NSF CAREER Awards

May 22, 2017

I can’t think of any solicitation which connects as well to a sponsor’s goals as the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER program. NSF states it wants to not only keep the United States at the “leading edge of discovery” in all fields of fundamental science and engineering, but also ensure “research is fully integrated with education so that today’s revolutionary work will also be training tomorrow’s top scientists and engineers.” So, the NSF puts their money where their mouth is and provides funds to assistant professors to develop themselves as “teacher-scholars.”

CAREER provides funding for five years of $400,000-$500,000 (depending on the directorate you are applying to). It’s research plan of how you will spend the time and money in career development. A successful proposal explains your research path, not a specific part of it. It’s how you are going to move from your PhD thesis topic to the area of research you want to focus on for the rest of your career.

Let that sink in for a minute. This is not a proposal for a research project. You have to go big picture on this, so the earlier you start planning, the better. You’re going to have to figure out what about 10 years of successful research would look like for you. Then you should map out the major milestones (think annually here) so you know your research objectives for the course of your five-year CAREER proposal.

Once you have that, you can start thinking about the proposal itself. Because a CAREER proposal is a plan for your development as a “teacher-scholar,” a solid structure for your 15-page program description contains the following:

  • Introduction
  • Research Summary
  • Education Plan
  • Integration of Research and Education

Introduction

While a catchy introduction can be great, you need to get to the point as quickly as possible. There’s nothing wrong (and lots right) with your opening sentence being “The research objective of this proposal is….” (For some more thoughts on writing introductions, see this). Just remember – reviewers want you to get to the point as quickly as possible so the longer it takes for you to give that information to the reviewer, the less likely you are going to be successful.

Research Summary

The research summary should be both ambitious and focused. It should also show the foundation you are building upon. It should be infused with enthusiasm for not only your work but for what your work will do for the field. It should answer the following questions:

  • Where are you today in your career?
  • What contributions do you plan to make as a researcher during the next 10 years?
  • How are you going to get from your present point to your future goal?
  • What is the technical merit of your research?
  • Does this research have applications outside the field?
  • Will this research impact those who work in the field?

Answering these questions should help you establish your track record as a researcher and set yourself up as the most qualified person to do this research. Make sure your methodology is heavy on logistics and include your evaluation plan in this section. At the end of this section, readers should have a good idea of your research vision and your plans to make them a reality.

Education Plan

At least a third of your proposal should be the education plan. I have written about outreach before, and much of this advice applies here as well. But, in the CAREER proposal, you need to get into more detail. Just like there’s a research area you want to change, there is an educational area you want to change. So what’s an educational issue/need you feel strongly about? If you were going to solve that, how would you go about it? Just like with the research summary, you need to outline major milestones for solving this issue for at least 10 years.

You may have to do some research on what the current issues are in your field. Take some time and check out the educational literature to see what the best practices are to solve your concerns. If someone else has successfully done something you want to implement in your lab or in your classes, by all means, do so.

Keep in mind that for your entire educational plan, you want as much logistical detail as your research plan. What is your methodology? Your measurements of success? Being vague, especially after being so detailed in the research summary, leads reviewers to believe you haven’t thought it through.

Your educational plan should include the following three areas:

  • Instruction
    • Because instruction is usually formal education, most proposals involve curriculum development. However, if your formal education plans include K-12 teachers or professionals, you are certainly welcome to put those plans here rather than in outreach. If you want instruction only for UT Dallas students in UT Dallas courses, then put K-12 teachers and/or professionals as outreach. Just be consistent with your definitions.
    • Ideas for this section include creating a new class, revamping a current graduate class for undergraduates (or vice versa), revamping a class in your department for students in other areas, revising the lab experiences as part of a class, and/or adding state-of-the-art tools or methods to current classes.
  • Mentoring
    • This usually is working with students. As with instruction, you can certainly mention mentoring any K-12 students here or put it in Outreach. Again, as long as you are consistent with your definitions, it doesn’t matter.
    • Ideas for this section include having undergraduate and graduate students from various departments help you with your research, hosting high school students over the summer, and/or working with underrepresented groups in your field to be more informed/interested in your work.
  • Outreach
    • This is usually working with K-12 students, teachers, or professionals. Pick outreach plans based on the educational problem you are addressing, not based on what you think the NSF wants to read. For example, if your research cannot translate into K-12 education, don’t force it, especially if your educational focus involves your methods being adapted into manufacturing organizations.
    • Ideas for this section include creating online materials for use in a K-12 classroom, sponsoring a science club at a local high school, participating/hosting a summer camp for students, helping develop exhibits for a science museum, and/or lecturing about your work to those outside your field (perhaps as part of the Sips of Science program).
    • Do take a look at what’s being done at UT Dallas and who can work with you on your outreach goals.

Integration of Research and Education

Integrating your research and education plans can be a challenge. Since some classes you teach aren’t at all related to your research, integrating your research results into those classes can be a challenge. However, even if your classes and your research don’t overlap, your results can translate into something with educational value for a class, whether in the form of tabletop experiments, computational tools, websites, or case studies. Feel free to get creative, but make sure your proposal is feasible and what you want to do. You are committing five years of your life to these activities.

Also, you may need to ease into some of these activities. Maybe you mentor a group of graduate students and add undergraduates after two years of working with graduate students. If your educational concern is that the general public doesn’t understand the value of your area of research because it’s hard to explain, teaching those students how to do it becomes your education plan. After a year with undergraduates, you can then have them speak at local K-12 school career days about their work. This integrated approach doesn’t have you committing to spending your time traveling from one school to another rather than researching.

In Conclusion

It’s hard to measure the value of mapping out your career path. It’s also hard to do in general. If the career path is a good one, it’s one you will do whether or not you get a CAREER proposal. To that end, there shouldn’t be anything in the proposal completely dependent on funding.

Start writing early. You may have heard me say you should give yourself six to eight weeks to write a proposal. There are exceptions to that rule, and CAREER proposals are among them. The solicitation usually comes out in the spring (March/April) for a July deadline. When the solicitation comes out, you should already have a good idea of what you want to propose and where you will be in 10 years. Then, after the solicitation comes out, you can draft a one-page summary based on any changes to the solicitation and discuss it with the appropriate program director. You can next talk to your department head. In an ideal world, you would have a draft done ten weeks out to share with colleagues. These proposals tend to get a lot of feedback, and you’ll need time to process them as well as make changes.

The Office of Research holds several events that can help you with your CAREER proposal. Take advantage of them as well as our editing services. We can serve the copy editing role for you, ensuring there are no grammatically or punctuation errors.

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