A scientist works in a lab.

Five pieces of advice for applying to NSF’s CAREER program

Rick Page talks with a student in his office.
Successful applicants to the NSF CAREER program, like the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry’s Rick Page, shown here at right, submit proposals that show how their research and education plans are integrated.

On January 16, OARS sponsored a session on the NSF CAREER program, presented by Liz Nysson. In addition to being a staff member in the Discovery Center for Evaluation, Research, and Professional Learning, Nysson is also a member of the steering committee for the National Alliance for Broader Impacts. In this session, she covered basics of the program – including eligibility, budgets, and due dates – and offered advice to prospective applicants, some highlights of which we cover here.

1. Earlier is better.

This advice applies to both contacting a program officer (PO) – which Nysson strongly recommended – and submitting an application. With CAREER submission deadlines in July, POs are flooded with requests from prospective applicants in May, so Nysson advised prospective applicants to contact them much sooner. February is not too early, especially this year, when one government shutdown has just ended and another looms. It is advised to have a one-pager ready describing the PI’s intended CAREER proposal. As for applications, Nysson said submitting at the last minute leaves a PI vulnerable to electronic system problems that commonly occur when volumes are heavy. It’s much better to submit a few days early. Not only are problems less likely to occur when system traffic is lighter, but there is also still time before the deadline to mitigate any problems that might crop up.

2. This program is about the PI, not just the project.

Most grant programs, including the ones offered by NSF, are meant to fund specific projects. In contrast, the CAREER program has a strong emphasis on the principal investigator (PI), not simply the project. That means no co-PIs are permitted on CAREER proposals. It also means that some common practices – like using “we” in the narrative – are not recommended. Instead, Nysson said applicants should use “I” when appropriate to keep the emphasis on the PI. Using the first person singular to describe completed activities reinforces the message that the PI has demonstrated their personal ability to carry out the proposed activities. (This is not to say that the PI can’t have help carrying out the proposed activities, especially those in the education plan. In fact, Nysson suggested that the applicant’s budget include salary for graduate students, post-docs, or other support staff.) Because it is so important to establish that the PI has a demonstrated ability to carry out the proposed activities – and because PIs are permitted only three bites at the CAREER application apple – Nysson also said PIs who don’t yet have preliminary data should consider waiting until they do before applying for a CAREER award.

3. The education component is integral, not “extra.”

With some programs – regardless of what the RFP says – education plans are evaluated by reviewers as a nice-to-have component rather than a must-have component. That is not the case with the CAREER program, where reviewers keep a sharp eye out for carefully integrated education plans. CAREER applications in which the education plan is tacked-on or treated as an afterthought will not be successful, so Nysson recommended applicants approach the education plan as rigorously as they approach the research plan. Just like research plans, education plans should include clear aims, objectives, background information, citations, and other critical elements. Just as research plan research design and methods are evidence-based, education plan research design and methods should be as well. Nysson said PIs should also clearly explain how their education plans are integrated with their research plans, and they should be explicit about how the work is integrated with their research as they do it. Activities related to the education plan should be accounted for in both the budget and the timeline.

4. Good grantsmanship is good CAREER grantsmanship.

Nysson emphasized that CAREER is special in many ways, but it is still a grant program with a typically crowded field. Although the competition is stiffer in some directorates than in others, no directorate has had a funding rate above 25% in recent years. PIs can improve their chances of success with effective grantsmanship. Nysson specifically advised PIs to:

  • Review NSF’s note to CAREER reviewers both before and after drafting the proposal to ensure the proposal not only contains what the reviewers are looking for, but also that it makes those things easy to find.
  • Provide context for reviewers who may not be experts in all elements of their research.
  • Establish a clear organizational structure.
  • Articulate explicit connections between aims, hypotheses, research plans, and outcomes.
  • Use headings to distinguish various sections of their narrative.
  • Use bullet points for objectives and items in lists, not only to provide clarity, but also to provide reviewers with reference points for navigating back to specific information in the proposal. (Yes, bullets take up more space, but that space can often be made up by following the advice in the bullet below.)
  • Employ a clear, direct writing style.
  • Include charts, graphs, or other illustrations. As with bullet points, graphics both facilitate reviewers’ understanding and provide them with reference points.
  • Observe rules of standard written English.

5. The departmental letter is not pro forma.

It is critical that the required letter from an applicant’s department chair be personalized and not come across as generic. Letters should be tailored to the applicant and contain the following specific elements outlined in the CAREER program solicitation:

  • A statement to the effect that the PI is eligible for the CAREER program. For non-tenure-track faculty, the Departmental Letter must affirm that the investigator’s appointment is at an early-career level equivalent to pre-tenure status, pursuant to the eligibility criteria specified above. Further, for non-tenure-track faculty, the Departmental Letter must clearly and convincingly demonstrate how the faculty member satisfies all the requirements of tenure-track equivalency as defined in the eligibility criteria specified in this solicitation.
  • An indication that the PI’s proposed CAREER research and education activities are supported by and advance the educational and research goals of the department and the organization, and that the department is committed to the support and professional development of the PI; and
  • A description of a) the relationship between the CAREER project, the PI’s career goals and job responsibilities, and the mission of his/her department/organization, and b) the ways in which the department head (or equivalent) will ensure the appropriate mentoring of the PI, in the context of the PI’s career development and his/her efforts to integrate research and education throughout the period of the award and beyond.

The departmental letter must be no more than two pages in length, and Nysson warned that, in this case at least, shorter is not better. Letters less than two pages long may be interpreted by reviewers as a lukewarm endorsement of the applicant by the department chair. Nysson suggested that an applicant may wish to write an initial draft of the letter for their chair to work from or provide their chair with relevant information.


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Lab photo by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services. Photo of Rick Page by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.

 

 

Dominik Konkolewicz helps a student in the classroom. Part of a periodic table is visible in the background.

Dominik Konkolewicz receives CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation

Dominik Konkolewicz and a student work with some equipment in Konkolewicz's lab.
Dominik Konkolewicz (right) has been awarded an NSF CAREER grant in support of his polymer research.

Almost everyone has experienced the disappointment that comes along with the first scratch on a new car, a freshly painted wall, or a just-out-of-the-box cell phone. But what if that scratch were just a temporary thing? What if the car or wall or phone could repair itself and no one would ever know the scratch had been there? If Dominik Konkolewicz has anything to do with it, that fantasy may one day become reality.

Konkolewicz, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Miami University, recently received a CAREER grant from the Faculty Early Career Development program of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NSF CAREER grant is one of the organization’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.”

Konkolewicz is the ninth scientist at Miami to be awarded a CAREER grant. He and his group will receive $600,000 of funding over five years for his research program on polymers. This award brings the number of currently active CAREER grants at Miami to two.

“If you look around a room, and you remove the air, metals, ceramics, and the small amount of water, just about everything else is a polymer,” Konkolewicz says.

Polymers can be natural or synthetic. Natural polymers include cellulose, which is the main component of wood and paper, and proteins or DNA that are essential for life processes. Among the dozens of commodity synthetic polymers are polyethylene milk jugs and plastic wrap; polystyrene packing materials; polyvinylaacetate (PVA) and epoxy glues; and PET soda and water bottles. Polymers are also included as components of paints and other coatings used to finish surfaces like those of cars, walls, and cell phones.

From a chemistry perspective, polymers consist of smaller molecules, or repeating units, linked together to form a larger molecule. This larger molecule, or macromolecule, is like a necklace, with dozens to tens-of-thousands of smaller molecules making up the individual links. In many useful materials, such as cured epoxy glue, soft contact lenses, and the rubber used in tires, long polymer chains are linked to form a mesh or network-like structure at the molecular level.

“The links that bind these chains together are a little like staples,” Konkolewicz says. “They’re permanent. When a material becomes damaged or fractured, the material becomes useless because there’s no way to recover the original properties.”

Konkolewicz’s work focuses on creating links between the chains that he says are more like paper clips than like staples, ones that can be reused many times. If one link is damaged, it can be exchanged for another one, allowing the material – whether it’s wall paint or a truck tire – to heal itself when scratched or punctured.

Konkolewicz says the tradeoff in this kind of chemistry, since it was pioneered in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has been between dynamism and stability. The types of “paper clips” used to hook units together would either allow a material to recover its original properties very quickly, or allow it to maintain its original shape over time, but typically not both.

To understand this tradeoff, we can think about truck tires. If they were made out of a material that could heal quickly when punctured by a nail picked up on the road, drivers could avoid the time, expense, and hassle of being stuck with a flat. However, if that same highly dynamic material were also highly unstable, the tires would lose their shape as they were squeezed between the truck and the road. That’s exactly the dilemma Konkolewicz says currently exists in this type of materials science.

His innovation is to introduce two different types of links in the same material. One type of link would allow the material to heal itself quickly, while the other – which would be activated by applying heat, pH, or light – would “lock in” the permanent shape. In the case of truck tires, that means they could both recover from a nail puncture and remain perfectly round.

Another consideration Konkolewicz says is important in materials science is toughness, or the ability to withstand seemingly minor damage. Once a brittle material acquires a small chip or other defect, any little bump could cause it to shatter. Konkolewicz says the types of dynamic bonds that he is using can increase material toughness, extending the useful lifetime of products made from those materials.

Konkolewicz’s work has clear implications for sustainability. “If you don’t need to throw something out over time, if something has a longer lifetime, that’s a huge benefit,” he says. “It’s a much smaller drain on resources.”

Konkolewicz currently supervises eight graduate students and has 11 undergraduates on his team. He has also mentored an additional graduate student who has since graduated. These students work with Konkolewicz on his CAREER project, as well as on his other projects involving conjugation of synthetic materials to enzymatic proteins and development of light driven chemical and polymerization processes.

All NSF CAREER projects include an integrated education objective. Konkolewicz will conduct community-based STEM outreach for K-12 students in collaboration with Dayton Public Schools and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. In addition, he will continue developing innovative activities to use in the undergraduate classroom. For example, he plans to expand a pilot project in which students use YouTube as a forum to reflect on how they overcame challenges in their studies and to share these strategies with their peers. The CAREER grant will also provide funds for a student from underrepresented groups to work in Konkolewicz’s lab each summer.

Konkolewicz received his doctorate from the University of Sydney in 2011 and was a visiting assistant professor/senior research chemist at Carnegie Mellon University from 2011 to 2014.


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photos by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services.

A monarch butterfly's wings are visible through the wall of a chrysalis that is attached to a branch.

Carl Batt delivers workshop on career development programs

Directional street sign reads, "Careers & Guidance."

On Friday, December 15, Dr. Carl Batt, Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor at Cornell University, presented a workshop to Miami University faculty on proposal development and career programs, with a special emphasis on the NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program (NSF CAREER). Dr. Batt shared best practices for developing goals, objectives, and activities for career-focused applications.

Here, we’re republishing a recap of a webinar Dr. Batt delivered in March of 2017 that covered similar material. (We’ve updated it to reflect eligibility requirements for the 2018 NSF CAREER program.)


The purpose of a faculty career development program is to support an investigator in his or her research and instructional development. Some agencies, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have programs that support an investigator at various stages in their career, from beginner, to mid-career, to senior research scientist. Others, like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and some non-Federal agencies, focus on early career development.

Because every agency is different, their respective career development programs have different goals and eligibility requirements. For a comprehensive list of agency-funded career development programs, visit the UC Berkeley Sponsored Programs website.

Contact the program officer

The first step Batt emphasized for faculty considering a career (or any) grant proposal is to contact the program officer. With funding rates at or below 10%, it is imperative that researchers understand their target funding agency and that they contact the relevant program officer prior to developing a proposal.

Define the problem

Once an appropriate agency and program have been identified, the next step is to define the problem. An applicant needs to identify gaps in the current knowledge-base that they will address in their research plan. Batt suggested investigators stay ahead of the curve, while taking care not to get so far ahead as to be out-of-range of their peer reviewers.

Craft specific objectives

Next, Batt said, is to craft specific objectives. Batt cautioned applicants against developing unrelated objectives. Instead, objectives must be cohesive to address a particular goal. If objectives are too independent, then reviewers may perceive an application to be proposing more than one project– an issue that will keep the proposal from being funded.

Outline a research plan for each objective

Finally, outline a research plan for each objective. Batt encouraged the use of timelines and strategies for dealing with anticipated outcomes/pitfalls.

NSF CAREER

The NSF CAREER program is meant to support teacher-scholars while they build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in STEM research and outreach. For this reason, a CAREER application requires a long-range overview of the applicant’s development plan. Batt pointed out that this long-range perspective makes the NSF CAREER program different from a single-project grant. Another thing that makes a CAREER application  different from a project proposal is that it integrates research and education — both the applicant’s own continuing eduction and how they plan to share their knowledge through instruction and outreach activities. Despite the emphasis on education, Batt cautioned prospective applicants to be aware that “an excellent education plan will not overcome a bad research plan.”

To be eligible for NSF CAREER, faculty must:

  • Hold a Ph.D. in a field supported by NSF
  • Be employed in a tenure-track (or equivalent) position
  • Be untenured as of October 1, 2018
  • Not have submitted to more than three CAREER competitions or received a prior NSF CAREER award

For more information on the NSF CAREER program, other career development programs or general grantsmanship, contact your OARS representative.


Written by Tricia Callahan, Director, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Chrysalis photo by Sid Mosdell via Flickr. Careers & Guidance photo by Andrew Bowden via Flickr. Both used under Creative Commons license.

Rows of students at benches in a science lab work with microscopes.

NSF’s Directorate of Education and Human Resources offers funding for STEM education projects

A teacher and a student in a science lab look at the measurement of liquid in a beaker.

With the deadline for the National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Education and Human Resources (EHR) core research program coming up on September 14, this post offers an overview of the directorate and includes some insights for applicants to EHR offered by EHR Program Director Karen King at the NSF Spring Grants Conference held in Louisville this past June.

Overview

EHR’s mission is to achieve excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Specific focal areas include STEM learning and learning environments, broadening participation, building institutional capacity in STEM, and STEM workforce development. EHR is interested in traditional, face-to-face education, as well as online learning, games, and virtual reality.

The upper end of the range of award figures tends to be higher in EHR than for other directorates and divisions in NSF. King says the reason is that EHR receives comparatively more collaborative proposals, which by definition involve more personnel, and personnel are the most expensive line item in most budgets.

Programs

Among the programs offered by EHR are the following:

EHR Core Research (ECR)

2017 submission deadline: September 14

This program of fundamental research in STEM education provides funding in critical research areas that are essential, broad and enduring. EHR seeks proposals that will help synthesize, build and/or expand research foundations in the following focal areas: STEM learning, STEM learning environments, STEM workforce development, and broadening participation in STEM.

King says EHR is seeing fewer and fewer ECR proposals focused on increasing participation by women. She says the NSF assumes this reflects a decreasing interest in this issue within the field.

Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)

Solicitation currently under revision, with no 2017 submission deadline released yet

This program, offered through the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL), seeks to advance new approaches to and evidence-based understanding of the design and development of STEM learning opportunities for the public in informal environments; provide multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences; and advance innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments.

King says broadening participation is an area for emphasis in AISL. Of particular significance to Miami faculty, King indicated that among the groups that may qualify as underrepresented are first generation college students and/or those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. However, in such cases, the proposal must put forth a persuasive argument about how/why such groups are underrepresented within the context of the proposed project.

Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (NSF INCLUDES)

2017 submission deadline has passed; no 2018 submission deadline released yet

Offered through the Division of Human Resource Development (HRD), this program is a comprehensive national initiative designed to enhance U.S. leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) discoveries and innovations focused on NSF’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and broadening participation in these fields. NSF INCLUDES supports efforts to create networked relationships among organizations whose goals include developing talent from all sectors of society to build the STEM workforce. This initiative seeks to improve collaborative efforts aimed at enhancing the preparation, increasing the participation, and ensuring the contributions of individuals from groups that have traditionally been underrepresented and underserved in the STEM enterprise: women, persons with disabilities, African Americans/Blacks, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Native Pacific Islanders, and persons from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

King says the emphasis in INCLUDES is on scalable models. In FY2018, King says INCLUDES may fund a few alliances between several institutions working on the same “problem” for up to five years at $2.5 million per year.

National Innovation Network Teams Program (I-Corps Teams)

Proposals accepted at any time

The purpose of this program (which is not exclusive to EHR) is to  give a project team access to resources to help determine the readiness to transition technology developed by previously-funded or currently funded NSF projects. The outcomes of I-Corps Teams projects will be threefold: 1) a clear go /or no go decision regarding viability of products and services, 2) should the decision be to move the effort forward, a transition plan for those projects to move forward, and 3) a definition of a compelling technology demonstration for potential partners.

King describes I-Corps Teams as an entrepreneurship bootcamp for current NSF grantees.

Research Advanced by Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering (RAISE)

RAISE is a type of proposal, rather than a program, and is not exclusive to EHR. RAISE supports bold, interdisciplinary projects. Proposals, which are internally reviewed, may be up to $1 million and five years and require the approval of two different programs of NSF. Proposals must address how the project is better suited for RAISE than the standard NSF proposal.

King recommends a RAISE proposal to investigators who may have previously submitted to the INSPIRE program, which has been discontinued.

Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program

2017 submission deadline has passed; 2018 submission deadline: July 18

This Foundation-wide activity offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research. NSF encourages submission of CAREER proposals from early-career faculty at all CAREER-eligible organizations and especially encourages women, members of underrepresented minority groups, and persons with disabilities to apply.

King reminds prospective CAREER applicants to review both the CAREER solicitation and the solicitation for the program that is a good fit for the project (e.g., ECR or AISL), and to address criteria for both solicitations in the proposal. She also suggests reviewing the CAREER program FAQs.

Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP)

2017 submission deadline: October 26

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based Master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. Awards are made according to application pressure, meaning that directorates/divisions that receive relatively more applications in comparison to other directorates/divisions will make relatively more awards.

King says that reference letters are critical for GRFP applicants, and recommends that prospective applicants have their referees review reference letter information on the program website. She says it’s especially important for applicants from underrepresented groups — from whom NSF is not receiving as many applications as they’d like — to understand the importance of reference letters. Backend data from the application system shows that many applications started by students from underrepresented groups remain incomplete at the time of the submission deadline, often because a reference letter (or two or three) hasn’t been submitted.


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photos by Scott Kissell and Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services.

 

A ladder reaches into the sky.

Virtual workshop provides advice to prospective applicants to career development programs

Road sign says, "Career Get started now"

The purpose of a faculty career development program is to support an investigator in his or her research and instructional development. Some agencies, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have programs that support an investigator at various stages in their career, from beginner, to mid-career, to senior research scientist. Others, like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and some non-Federal agencies, focus on early career development.

Because every agency is different, their respective career development programs have different goals and eligibility requirements. For a comprehensive list of agency-funded career development programs, visit the UC Berkeley Sponsored Programs website.

On Wednesday, March 15, Dr. Carl Batt, Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor at Cornell University, presented a virtual workshop to Miami University faculty on proposal development and career programs, with a special emphasis on the NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program (NSF CAREER). Dr. Batt shared best practices for developing goals, objectives, and activities for career-focused applications.

Contact the program officer

The first step Batt emphasized for faculty considering a career (or any) grant proposal is to contact the program officer. With funding rates at or below 10%, it is imperative that researchers understand their target funding agency and that they contact the relevant program officer prior to developing a proposal.

Define the problem

Once an appropriate agency and program have been identified, the next step is to define the problem. An applicant needs to identify gaps in the current knowledge-base that they will address in their research plan. Batt suggested investigators stay ahead of the curve, while taking care not to get so far ahead as to be out-of-range of their peer reviewers.

Craft specific objectives

Next, Batt said, is to craft specific objectives. Batt cautioned applicants against developing unrelated objectives. Instead, objectives must be cohesive to address a particular goal. If objectives are too independent, then reviewers may perceive an application to be proposing more than one project– an issue that will keep the proposal from being funded.

Outline a research plan for each objective

Finally, outline a research plan for each objective. Batt encouraged the use of timelines and strategies for dealing with anticipated outcomes/pitfalls.

NSF CAREER

The NSF CAREER program is meant to support teacher-scholars while they build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in STEM research and outreach. For this reason, a CAREER application requires a long-range overview of the applicant’s development plan. Batt pointed out that this long-range perspective makes the NSF CAREER program different from a single-project grant. Another thing that makes a CAREER application  different from a project proposal is that it integrates research and education — both the applicant’s own continuing eduction and how they plan to share their knowledge through instruction and outreach activities. Despite the emphasis on education, Batt cautioned prospective applicants to be aware that “an excellent education plan will not overcome a bad research plan.”

To be eligible for NSF CAREER, faculty must:

  • Hold a Ph.D. in a field supported by NSF
  • Be employed in a tenure-track (or equivalent) position
  • Be untenured as of October 1, 2017
  • Not have submitted to more than three CAREER competitions or received a prior NSF CAREER award

For more information on the NSF CAREER program, other career development programs or general grantsmanship, contact your OARS representative.


Written by Tricia Callahan, Director, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Ladder photo by Charles Rondeau via PublicDomainPictures.net. “Get started now” photo by Pixabay via Pexels. Both public domain.