What Makes for a Competitive DEB CAREER Proposal?

CAREER (Faculty Early Career Development Program) is an NSF-wide award for early career (pre-tenure) faculty. It is one of the most prestigious and sought after grants made by the National Science Foundation. CAREERs support pre-tenure faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars. CAREER proposals should have a well-thought-out plan for the integration of teaching/training and research. This integration is key to a successful proposal. The work you propose in a CAREER submission should build a firm foundation for a long “career” involving your planned research and education programs.

In DEB, CAREER proposals are reviewed alongside other full proposals submitted to the same program (e.g., Population & Community Ecology, Evolutionary Processes). As you can see from the figure below success rates are between 6-18%. (Compare that to overall rate for full proposals in DEB https://debblog.nsfbio.com/2017/01/06/deb-numbers-fy-2016-wrap-up).


You are eligible to apply for a CAREER if you are an Assistant Professor (or in an equivalent tenure-track position). You do not need to be at a Research I University to apply; you can apply from any NSF-eligible institution (e.g., primarily undergraduate institution, 2-year college, independent museum or research lab). You will need a letter of support from your department chair affirming your eligibility and demonstrating how the proposed work advances the research and educational goals of your department. It should also explain how the department is committed to mentoring and supporting you as a teacher and scholar through your professional development. Please refer to the CAREER award solicitation for more details.

Because integration of teaching and research is the heart-and-soul of a CAREER proposal, the required education plan should be tightly integrated with research described in the Intellectual Merit section; placing it solely in the Broader Impacts section is typically a mistake. The plan should not be a rehashing of your current duties as an Assistant Professor (e.g., teaching your current graduate or undergraduate level courses). The more inseparable from your research, the better.  The education plan can include formal and informal teaching (e.g., webinars, public talks, workshops) and can take place in non-academic settings and focus on traditionally underserved communities. It is good to keep in mind the current infrastructural capabilities and resources of your home institution (e.g., does it have a program for underrepresented groups that you can use for recruitment in your education program? Does it have a mechanism for engaging with the general public?). The education component could be directed at any level of student from kindergarten to graduate students, or include training and education of the general public.  The important thing is that your education plan is consistent and integrated with your research career goals.  The very best CAREER proposals are those in which the research informs teaching and the teaching informs the research. In other words, strive for research and education plans that are synergistic, not “just” integrated.

Because CAREER awards are intended to set the trajectory of your career, it is fine to include plans for learning new techniques (research or teaching). Reviewers and Program Officers take the long view; they understand the need for early-career scientists to fill gaps or strengthen bridges before pushing ahead on a particular theme. In such circumstances, it’s important to be up-front, to provide justification or explanation, and to budget accordingly.

A successful CAREER award should result in more than an incremental increase in our knowledge of a subject area, and should have a broad (but feasible) focus. Furthermore, a CAREER proposal should place your research in the context of a program of career development that includes the interactions between education and research and/or outreach. The proposal should demonstrate your expertise and ability to perform the proposed work. Please keep in mind that you cannot have Co-PIs in a CAREER proposal. CAREER proposals are about your work, but if critical for a given project, collaborators are now allowed in the form of senior personnel. Collaborators should provide some essential, specialized (yet limited) component of the project, or mentoring that contributes to your professional development. (If you do include senior personnel in your proposal, they must submit a Biosketch, Current & Pending Grants, and their ‘Collaborators and Other Affiliations.’) You can also have your collaborators write a “Letter of Collaboration.” These are not letters of recommendation – please follow the NSF provided template in the CAREER solicitation.

You have three opportunities to apply for a CAREER award (and only one opportunity per year). You cannot apply if you will be tenured (i.e., no longer an Assistant Professor) before October 1st following the proposal deadline of July 19, 2017. In BIO, the proposal budget (including indirect costs) should exceed $500,000 for a 5-year duration. (Fun fact: This is the only type of proposal in DEB with a budgetary floor, not a ceiling.) For more about CAREER awards please read the NSF program solicitation and contact a Program Officer in the most relevant cluster, if you have questions.