Are you thinking about an NSF CAREER Award application?

If so, is your application designed in such a way that it indicates that you really appreciate its purpose? We would suggest that this is not a trivial question, particularly given the relatively intense competition for these awards. As a consequence, low overall success rates (# awards/# applicants) are, accordingly, often considerably lower than for standard NSF grants. It makes great sense that any applicant considering applying for an NSF CAREER award should do everything possible to help ensure the success of his/her application. Unfortunately, many NSF applicants begin this process at a distinct disadvantage by not doing, and then acting on, a fundamental principle of good grantsmanship, namely READ THE INSTRUCTIONS on the NSF Website, particularly the statement provided by the NSF on the actual purpose of these awards.

According to the NSF: “The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Such activities should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.” For a review of the NSF CAREER program, see: Knowledgeable NSF proposal applicants will immediately recognize that the phrase “integration of education and research” is repeated twice in this short description, thereby emphasizing that both education and research must serve as the dual centerpieces of an application.

Probably most applicants are aware that, for CAREER Award applications, in addition to having a research objective, there should also be a clearly spelled out (and integrated) relevant educational objective. Relatively few applicants, however, are aware that there is much more that can be done to be certain that the application truly reflects an applicant’s commitment to a career of “integrating education and research”. In this respect, in stating an applicant’s longer term goals, phrases such as “Our longer term goals are…..” should be avoided in favor of “My long term goal is……” or “The PI’s long term goal is…”. (The actual language will depend, to a large extent, on the specific program/Directorate to which you will be applying. More specifically applicants for CAREER Awards in the Engineering Directorate of Math and Physical Sciences seem to prefer the latter language, whereas for most other Directorates, either language would be perfectly acceptable.) Moreover, the actual longer term goal should be “to establish an integrated program of teaching/education and research focused upon………”, with this sentence concluding with a domain of knowledge directly relevant to the mission of the NSF program to which the applicant is applying. As an additional note, in the Engineering and Math and Physical Sciences programs, more emphasis seems to focus on the five years of the award, whereas for other programs,k the emphasis seems to be more on the career goals of the applicant. If you would have questions, we strongly suggest that you correspond with your NSF Program Officer/Director. Finally, in discussing expectations for what will have been accomplished when the award has been completed, there should be a statement that, upon completion of this Award, a productive program for an integrated research and education program will have been established. Details of the components of the program should follow.

These and many other helpful hints for NSF applicants can be found in our recently updated (including a comprehensive discussion of how to deal with the new Broader Impacts requirements) NSF Version of The Grant Application Writer’s Workbook, available for purchase.