How I finally got NSF funding

Being tenure-track in the sciences these days means being stressed about funding. Compared to my advisors, who were getting their labs started in the wake of Sputnik and increased governmental investment in science, grant writing is probably what early-stage professors spend most of their time on.

I hated grant writing my first two years; I wanted to do science, not write about it.  My first federal grants got triaged, and looking back I wish I had given myself a year or even 18 months (you can probably guess from this that I have a hard money position) before submitting a federal grant. But, as most of us are, I was advised by my senior colleagues to use my teaching release to draft grants, and so I submitted what I can only call ridiculous proposals. I will say that it helped to see how many pieces go into a federal grant early on, so that I could properly estimate the time needed in the future.  Still, I was a lamb heading to slaughter when I submitted that first full grant. It’s hard to get preliminary data when your lab’s only member is you, the PI, and you have to teach and advise and learn how to get reimbursed and where to order toner and all those other things our advisors hid from us about the academic life.

My reviews in my first couple years left me utterly deflated. Twitter helped, because colleagues posted about their grants.  Newsflash – my super accomplished people have grants that get rejected all the time!  In those first submissions, there were comments about how I hadn’t established my independence (i.e., published from my lab – how could I when I was submitting a grant within 6 months of arriving?) , or how I should publish my models to show they work under a variety of scenarios beyond my preliminary data, or (in a most exasperating turn of events in a resubmission) how now that the model had been published the proposal became incremental.

This last summer I finally decided to apply for a CAREER award; my lab had grown (thanks to some foundation grants that gave me money to hire people) and we were working on a big paper, which meant lots of preliminary data.  I had not previously tried for a CAREER because I had been told by senior colleagues that, in biology, it is rare to get a CAREER without previous NSF funding.  I think that is changing and that it is helpful to be able to have a blank “Results from Prior NSF Support” section when writing a proposal.

Finally, mostly out of exasperation for the preproposal submission system and because I was three years away from my tenure review, I got to work on a CAREER proposal.  And managed to get funded on the first submission.  How?

  1. I was writing a proposal I felt excited about and that we had preliminary data for; writing it was helping get our publication into shape, and outlining where we would head next. I involved my lab in the process, getting lots of help with figures and asking them to edit certain sections. I heard a colleague say recently he tries to turn each grant application into a publication. I think writing a grant based on a paper that is finishing up makes the process a pleasure.
  2. I had many many colleagues read it: three read the whole thing, two others read the Education Plan only, three others read only the Aims.  This really helped, and I asked colleagues who had been recently successful with CAREER applications and others who were senior and had expertise far removed from my field of interest (they could tell me whether the logic made sense to a smart reviewer who was outside my field).
  3. In the spring before submitting, I canvassed colleagues in my subfield about where they submit their grants within NSF.  Then I spoke to many program officers to explore divisions beyond the one I had routinely submitted to. I had spoken to program officers in the past, but had never asked NSF program officers if they were rotating or permanent.  One program officer told me she was rotating off and, for a long-term view on what the section funded, I should talk to her other colleagues.  One of them told me many statistics about the rate of CAREER funding, how the division hoped CAREER proposals would fit into NSF’s mission and the division’s mission, and made it clear that my approach to science wasn’t going to be reviewed well (more mathematical, less hypothesis-driven).  Then I found another division that welcomed proposals developing quantitative methods.  This was a key discovery for my career as an academic because now I’ve found a home for my grants.  Looking back, I probably should have realized the bad fit earlier perhaps, but all my reviews pointed out valid issues; I’m not sure I could have anticipated the need to submit elsewhere within NSF without talking to multiple program officers.
  4. As every CAREER applicant knows, the education plan is a large component of the CAREER proposal. Work hard on the education piece, start working on it early (ideally, engaging in one part of it well before your grant submission to show your investment in broader impacts). The reach does not have to be global, and using a particular problem to focus the education plan helps.

Good luck with your submission! For those of you who have submitted CAREER proposals, I’m curious what resonates here and what doesn’t.


4 thoughts on “How I finally got NSF funding

  1. My university had a very well developed set of tools to assist in CAREER drafting, plus at least two workshops a year to meet others working on theirs and avoid common pitfalls. I could not have done it without those resources, especially not the assessment of educational impact parts. Other than that, I didn’t submit until my last years of eligibility but not because of any perceived need to get funding, I was told you wait so you have a proven track record of teaching and curriculum development.

  2. Thanks for the post and congratulations on the CAREER award! This is my second semester on the tenure-track. The college and the department are pushing us to submit our CAREERs. They have weekly training sessions for us over Feb and Mar. I am, though, in engineering and in a very applied field. My dissertation and postdoc research and all the past publications are all in an applied field. If I want to get a CAREER or any NSF award, I understand that I need to make a new path to other sub-areas, which are more fundamental and less applied. That means I need preliminary data as well as publications to prove my qualifications in the proposal. So, I’ve decided to hold off on submitting a CAREER for a year or two. One of my mentors did not like that idea at all and said I should submit early to get the comments and double my chances in the second round. Anyways, my situation seems to be similar to yours and it was encouraging to see that you were funded in the first attempt.

  3. Congratulations!!! Thanks for the terrific and encouraging post.
    Getting funded is so hard these days. I’ve been lucky with getting funding for my predocs and postdocs, but we are still looking for big funding for the project that we really would like to get off the ground.

  4. I have heard that the NSF CAREER is changing – it may be just for 2 yrs this year and then phased out or into something new and different to support young scientists. Await the ‘dear colleague’ letter………..

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