Graduate Research Fellowship Program: October Deadline

The deadline for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is coming up!  Now is the time to direct students to this opportunity.  Below we highlight the specifics of this fellowship opportunity, but it is also key to remember that this program supports students on the basis of their potential for significant research achievements in STEM.  The application consists of two statements and three supporting letters.  The statements include the Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals statement (3 pages), and a Graduate Research Plan (2 pages).  Although the nature of the first essay is the same no matter the stage of the applicant, the second essay varies substantially among stages and is viewed differently by reviewers.

For undergraduates applying, this essay is intended to reflect the type of project the student would like to do as they look forward to their graduate program, whereas for current graduate students, and especially those beginning their second year of graduate school, the project is typically more specific and better grounded in their current program and broader research plans. In all cases, the application is viewed holistically and evaluated on both the research potential and broader impacts associated with the applicant.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program grants three years of financial support for pursuing a research-based master’s or PhD degree in science technology, engineering, math, or STEM education. Applicants must demonstrate significant achievements in STEM and attend any accredited college or university in the United States or its territories.


  • Applicants must be a US citizen, national, or permanent resident
  • Applicants can apply while still in their undergraduate program but must be accepted into a graduate degree program by the time they accept the Fellowship
  • Applicants can have completed no more than 12 months of full-time graduate study by August 1st but can only apply once as a graduate student, either in their first or second year (see the solicitation for details as this is a new policy in 2017).
  • Different fields of study have different deadlines within NSF. Below is the schedule for each field of study
Fields of Study 2017 Deadlines 2018 Deadlines
Life Sciences, Geosciences October 23 October 22
Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Engineering, Materials Research October 24 October 23
Psychology, Social Sciences, STEM Education and Learning October 26 October 25
Chemistry, mathematical Sciences, Physics and Astronomy October 27 October 26
Reference Letter Submission November 2 November 1
  5:00 PM ET 5:00 PM ET


  • $34,000 annual stipend
  • Cost of Education allowance of $12,000 to the institution
  • Professional development opportunities through Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) and Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP)
  • Access to supplemental funding to sustain research while on medical deferral (e.g. maternity/paternity leave)

Read the current solicitation for the full set of guidelines, and for additional questions please reach out to the Graduate Research Fellowship Operations Center, telephone: 866-NSF-GRFP, 866-673-4737 (toll-free from the US and Canada) or 202-331-3542 (international) or email:



Preliminary Proposal External Report Released

In 2012, DEB and IOS (the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems) instituted major changes to the proposal submission process, piloting a program now known as the preliminary proposal system. DEB and IOS switched to an annual submission deadline, capped the number of proposals a PI can submit at two, and required a four-page preliminary proposal be submitted and reviewed by a panel before PIs could be invited to submit a full 15-page proposal. As you may remember from a previous DEBrief post, the reasons for the switch were multifaceted.

After three years, DEB and IOS contracted an outside group (Abt Associates) to evaluate the success of this pilot program.  Abt analyzed NSF administrative data and submissions from three years before and three years after the creation of the preliminary proposal system.  They also surveyed the PI community and NSF BIO staff to evaluate whether or not those changes were meeting the above stated goals of reducing the work load and to gauge the community’s satisfaction.  You can find the full report here.

DEB and IOS are always striving to best serve their communities of scientists. We want to support the best basic research and we want the determination of what is “best” to be judged by a system of peer-review that is not onerous. We are actively discussing the results of this external review to determine whether to retain or alter the preliminary proposal process.

Featuring the OPUS Program

DEB’s Opportunities for Promoting Understanding through Synthesis (OPUS) Program, provides mid- and late-career scientists the opportunity to synthesize their career’s work to make a new contribution in their field.  The DEB clusters fund OPUS activities over 1-2 years to create products that contribute substantially to the development of new knowledge, understanding, and research direction in a field, as well as to the development of an investigator’s future work. These can include syntheses of collaborations as well.  Proposals to this program can be submitted to any of the core cluster areas:   Evolutionary Processes (EP), Systematics and Biodiversity Science (SBS), Population and Community Ecology (PCE), or Ecosystem Science (ES).

We look forward to receiving your OPUS proposals in August and hope future investigators will read this and be inspired to submit an OPUS proposal in the near future. The funds are often used for sabbatical support, however they can be applied to any normally allowable research expenditure required to complete the project. OPUS projects must primarily synthesize published data rather than engage in new data collection.  Previous products from OPUS awards have included books, films, and high impact peer-reviewed publications.  You can see a list of recent awards made through this program here.

Here’s a quick look at how support has been distributed since the program’s inception. We’ve received a total of 247 OPUS proposals and have supported 72, for an overall funding rate of 29%. Although awards are evenly distributed among the Core clusters (Fig 1), the funding rates vary somewhat: 34% for EP, 36% for SBS, 20% for PCE, and 36% for Ecosystems.  This likely reflects the fact that submissions have been concentrated in PCE (Fig 1).  Additionally, SBS did not participate in the OPUS program until after 2009.


Figure 1- OPUS Submissions and Awards by DEB Core Cluster, EP-Evolutionary Processes, SBS- Systematics and Biodiversity Science, PCE- Population and Community Ecology, ES- Ecosystem Science.

Most, but not all, OPUS projects are submitted by single investigators. Of the 72 awards made, nine female (13%) and two minority PIs (3%) have been funded (Fig 2).  Of the proposals submitted, only 33 (12%) were led by female PIs, although 50 (20%) involved female PIs or Co-PIs. Of all the submissions, 8 investigators chose not to self-identify their gender but all the awarded proposals self-identified.  Furthermore, only 8 (5%) were led by minority PIs, although 14 (6%) involved minority investigators as PI or Co-PI. These statistics only include those who chose to self-identify.  24 investigators chose not to specify their race but all the awarded proposals self-identified. Those cases where PIs did not identify their gender or minority status were excluded from this summary of PI demographics, as is also true in Figure 2.The vast majority of applications came from institutions with numerous Ph.D. programs, but Predominately Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) achieve similar success rates; the success rate of applications from Ph.D. granting institutions is 27%, PUI submissions were funded at a rate of 50%, and MSI submissions at a rate of 27%.

Figure 2 shows OPUS PI and Institutional Demographics. PUI- institutions that are primarily undergraduate and have awarded 20 or fewer Ph.D./D.Sci. degrees in all NSF-supported fields during the combined previous two academic years. MSI denotes Minority-serving Institutions and PhD-Institutions denotes schools that award more than 20 D.Sci degrees in all NSF-supported fields during the combined previous two academic years.

So what makes a great OPUS? We’re looking for a new idea or framework resulting from an existing body of work; think of a brand new album, not a “greatest hits” or “remastered” collection. As always, NSF is eager to support diverse community members. Visit the solicitation page here and contact a Program Officer to consider whether you have a project to submit!


New Required Format for Collaborators & Other Affiliations

Are you planning to submit a proposal to NSF? As of April 24, 2017, there is a new required template for the submission of the Collaborators & Other Affiliations (COA) information.  This is the information that must be submitted by each PI, co-PI, or Other Senior Personnel identified on a proposal (i.e., anyone who has a biosketch in the proposal) that helps NSF to avoid conflicts when requesting reviews from the community.  Don’t confuse this spreadsheet template with the Personnel List Spreadsheet template required by the DEB solicitation: They are two different things.  There should only be one Personnel List Spreadsheet that lists all of the people associated with an entire project emailed to DEB as instructed in the solicitation, whereas each person associated with a project must have their Collaborators & Other Affiliations (COA) information submitted as a Single Copy Document using this new template.

This new standardized format will ensure that the information is complete, and most importantly, searchable by NSF Program Officers. It includes a section for the person’s name and affiliation(s), PhD Advisors/Advisees, Collaborators, Co-Editors, and other Relationships, with detailed descriptions of who should be included in each section as described in the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures guide.

Most important things to remember:

  1. Each person listed on a proposal as PI, co-PI, or Other Senior Personnel must submit the document along with their Biosketch and their Current and Pending Support Statement.
  2. After filling out the template, the document must be saved as .xlsx or .xls format, and uploaded to FastLane as a Collaborators & Other Affiliations Single Copy Document
  3. The template and more information about this new process can be found online here:

So why not get ahead of the crowd and make sure that you and all of your collaborators have an updated Collaborators & Other Affiliations template filled out and ready to go? This is not something you want to be pulling together from all of your collaborators the day before you are trying to submit a proposal. And why not share this new NSF process with your Sponsored Research Office, as well?


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


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.


DDIGs Come to a Close

The Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) program in the Division of Environmental Biology has come to an end. This decision was difficult, but the NSF and BIO’s programs  are facing many challenges and this is the best course of action at this time.

The first DDIG solicitation was issued nearly 50 years ago and was intended to provide supplemental funds for graduate students doing field work (a largely unfunded area at the time especially when it came to field work off campus). As the needs of graduate students evolved, DDIGs expanded to help cover additional costs such as dissemination of results and expanded research expenditures.

The funds were intended to widen the existing body of dissertation research and act as a capstone to enhance the students’ work. Over time, DDIGs became a prestigious addition to any CV, with many more students submitting proposals. Eventually, the number of DDIG awards mirrored the number of full proposal awards.


 *Proposals from core programs only


In the table above, you’ll see the number of DDIG proposals reviewed in the past two years compared to the number of full research proposals reviewed. In the recent past, full proposal awards and DDIG awards are similar in number.  What those DDIG numbers also represent are four review panels comprised of nearly eighty panelists whose recruitment, travel, and reimbursement were coordinated by NSF staff.  The cost and effort of staging a DDIG panel and processing the decisions are virtually identical to the cost and effort of a standard grant panel. Yes, DDIGs are small budget awards; they are generally less than $20,000, but DDIGs still demand all the same oversight, management, and approval processes as standard grants.

Many of our Program Officers were themselves recipients of DDIG awards and looked forward to reading the innovative and high-risk research ideas being generated by fearless students. DDIGs have catalyzed a culture of independence and risk taking among graduate students within the sciences funded by DEB; we sincerely hope that graduate training programs will strive to find ways to sustain that culture.

The decision by DEB (and IOS) to end the DDIG solicitation was difficult but in the face of high workload it was a necessary course of action. The NSF will continue supporting graduate research through the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and the NSF Research Traineeship Program (NRT). If you have any additional questions after reading the Dear Colleague Letter and FAQ, please feel free to reach out to us at





Remember: Include a List of Eligible Reviewers

As a Principal Investigator, do you ever wish you could help NSF get informative and insightful ad hoc reviews of your proposals? One way to do this is to take advantage of the “single copy document” option and include a list of eligible reviewers who are the relevant experts in your field when you submit a full proposal.

Think of the process as being similar to contributing to the list of letter writers for a tenure review. Would you ignore a request to provide a list of potential reviewers and leave that solely up to the committee chair? Not likely.  Yet during the last full proposal cycle in DEB, only half of the submitted proposals included a list of suggested reviewers.  As the Principal Investigator, you are an invaluable resource for NSF for identifying appropriate reviewers.

When you provide a list of suggested expert reviewers along with their contact information, you are increasing the probability of obtaining a knowledgeable review by expanding the universe of potential reviewers beyond those immediately known to Program Officers.

For your next full proposal, please consider including a list of eight or more eligible suggested reviewers. Be sure that none of them have conflicts of interest with your proposal (e.g., spouse or relative, collaborators and co-editors, thesis advisor, institutional conflicts). Think about including newer faculty members and experienced post-doctoral scholars who have a deep and current understanding of the topic; Program Directors probably know the “household names” in the field, but may not be aware of those individuals.  And don’t put this task off to the end of proposal preparation when you may be pushing to meet the submission deadline. Think of suggesting reviewers as part of the process of preparing the best proposal you can.  If you take advantage of this opportunity to help yourself you will also assist NSF Program Directors in their role of providing the highest quality merit review of your proposal.  If you have any additional questions about submitting suggested reviewers please feel free to contact us at