program is a Foundation wide activity that offers 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 (NSF 20-525). CAREER proposals are now due July 26th, 2021 and the fourth Monday in July, annually thereafter every year.

This is different from the last CAREER solicitation which had staggered due dates based on discipline. Since a revised version of the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG) (NSF 20-1), is effective for proposals submitted, or due, on or after June 1, 2020. NSF states to "Please be advised that, depending on the specified due date, the guidelines contained in NSF 20-1 may apply to proposals submitted in response to this funding opportunity".

To help you submit a competitive NSF CAREER proposal I have provided five tips to consider before and while preparing, organizing, and writing your NSF CAREER proposal. I have updated the links and etc., to reflect some of the basic changes from last year. These tips are accompanied with two resources labelled Figure 1 and 2. Note: I consider Tip 1 to be the most important.

As you might have guessed, there are a lot of hints, tips, and resources that could be provided to help you successfully navigate the NSF CAREER landscape. However, the purpose of this document is not to provide all the tips, hints, and resources for the NSF CAREER. Rather, the purpose of this document is to provide you with some information to get you started on your NSF CAREER journey. If you have questions after reading these tips, please feel free to ask me as many questions as you like,

Tip 1

There are many aspects that must be considered when writing your CAREER proposal. For example, to obtain a CAREER award you must convince an audience (review panel) that your entire career will advance and have a substantial positive impact on your field/s and society. This audience will also want to know how what you propose for the next five years will set up your professional career for the next 10 to 15 years.

Providing this, along with the other aspects needed for the CAREER, in a clear and concise fashion takes time. So much so, that NSF allows assistant faculty to submit once a year, for up to three consecutive years. Please see the NSF CAREER solicitation, (NSF 20-525), to find out more concerning this issue.

The earlier you begin to prepare for your CAREER the better. This means spending more than 2 to 6 weeks preparing and writing your proposal. This is because there is a lot involved in this endeavor and you will find out that you will need to seek out several types of help to submit a competitive CAREER proposal.

At the very least, start 6 months to 1 year seriously preparing, organizing, thinking, and writing your NSF CAREER proposal before its due date. In other words, if the CAREER is due in July, start no later than January preparing for the NSF CAREER. Anything less will substantially decrease your chances of obtaining a CAREER award.

Writing a NSF CAREER proposal is NOT like anything you have ever done before. So, if you plan on only spending 2 to 6 weeks on your NSF CAREER application, while reasonably performing ALL YOUR CURRENT required faculty responsibilities, and applying to the CAREER program for the first time. Don’t expect good news from NSF.

In this 2 to 6 weeks scenario, no amount of help you get on your NSF CAREER proposal from anyone or any organization could substitute for the time that should have been spent thinking, planning, organizing, and writing about the next 5-10 years of your life! Remember, the earlier the better. Your CAREER is your career!

Tip 2

If this is your first year as a tenure-track faculty do not try to submit a NSF CAREER proposal. Instead, write a standard research proposal as a Primary Investigator (PI) and submit it to NSF. Specifically, the type that allows for a CoPrimary Investigator (CoPI).

Writing a standard NSF research proposal as a PI or with a CoPI will allow you to: get familiar with the NSF proposal process; better understand your directorate or specific program; work with a more well established and seasoned investigator; and provide you with a realistic view about how far you are along in your specific research and educational program.

On average most faculty receive an NSF CAREER award in either their second, third, or fifth year before becoming an Associate Professor. Planning a year or two ahead, in this way, will increase your chance of success in obtaining a CAREER award!

Tip 3

The Integrated Education and Research Plan (IRP) is very different from what is written in the broader impacts section of a standard PI/CoPI research proposal for NSF. Do not try to cut what you wrote from one of your old broader impacts narrative sections of your standard PI/CoPI NSF research proposal and paste it into your IRP. This is true even if that past research proposal’s broader impacts section was viewed as excellent by an NSF review panel and the proposal was funded by NSF in the past one or two years.

If you attempt to do this, you will be asking for trouble. There must now be an IRP section and a broader impacts section. Please see Figure 2 under tip 5. In this year's solicitation it specifically states under "Project Description - that one must provide a description of other broader impacts, besides the education activities, that will accrue from the project". So, just in case you have done this before, and are resubmitting your proposal from last year - please don't label your IRP as your Broader Impacts section. It's bad juju!

The IRP should not be a list of educational activities. The IRP should not be detached from best practices in the literature. In other words, it is necessary to have the appropriate references that align with what you are planning to do in your IRP.

The IRP should align with who you are as a person. The IRP should complement your anticipated future professional positive impact identity. The IRP should also: be creative, innovative, and personal; demonstrate what legacy of benefit you are obtaining; be contextualized properly; be explicitly well assessed or evaluated for benefit; have one main integrated educational activity; and be "reciprocally advantageous". Reciprocally advantageous mean that the research and its activities benefit and supports the education, and the education and its activities benefit and supports the research.

This one major integrated educational activity should also have one to three corollary activities. These one to three corollary events must support your main activity. All of which must be reciprocally advantageous to each other and society. A detailed pictorial representation or map outlining how this is all connected is necessary in addition to the timeline that should be provided in your CAREER proposal.

Tip 4

Once you have your overarching research theme, a quick way to get started is to make a tree diagram. I suggest having three major subareas. Use what you detail out on your tree diagram as the backbone of your CAREER proposal.

Having more than three major subareas will start to reduce the effectiveness and clarity of your NSF CAREER proposal. In some cases, having four major subareas is acceptable for a CAREER proposal. Regardless of how many major subareas you decide to put in your NSF CAREER proposal, do not put more than four subareas.

If you use more than four major subareas, the clarity of your writing will be exponentially diminished, and you will run out of space trying to get all the required pieces needed in your CAREER proposal. Remember one of the major subareas will not be over your research project. A resource for how to get started is provided in Figure 1. Click here or on the figure to enlarge the image.

Figure 1.

Tip 5

Many think that the NSF CAREER proposal is a research proposal. This is incorrect. The NSF CAREER proposal is NOT a research proposal.

One implication of this means leaving out a substantial amount of technical jargon. Here is the general rule of thumb. If a senior high school student cannot understand the basic premise of your proposal, if some of the people who are involved in your IRP can’t understand your IRP, if you have not had someone, a colleague or peer, who is outside of your field read your proposal, and if that person outside of your field after reading your proposal cannot understand what you stand for, what you are doing, and how you plan to do whatever it is that you will do for your CAREER, THEN YOU HAVE TOO MUCH JARGON AND IT IS OF LOW READABILITY AND IMPACT.

The NSF CAREER proposal IS a Career Development Proposal. One implication of this means that there are several required parts of the CAREER proposal that are not required in a standard PI/CoPI NSF research proposal. Figure 2 is an outline of what should be considered in a NSF CAREER proposal. Click here or on the figure to enlarge the image.

Figure 2.

In addition and as an reminder please note that for the last three years NSF has required an entitled Intellectual Merit (IM) section. This should also be considered in Figure 2. Provided below is the on-going advice on the issue unless specified otherwise in the specific CAREER solicitation, (NSF 20-525).

In this entitled IM section, you should make sure you address the core elements essential to any proposal, including — as is specified in the NSF PAPPG — what (you) want to do, why (you) want to do it, how (you) plan to do it, how (you) will know if (you) succeed, and what benefits could accrue if the project is successful.

Lastly, in general the IRPs are becoming more integrated and thus taking up more space in the proposal. This trend has been happening over the last two years. Make sure to seek additional help and feedback concerning IRP creation, development, and implementation for your CAREER. There are several ways that IRP can positioned and highlighted in the CAREER proposal in addition to what is provided in Figure 2.


Dr. Michael Thompson aka “The Broader Impacts Guy”

Michael Thompson, who has just finished his Executive Education Certificate in Entrepreneurship through the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania is currently the Head/CEO of Research Impact Enterprises or RIE. RIE is a Research Impact (RI) Accelerator for Individuals, Academics, and Institutions. A vision-based entity with For-Profit and Non-Profit ideologies and characteristics. RIE is the only company in the United States that specializes in addressing the many nuanced aspects of Research Impact (RI) for both the Non-Academic and those in the Academy - especially the "RI Venture" (i.e. business or start-up). RIE achieves this through collaborating and providing: Business Strategy/ Consulting Services; Research Program, Proposal, and "RI Venture" Development and; Several Other Product and Service Initiatives to help individuals and organizations develop relevant, positive, profitable, and high-quality impact solutions for others, themselves, institutions, communities, and society-at-large.

Before serving as Head/CEO of RIE, Michael was the Founding Director of the Broader Impacts in Research (BIR) organization, on the Senior Staff of the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), member of the Center for Research Program Development and Enrichment (CRPDE), and Affiliate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma (OU). He also served on the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI) Working Group, which developed the Broader Impacts Guiding Principles and Questions for National Science Foundation (NSF) Proposals. Prior to working for OU he lived in Portland, Oregon and worked at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Institute for Environmental Health (IEH), the Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP), as well as started several companies.


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