Applying for NSF CAREER: CAREER-Specific Advice

Now that I’ve shared general advice for how to structure an NSF proposal and lessons I’ve learned from being an NSF reviewer, I’ll focus on advice specifically for the CAREER program. CAREER is viewed as a prestigious award, and based on my discussions with colleagues, this keeps many people from applying for it. In addition to all of the platitudes about “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” or “shoot for the moon and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars,” there’s another great reason to write a CAREER proposal.

Develop Your Vision

The CAREER program is unique amongst NSF programs because it is more about investing in you, as a scholar, than it is about investing in a specific project. Of course, investing in the scholar means investing in their project and, of course, the outcomes of the project are important, but its main objective is to accelerate your career trajectory. Thus, to write a compelling proposal, you must have a clear vision for your career trajectory. In my opinion, a clear vision of what a scholar wants to achieve, not only in the 5 years of the award, but throughout their career marks the difference between a competitive and non-competitive award.

Writing the CAREER proposal will help you to develop this vision. After all, how often do you sit down and think about what your research will look like 5 years from now? For this reason alone, I think writing a CAREER proposal is worthwhile, even if you don’t submit it. Going through the iterative process of writing to keep filling in the details is a useful exercise in planning your trajectory.

While there is no mandatory section in the proposal about vision, there are a few places where you should express it.

  • Research goals – Your research goals should identify an important problem that will take more than 5 years to solve–a problem that you could make a career out of solving. Then, through your research questions, identify what a reasonable scope of work for the next 5 years would be.
  • Unique qualifications – early in the proposal, describe why you are uniquely positioned to address this research problem and how you will continue to develop your skills to solve the problem. For example, in my proposal, I wrote that I was a CS education researcher in a college of education (which was rare) and while that let me work with teachers, I had a lot to learn about teacher education and experience in order to be successful.
  • Plan B – In your research plan, you should include some decision trees or backup plans in case your research doesn’t work exactly like you expect (it never does). Including viable alternatives shows that you are familiar with the research ecosystem in which you work and can adjust course in pursuit of your research goals.
  • Future work – Near the end of the proposal, include at least a paragraph about how this work will continue after the 5 years are complete. Because your research goals, discussed at the beginning, are bigger than 5 years, a future work section can remind reviewers of the bigger picture after reading through the details of the 5-year project.

Think About Professional Development

Once you have a vision, you need a path to achieve it. Part of the purpose of CAREER is to support this path, with money. Instead of focusing solely on the 5-year project, think about other opportunities for professional development. For example, a common element of dissemination plans is to share products and materials through a project website. If you don’t know how to create a website like that, say that you’re going to spend time learning how to create a website so that you can share your projects’ products and materials. As another example, I added additional travel funding to the first couple of years of my project so that I could visit and learn from other colleges of education that were doing CS education research. This travel also allowed me to give talks at those colleges about my work and share the products of the project. As long as the professional development opportunities serve the project, think about creative and strategic ways to make the most of CAREER funding.

Don’t Be Shy

While it’s understandable to be intimidated by applying to NSF CAREER, remember that this is a program for early career folks. As a result, you will not be competing against senior researchers, as you would with most other NSF proposals. In addition, this program is about developing promising scholars, and NSF’s goal is to support them. One aspect of CAREER that demonstrates this goal is that no CAREER proposals are triaged in the review process. In a normal NSF review panel, any proposals that receive consistently low ratings from individual reviews are triaged, meaning that they are not discussed by the panel. But CAREER doesn’t do this. CAREER panels discuss every proposal with the goal of giving the best feedback to the PI.

Research and Teaching Integration Section

One unique criterion for a CAREER proposal is a section on research and teaching integration. Because CAREER is about developing you as a scholar, this means developing you as both a researcher and teacher. Of course, this section will look different for everyone, especially depending on your field. In my field, honestly, this section is easy because our research is for the purpose of education. For others, don’t forget that training grad students is part of teaching. Public education is also part of teaching. I’ve also seen some very thoughtful partnerships with community and non-profit organizations or participation in science festivals. It’s hard to give concrete advice for this section, but it is treated much like the broader impact section–critical to a well-balanced proposal.

I hope that you have found these posts about applying for an NSF CAREER award useful. If I could leave you with some general advice, it’s to get started early. Like I’ve mentioned in this post, writing the proposal is a good exercise, even if you don’t submit it. The biggest regret I’ve heard from people is that they let themselves be intimidated, started later than they planned, and didn’t have enough time to do their best work. This is why I’m posting in February when it’s not due until July. Start working on it now so there’s time for ideas to marinate and morph. Good luck!

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