Deconstructing the NSF CAREER Proposal

Sauvik Das
12 min readAug 23, 2020

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I was awarded a NSF CAREER proposal recently, on my second attempt [1]. In the process of putting my materials together, I was fortunate to be able to learn from successful proposals written by friends and colleagues [2]. I was also fortunate to get feedback from mentors [3]. Trends emerged, and I thought I’d distill and share here on the off-chance that someone might find it helpful.

Disclaimer: I submitted to the Security and Trustworthy Cyberspace program, and requested examples from others who I knew submitted to that program. I expect much of what I learned applies to other programs within the CISE directorate’s purview, but your mileage may vary. Also, my first attempt was unsuccessful (I ended up with a Low Competitive rating, but the reviews were fair). I’ve written up a few reflections from my first submission attempt at the bottom of this post. My second attempt seemed to resonate, though — I got a high competitive rating with three excellent ratings.

Anyway, from my reading and submission experience, this is what a successful SaTC CAREER proposal seems to look like:

Intro (~2 pages)

Describe objectives and demonstrate significance / impact. Frame and scope problem, discuss key insight, detail proposed activities to address problem.

  • Employ statistics / figures to scope the problem and potential impact (e.g., number of people affected, economic impact). Forward-looking trends are common (e.g., year-over-year increases in something). Example scenarios are also common for systems-oriented proposals.
  • I saw three framing strategies: (i) solving longstanding problems with existing tech; (ii) addressing burgeoning problems with emergent tech; and, (iii) solving a problem for an under-served population.
  • Explicitly call out the intellectual traditions / disciplines that inform your work.
  • Systematize the broader problem domain and discuss how your CAREER proposal fits in to this broader space (e.g., there are three big problems, this proposal solves problem 1)
  • Bolded vision statement of proposed work [4]
  • Outline specific challenges that exist in current approaches / technologies that inhibit the vision (particularly if the work is…

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Sauvik Das

Assistant Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. Formerly at Georgia Tech. Ph.D. from CMU HCII. HCI, Security, Data Science.