A scientist works in a lab.

Five pieces of advice for applying to NSF’s CAREER program

Rick Page talks with a student in his office.
Successful applicants to the NSF CAREER program, like the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry’s Rick Page, shown here at right, submit proposals that show how their research and education plans are integrated.

On January 16, OARS sponsored a session on the NSF CAREER program, presented by Liz Nysson. In addition to being a staff member in the Discovery Center for Evaluation, Research, and Professional Learning, Nysson is also a member of the steering committee for the National Alliance for Broader Impacts. In this session, she covered basics of the program – including eligibility, budgets, and due dates – and offered advice to prospective applicants, some highlights of which we cover here.

1. Earlier is better.

This advice applies to both contacting a program officer (PO) – which Nysson strongly recommended – and submitting an application. With CAREER submission deadlines in July, POs are flooded with requests from prospective applicants in May, so Nysson advised prospective applicants to contact them much sooner. February is not too early, especially this year, when one government shutdown has just ended and another looms. It is advised to have a one-pager ready describing the PI’s intended CAREER proposal. As for applications, Nysson said submitting at the last minute leaves a PI vulnerable to electronic system problems that commonly occur when volumes are heavy. It’s much better to submit a few days early. Not only are problems less likely to occur when system traffic is lighter, but there is also still time before the deadline to mitigate any problems that might crop up.

2. This program is about the PI, not just the project.

Most grant programs, including the ones offered by NSF, are meant to fund specific projects. In contrast, the CAREER program has a strong emphasis on the principal investigator (PI), not simply the project. That means no co-PIs are permitted on CAREER proposals. It also means that some common practices – like using “we” in the narrative – are not recommended. Instead, Nysson said applicants should use “I” when appropriate to keep the emphasis on the PI. Using the first person singular to describe completed activities reinforces the message that the PI has demonstrated their personal ability to carry out the proposed activities. (This is not to say that the PI can’t have help carrying out the proposed activities, especially those in the education plan. In fact, Nysson suggested that the applicant’s budget include salary for graduate students, post-docs, or other support staff.) Because it is so important to establish that the PI has a demonstrated ability to carry out the proposed activities – and because PIs are permitted only three bites at the CAREER application apple – Nysson also said PIs who don’t yet have preliminary data should consider waiting until they do before applying for a CAREER award.

3. The education component is integral, not “extra.”

With some programs – regardless of what the RFP says – education plans are evaluated by reviewers as a nice-to-have component rather than a must-have component. That is not the case with the CAREER program, where reviewers keep a sharp eye out for carefully integrated education plans. CAREER applications in which the education plan is tacked-on or treated as an afterthought will not be successful, so Nysson recommended applicants approach the education plan as rigorously as they approach the research plan. Just like research plans, education plans should include clear aims, objectives, background information, citations, and other critical elements. Just as research plan research design and methods are evidence-based, education plan research design and methods should be as well. Nysson said PIs should also clearly explain how their education plans are integrated with their research plans, and they should be explicit about how the work is integrated with their research as they do it. Activities related to the education plan should be accounted for in both the budget and the timeline.

4. Good grantsmanship is good CAREER grantsmanship.

Nysson emphasized that CAREER is special in many ways, but it is still a grant program with a typically crowded field. Although the competition is stiffer in some directorates than in others, no directorate has had a funding rate above 25% in recent years. PIs can improve their chances of success with effective grantsmanship. Nysson specifically advised PIs to:

  • Review NSF’s note to CAREER reviewers both before and after drafting the proposal to ensure the proposal not only contains what the reviewers are looking for, but also that it makes those things easy to find.
  • Provide context for reviewers who may not be experts in all elements of their research.
  • Establish a clear organizational structure.
  • Articulate explicit connections between aims, hypotheses, research plans, and outcomes.
  • Use headings to distinguish various sections of their narrative.
  • Use bullet points for objectives and items in lists, not only to provide clarity, but also to provide reviewers with reference points for navigating back to specific information in the proposal. (Yes, bullets take up more space, but that space can often be made up by following the advice in the bullet below.)
  • Employ a clear, direct writing style.
  • Include charts, graphs, or other illustrations. As with bullet points, graphics both facilitate reviewers’ understanding and provide them with reference points.
  • Observe rules of standard written English.

5. The departmental letter is not pro forma.

It is critical that the required letter from an applicant’s department chair be personalized and not come across as generic. Letters should be tailored to the applicant and contain the following specific elements outlined in the CAREER program solicitation:

  • A statement to the effect that the PI is eligible for the CAREER program. For non-tenure-track faculty, the Departmental Letter must affirm that the investigator’s appointment is at an early-career level equivalent to pre-tenure status, pursuant to the eligibility criteria specified above. Further, for non-tenure-track faculty, the Departmental Letter must clearly and convincingly demonstrate how the faculty member satisfies all the requirements of tenure-track equivalency as defined in the eligibility criteria specified in this solicitation.
  • An indication that the PI’s proposed CAREER research and education activities are supported by and advance the educational and research goals of the department and the organization, and that the department is committed to the support and professional development of the PI; and
  • A description of a) the relationship between the CAREER project, the PI’s career goals and job responsibilities, and the mission of his/her department/organization, and b) the ways in which the department head (or equivalent) will ensure the appropriate mentoring of the PI, in the context of the PI’s career development and his/her efforts to integrate research and education throughout the period of the award and beyond.

The departmental letter must be no more than two pages in length, and Nysson warned that, in this case at least, shorter is not better. Letters less than two pages long may be interpreted by reviewers as a lukewarm endorsement of the applicant by the department chair. Nysson suggested that an applicant may wish to write an initial draft of the letter for their chair to work from or provide their chair with relevant information.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Lab photo by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services. Photo of Rick Page by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.



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