First things first: What is a rotator? It’s a temporary position as an NSF Program Officer (PO). Rotators typically serve terms of 1-3 years and work alongside permanent POs, doing pretty much everything the permanent POs do. Rotators in DEB work on an equal footing with permanent POs in making all programmatic decisions, and NSF does not distinguish between the two types of POs on its web pages or solicitations. For all practical purposes, rotators are all-in.
What do rotators do? As a rotator, you’d help manage the proposal review process. This involves lining up ad hoc reviewers for proposals, recruiting panelists, checking for conflicts of interest, assigning panelists to proposals, leading panel discussions, deciding (with lots of help) which proposals to fund, and working with NSF staff to make award recommendations. Those recommendations directly influence the trajectory of environmental and evolutionary research, nationwide. Additionally, rotators are frequently engaged in developing new solicitations and running “special” programs, which could be programs/solicitations that span the Directorate for Biological Sciences, or cross multiple Directorates at NSF.
What do we look for in a rotator? We seek individuals who have relevant topical expertise, are open-minded, enjoy working in a collaborative setting, are comfortable learning new systems (both government bureaucracy and government technology), and would like to serve the DEB community of Principal Investigators (PIs). It helps to have experience as an NSF panelist or PI. Note that we don’t really care if you’re famous or from an R-1 institution with a large, well-funded lab. In fact, we value POs who bring diverse perspectives, both personal (gender identity, race, ethnicity, disability, career stage) and institutional (small college, primary undergraduate institution, HBCU or other minority-serving institution, NGO). Rest assured that we’ll teach you what you need to know!
Would I need to give up my current lab and research? No, but you will need to scale back to provide sufficient time for your new duties at NSF. POs are frequently provided 20% time to pursue “Independent Research and Development”. If granted this time, there’s a lot of flexibility in how to take that time, from 1 day/week, every week- to month-long chunks during your field season. Every rotator’s needs are different, but we’ve always found a way to work it out.
What would I get out of it? You’d have the opportunity to directly impact the direction of science, to serve your community in a new way, to learn about and help develop new funding initiatives, and to gain first-hand experience in how compelling proposals are crafted. The NSF also offers unique opportunities for professional development/leadership training that you could take advantage of.
Why would my institution agree to this? All institutions have different interests but in general they all view a rotation at NSF as professional development. You’ll return with all kinds of new insights about funding opportunities, improved skills in proposal writing, and the ability to help your colleagues secure NSF funding. As a practical matter, NSF has multiple appointment types to cover all or most of your salary and benefits, which could allow your institution to hire someone else to do part of your job while you are at NSF (e.g., teach).
What about timing? Although most rotators start in the late summer, or early fall, start time is negotiable. Interviews for rotator positions typically occur during the academic year but there’s certainly wiggle room there, too.
How do I know if there’s a position available? Because rotators are always leaving us (a good thing!), you can assume we’re always looking for new ones. We try to set them up 1-2 years before their start date at NSF.
Can I afford to live in the DC area? This is a complicated question with a simple answer: Almost certainly, yes! There are different ways of being appointed as a rotator, each with financial advantages and disadvantages. We’d be happy to go over them with you — just not in an already-long blog post.
Do I need to be a US citizen? Yes, unless you hold a Green Card and will apply for US citizenship.
How has COVID changed the NSF work environment? It’s still too early to tell.
If I’m interested in being a rotator, what’s the first step? Contact a Program Officer in the cluster you think best matches your expertise and we’ll set up a time to talk informally. If you and NSF decide to proceed, the interview process is straightforward.
More information about rotators can be found through these links: