Anatomy of an NSF proposal
My basic rule-of-thumb is:
- 1-2 pages placing your work in a broader context - what sort of
problems do you expect to be solving 10-30 years from now? Why is the
problem you're addressing relevant? This section should also have 1-2
paragraphs summarising the proposed research contributions (what will
you have done after 3-5 years?) Don't make this too broad or make it
sound like you're doing something you're not - you want to convince
them that the direction is worth while and will lead to bigger and
better things, but you don't want to claim to cure cancer when all
you've done is create a better pipette...
You may also want to include 1-2 paragraphs discussing outreach
and education, especially if this is a Career award or you have
something particularly compelling to say in this area.
- 2-3 pages for previous work/work you've already
completed/existing research. Be very explicit about work that is yours.
- 5-7 pages for the proposed work. This will probably include
background on the problems. Stay away from comments like "we plan to
investigate..." without any specifics. For every problem you should
have your specific approach to it. And, ideally, this shouldn't be the
approach that someone in your field would come up with after they sat
down and thought about it for 10 minutes. Also stay away from the
thesis-as-hammer grant proposal - I've seen a lot of proposals that
take the basic idea from their thesis and just list a set of problems
to try it on. You really want something a bit more visionary.
In this section, the breakdown should be:
- 2-3 pages of problems where you have already done some work and
have preliminary results. The listed problems are extensions of
existing work/address known flaws/application of current techniques to
a new, but similar, problem. You should be 90% confident of succeeding
in solving these problems. The solutions should be very
detailed/explicit. I.e., this is where you demonstrate that you know
the problem area well, you know how to solve the problems, and at the
very least, you will definitely accomplish these goals.
- 2-4 pages on longer-range problems, ones where the solutions are
not as obvious. These problems might have one or more proposed
solutions, and will, of necessity, be a bit more vague. This is where
you convince the reviewer to fund your proposal.
- 1-2 pages of long-term, we'll get to them if we can, type
problems. This is, in some sense, a peak at what your follow-up
proposal will have in it...
- 2 pages on education/broader impact. It's rare to have anything
unique here - it's usually "I'll run this course which will attract
these minority students for some reason, and will integrate my
research with the curriculum". If you can link into programs on your
campus that do education for kids/high school, that's a good thing. If
you have any industry contacts who are interested in your work, this
is the place to mention them (include a letter of support in this
- (Optional) Results from prior funding (if any) or anything unique
you want to say about your self that makes you particularly suited to
- 1 page summarising the proposed research and who's going to do it
(e.g., graduate students) and how. Make this easy to find so the
reviewers can quickly flip to it and not dig this information out of
the body of the proposal. Include your integrated education plan.
- A conclusion summarising why this research needs to be done, how
it will help the community, why you're excited to do this... i.e., end
on a high note. This is your chance to remind the reviewer about why
they should be so keen on your proposal...
I don't think I've seen a proposal killed because of an excessive
budget (or a too small one), but it will result in reviewers making
nasty comments about you to each other. Just remember that anyone who
has a substantial role in the project should have commensurate
funding. If you lay out a time-line with research problems and people
assigned to them, then that should serve as a check on whether or not
you have too many/too few people.
NSF will probably cut your budget anyhow.