May 1, 2012
10 tips for successful NSF proposals revealed at workshop
USU faculty learned from their colleagues’ successes and pitfalls at a panel discussion on NSF funding opportunities, held during Research Week last month.
“Attendees were engaged and enlivened by the candid and frank interaction of the panel members, and they received numerous pointers and tips from USU’s successfully-funded researchers,” said Mark McLellan, vice president for research and dean of the School of Graduate Studies. “We applaud Rita Teutonico, program manager, for putting this together.”
Panel members included Todd Crowl (watershed sciences), Claudia Radel (environment and society), Mimi Recker (instructional technology and learning sciences), Tammy Rittenour (geology), Dave Tarboton (civil and environmental engineering) and Shane Larson (physics).
Some of the tips they gave for successful NSF proposals included:
- Research should lead to new understanding that is general or “translational.”
- The likelihood of success depends on the novelty of the questions.
- Questions → Hypotheses → Methods → Expected results.
- Include a diagram that conveys the key idea of the proposal.
- Read and follow the RFP.
- First impression counts! The project summary is critical.
- Make sure everyone’s expertise covers the requirements.
- Use all 15 pages (single-spaced), and utilize a lot of references early on.
- Take advantage of friendly critical review.
- Ask NSF program managers anything!
Panel members also recommended additional reading materials, including “What to Say-and Not Say-to Program Officers” by Michael J. Spires, Robert Porter’s “Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Good Proposals” and Jeff McDonnell’s “McDonnell’s Ideas on How to Write a Successfull NSF or USDA Proposal.”
In addition, panelists gave a few more tips on resources for becoming a successfully-funded researcher:
Program Officers (PO)
- Since Program Officers aim for portfolio balance, it is beneficial to indicate if a researcher is a new PI and/or from an EPSCoR state.
- Get to know the PO by attending workshops for the specific program at national meetings.
- Call the PO to talk about the idea for a proposal and prepare an “elevator” speech.
- Call soon after, if the proposal has been declined so the PO can provide details about panel discussion that are not evident in the reviews.
- PO contact is crucial. After funded, send updates on successes such as a slide of interesting accomplishments.
- Some common reasons for being declined include poor grantwriting, not responding directly to the solicitation, poor logic of inquiry, too ambitious or not ambitious enough, too parochial and a lack of expertise needed for the project.
- Read the solicitation!
- Collaborate to make the proposal stronger.
- Read successful proposals from colleagues and be strategic when choosing which proposal to submit.
- Don’t discard prior proposals; they can be used in later writing. Use input from previous declines to revise proposal for resubmission.
- In the project description, describe why research is innovative and transformative, provide evidence to prove capable of doing research and include preliminary results.
- In the project summary, the beginning sentence should explain overall project and why the project should be conducted, the expected outcomes as well as provide broader impact details.
- Integrate research and education in the proposal by specifically mentioning where students are included, tying curriculum development into research goals, infusing research results into course teaching and utilizing College of Education resources.
- Make proposals easy to read by carefully using white spaces, including figures and informative captions.
- Include timeline for proposed research and give yourself enough time to write!
- Sign up for NSF news (including press releases) by email about new awards.
- Search the awards database for any program of interest to see what they recently funded.
- Volunteer to be a reviewer for NSF to learn about the process and identify what panelists think are crucial to success.
- Nadiah Johari