Writing an NSF Grant Proposal: A First-Timer's Perspective
February 2014 (perspective of a postdoc)
Update in July 2014: I did not end up winning this grant, so please do not use this as a guide to grant-writing! It is merely a reflection from a naive first-timer's perspective.
(Read Example NSF CAREER proposals (including my own annotated one) for a much more updated perspective.)
In my ongoing training to become a professor, I spent my winter break working on my first grant proposal. This experience was like training for and running a marathon for the first time. I managed to cross the finish line (submitting a legit-looking proposal), but my performance wasn't stellar (chances of winning are slim). In the process, though, I learned enough about NSF grants that my next submission attempt will be less arduous.
This article is a reflection on the past eight weeks of my life immersed in grant-writing mode. It's most useful for other first-time applicants, especially for NSF grants. It's useless for experienced applicants since you already know all of this by now. (But maybe it's fun to laugh at my naivete!)
Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be a definitive advice guide. I have never won an NSF grant, so what I say might be bogus. These are just my unfiltered thoughts at the moment.
What you're supposed to do
When I was interviewing for faculty jobs last year, I was SUPER scared about the prospect of competing for grants with experienced veterans. After my first interview, I was so anxious that a part of me was reconsidering this career path. A year later, I'm still scared, but there's no way forward except to try ... and fail, and learn, and re-try.
NSF grants are vital for getting tenure in my field (computer science), so that's what everybody applies for. From talking with over 100 faculty during interviews and informal chats, I kept on hearing two pieces of advice:
These best practices greatly improve your chances of success when applying for your own grants. But since I'm impulsive, I just jumped the gun and decided to apply for my own sole-PI grant without ever having served as a reviewer. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this path, but forcing myself into a situation that's a bit beyond my comfort level is how I personally learn best.
7 weeks before deadline – Saw a somewhat-relevant-looking NSF funding call on Twitter (social media rocks!). Cold-emailed a program officer listed on the website to ask for a time to chat on the phone. That didn't pan out, so I cold-emailed another one and arranged a time to chat.
6 weeks before deadline – Spoke on the phone with the program officer for 40 minutes; introduced myself, asked for high-level advice for a naive first-timer; and pitched three relevant ideas to see which one she liked the most; then decided to pursue the one she was most enthused about. (Tip: Be SUPER nice to these people. And prepare a ton for that initial phone call to make a good first impression.)
6 weeks before – Emailed my department's administrator at the University of Rochester to ask how to get the paperwork started with a 6-week lead time. She was very helpful but told me that she was going to be on vacation starting in 2 weeks and won't be back until after the deadline. So we got most of the initial paperwork done in the subsequent 2 weeks. There were a lot of logistics to set up as a first-time applicant. (Tip: Be SUPER nice to the administrators, since you are relying on them to fill out the proper paperwork.)
5 weeks – Learned about the NSF proposal submission process by reading the GPG (Grant Proposal Guide) and as many advice Web pages as I could find; took a ton of notes. Also, another administrator from my university's grant office forwarded me some relevant PowerPoint Webinar slide decks about the grant for which I was applying.
5 weeks – Started brainstorming concrete ideas and met with Rob Miller, my postdoc advisor, to get high-level advice. In general, I didn't want to take up too much of Rob's time on this proposal since it was for future work that's not related to my current postdoc role. (I would've obviously involved him much more if this were a collaborative grant with him as a co-PI.)
4 weeks – Started working full-time on my proposal. Before I was just doing legwork while finishing up other projects. My first task was to print out four recent NSF grant proposals obtained from colleagues and dissect them in detail. They weren't all relevant to my topic, but studying real examples was still way better than just reading advice guides. I paid close attention to how each proposal was organized, what key pieces of vocabulary they used, how they framed their ideas and presentation, what the proposals all had in common, and how they differed. I also followed up my hunches by asking Rob.
4 weeks – Did a ton of background reading and collected all of the relevant BibTeX citations for my proposal. For more details, read Intense Single-Tasking.
4 weeks – Iterated a lot on the one-page project summary and solicited early-stage feedback from a few people.
3 weeks – Started my three weeks of full-on writing of the proposal itself. For more details, read Writing for Work.
2.5 weeks – Emailed four colleagues to ask each for a short letter of commitment. These letters are optional, but my program officer told me that they might help my case, since I'm applying as a first-timer and sole-PI without a prior track record. These are not letters of recommendation or support for me (since those aren't allowed); rather, they simply state how each person plans to collaborate with me on the proposed project.
0.5 weeks before deadline – Finished writing; printed out to do final editing by hand; Rob graciously offered to read over the whole thing the night before the deadline, which was awesome considering he's not involved in this proposal. Fiddled with a bunch of tedious last-minute paperwork and then submitted!
(Note that my deadline was one week before the actual NSF deadline. The university grant office usually wants PIs to submit materials to them a week beforehand so that they can double-check everything and then send it off to the NSF.)
The 15-page Project Description forms the bulk of your proposal and is what your reviewers will be scrutinizing most closely. First, make sure your font sizes and margins adhere to NSF standards, or else your proposal might get rejected without review! (In particular, LaTeX font sizes and margins can be annoying to set, so watch out.)
Some grants will recommend or impose a specific structure. The one I applied for had no structure requirements, so this was the one I used. But when in doubt, carefully read the call and any associated FAQs.
5 of the 15 pages in my proposal had a figure, which broke up the monotony of the wall of text.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Tips for first-timers
My naive impression of how NSF reviews work is that they want to know:
As a first-time applicant, you're at a severe disadvantage for the second criterion since you don't yet have a track record on NSF-funded projects. Here are some ways to mitigate this disadvantage: