Applying for NSF CAREER: Structure of an NSF Application

As an NSF CAREER recipient and frequent panelist for NSF reviews, I put together a presentation for my college about strategies for preparing a competitive NSF CAREER proposal. While I think my colleagues are the best, I also wanted to share these strategies more broadly for anyone who is interested in applying, especially those who might get less support from their institution. My experiences are primarily in the EDU (education) directorate with some experience in the CISE (computing) directorate, so some norms or recommendations might not apply globally. I’ll be making three posts: the structure of an NSF application including CAREER-specific criteria, lessons learned from being an NSF reviewer, and EDU-directorate-specific CAREER advice.

NSF CAREER is for early career folks, so this application might be your first NSF application or at least your first application as Principal Investigator (PI). The NSF application has …a lot of pieces, so I wanted to start by reviewing the application process generally, including CAREER-specific criteria, and strategies to complete each piece. Of course, the most comprehensive information will be found in the program solicitation and the PAPPG, but those documents can be intimidating without some advanced organizers.

Project Summary (1 page)

This is the first thing reviewers will see (other than cover material), so you want it to be the best it can be. I answer the following questions in the project summary:

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What are you doing?
  • Why is this project worth taxpayer money?

The trick to writing a compelling project summary is to be as specific as possible. “I will work with many teachers…” is weaker than “I will work with 50 teachers…” Likewise, “I will improve learning outcomes related to…” is weaker than “Students will be able to …” You’d be surprised how much information you can fit in a page when you re-write it 20 times.

Also in the project summary, include your high-level Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact contributions. These contributions are the primary criteria by which your proposal will be judged. It’s critical that reviewers know from the start how you will be advancing knowledge in the field (intellectual merit) and benefiting society (broader impact). Also, realize that reviewers will be from interdisciplinary backgrounds, so using acronyms/jargon is risky. Here is my project summary as an example.

Project Description (15 pages)

The fun (/sarcasm) part of a CAREER proposal is that, compared to normal NSF proposals, there are extra required sections and you have to describe 5 years of work instead of 3 years, but you still have only 15 pages to do it. Here’s how I typically spend my 15 pages

  • Page 1-2: Motivation (3/4 page) to describe why this project is worth 5 years and ~half a million dollars or more of work; Summary of work (3/4 page), including why you are uniquely positioned or qualified to do the work; Intellectual Merit (1/2 page) to describe what knowledge will be gained.
  • Page 3-5: Literature review (1-1.5 pages) and your prior work in the area, including pilot work (1-1.5 pages). This might also be a good place to put the Results from Prior NSF Support section, if applicable.
  • Page 6-12: Describe the project in as much detail as you can fit, including expected results, limitations, and a plan B. CAREER is a 5-year long project, and including a plan B shows that you’ve thought through what might go wrong or the different decisions you might face. Part of the purpose of CAREER is also to develop the scholar, so including professional development is appropriate. The section should also include a section unique to CAREER, Research and Teaching Integration.
  • Page 13-14: Project evaluation (typically an advisory board for this kind of project) and dissemination plan.
  • Page 15: Broader Impact and other concluding statements.

Review PAPPG for formatting requirements and restrictions. Here is my project description as an example.

Works Cited

The works cited is your list of references, which don’t count toward the length of your project description. Because most of the project description should focus on your proposed project, don’t be alarmed if this reference list is somewhat shorter than you’re used to for a 15-page paper.

Budget and Budget Justification

In my experience, each university has a different template for putting together a budget, so you should start by asking for that. Instead of talking about templates, let’s talk about what might typically go in a CAREER budget.

  • Your salary as the PI (1-2 summer months, academic year course buyouts are allowed but discouraged, NSF requires special permission to go beyond 2 months of salary across all active NSF grants)
  • Graduate research assistant or postdoc support
  • Travel, which could include conference travel and should include an annual trip to DC for the PI meeting
  • Participant support/Human subject renumeration, including any honoraria or stipends for advisors
  • Materials and supplies, making sure that they are allowable according to the PAPPG
  • Publication costs – NSF requires all publications affiliated with grants to be publicly available, so I include open-access fees
  • Conference registration

The budget justification describes the line items in the budget. For example, the budget might list $2500 for travel each year, and the budget justification describes how that is the expected cost of attending two conferences based on $XXX for airfare and $XXX for hotel. The budget justification can be no longer than 5 pages.

Personal Info

There are three documents that any PI will need to provide information about themselves. This includes Co-PIs, but those aren’t allowed in CAREER.

  • Biosketch – Use ScienCV to enter your information and create this document. It’s essentially an abbreviated CV.
  • Current and Pending – Use ScienCV to create this document. It lists all current and pending external funding you have.
  • Collaborators – My institution has a particular form for completing this step, but you essentially need to list anyone who might be a conflict of interest.

Institution Info

There are three additional documents that each institution will need to provide. Again, CAREER is completed at just one institution, so you’ll only need one set of these.

  • Data management plan – Look up the requirements in PAPPG and follow them formulaically. The reviewers will be checking whether all of the pieces are there.
  • Facilities and Resources – This describes the resources provided by your institution. Ask around for a template that others at your university/department have used.
  • Postdoc mentoring plan – If applicable, make sure to include an individual development plan.

Letters of Commitment

While not strictly required, it is more compelling to have letters of commitment from any person or organization named in the project description to show that they have agreed to help as described. For example, you should have letters of commitment from any advisory board members or partner organizations. The letters must include the following text and nothing else,

“If the proposal submitted by Dr. [PI] entitled [Title] is selected for funding by NSF, it is my intent to collaborate and/or commit resources as detailed in the Project Description or the Facilities, Equipment or Other Resources section of the proposal.”

In addition, CAREER applications must include a departmental letter that shows how the department will also support the professional development of the PI. Some departments include extra incentives, like course buyouts or additional graduate research assistant support. These extras aren’t necessary, but there are specific requirements for what to include in the letter, like confirming eligibility, so make sure that your department chair knows the requirements.


If that list of required pieces is daunting, realize that this is why starting to work on a CAREER proposal in February, when it’s due in July, is not only reasonable but encouraged. Most of the pieces are just filling out forms, but you’ll also want to spend considerable time revising the project summary and description, preferably with feedback from mentors and peers. In the next posts, I’ll discuss lessons that I’ve learned from being an NSF reviewer about how to make the project summary and description as compelling as possible and CAREER-specific advice.

One thought on “Applying for NSF CAREER: Structure of an NSF Application

  1. Pingback: Applying for NSF CAREER: Lessons Learned from NSF Reviewing | Lauren Margulieux

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