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Preparing a Successful Grant Proposal

A Summary of 
the GSAC Colloquium
on Sept. 4, 2001
Presented Jointly by

Aaron Bertram, Graeme Milton,
Cindi Phillips & Anurag Singh

Comments from the Audience

Please follow the links above to see each speaker's portion
of the presentation or the comments from the audience.

Portion presented by Graeme Milton

Reasons to apply for a grant:

  • Academic salaries usually cover only 9 months of the calender year.  An NSF grant can be used to cover up to 2 months of summer salary.  Coupled with grants from other agencies, one can get up to 3 months of summer salary.

  • A grant can provide funds for items one might not otherwise afford, for example,
    • attending conferences
    • supporting graduate students
    • providing funds for visits for collaborators from another institution
    • purchase of books
    • purchase of computing equipment
    • providing funds for hosting a workshop or conference

  • Having a grant can be a factor in employment and tenure decisions
    • Having a grant can help secure a tenure-track position (mark of success at an early stage)
    • Being awarded an NSF grant can be viewed as successfully passsing a peer review process perceived as more objective than letters of recommendation.
    • It helps familiarize those judging your proposal with your research, and these people may be called upon to write letters of reference at some future date.
    • Having no grants or fellowships, when it comes time for a final tenure decision, can be disastrous.
  • Preparing a grant proposal can benefit your research
    • The preparation process
      • helps you organize your ideas about research directions.
      • can stimulate you to think in new directions,
      • forces you to think about the larger perspective --- the Big Picture --- as to why your work is important,
      • helps you develop writing skills.
    • Grant proposal material can be useful for other purposes (websites or introduction to papers).
    • A joint proposal can stimulate new collaborations with co-investigators.
  • Benefits to the Department and the University
    • The intellectual atmosphere in the Department is enhanced by having visiting collaborators, hosting conferences, or supporting graduate students.
    • A major portion of the cost of running the University is provided by grants (through overhead).  You help contribute by getting a grant.
    • A percentage (though small) of the overhead goes back to the Department.

What are my chances of sucess?

    • In applied mathematics, typically about 30% (of around 250 to 300 proposals) are funded each year.
    • Some high priority areas (such as nanotechnology) may have a greater chance of success.
    • Proposals by junior investigators get special attention.
    • NSF tries to achieve a balance in
    • funding for junior vs. senior investigators (the odds are more in favor of junior investigators).
    • pure vs. applied proposals
    • between the different divisions in mathematics
    • between mathematics and the other sciences
    • If you do not succeed in getting a grant the first time, keep on trying.

The importance of timing

    • Begin thinking about topics for your proposal, say 6 months before deadline.
    • Start writing your proposal, say 2 months before deadline.
    • The Office of Sponsored Projects (OSP) needs time to review your proposal before it is submitted.  Make sure to allow (approximately one week) for that.

  • Graduate Students are not eligible for NSF grants, but they are eligible for NSF postdoctoral fellowships.
  • Assistant Professors (Lecturers) may want to apply for NSF grants in their second year, if not as early as the first year of their appointment.
  • Vigre Assistant Professors may want to apply in their third year.
  • Assistant Professors (tenure-track) may want to apply in the first year of their position if they do not already hold a grant.

Budget items for NSF grants

    • Summer Salary (4% increase year to year)
    • Support for graduate students
    • Fringer benefits
    • Domestic and international travel (for graduate students as well)
    • Cost of reprints
    • Page charges for publication of papers
    • Support for computer personnel
    • Computing equipment
    • Books
Restricted items (possibly less stringent for non-NSF grants)
    • Office supplies
    • Memberships/subscriptions
    • Postage (except for workshop brochures)
    • Food
How to justify the budget?
Be specific.  For example, for travel expenses, mention which specifically which conference you or your graduate students are attending, the airfare accomodation cost and registration fees involved.  For visitors' travel expenses, mention specifically the names of the collaborators you will be inviting.

How will my NSF proposal be reviewed?

  • Proposals handled by the Applied Mathematics Program are usually assessed by mail review; in some cases, panel review is used.  The number of reviewers depends on the complexity of the proposal and the areas of expertise required.  A recommendation for declination or award is not considered until at least two substantive reviews, and usually three or more reviews, are received.
  • While reviewers' ratings are considered, the content of their reviews is more important in assessing the merits of each proposal.  Different reviewers may offer insights into different aspects of a proposal (issues of problem formulation and approach, relevant work in other areas of mathematics, perspectives on the importance of a particular problem within the subarea of applied mathematics, or in a broader context, relevance to applications or other disciplines).
  • Reviewers comments are considered in the context of each other's reviews.  Thus, average rating is NOT the determining factor in a recommendation; rather, a clear picture of each proposal's strengths and likely impact is sought.
  • The hallmark of a successful proposal is one or more salient strengths.  Usaully this is reflected in high ratings, although not all reviewers give provocative but risky proposals the highest ratings.  Proposals recommended for award, as distinguished from other proposals ``of fundable quality,'' have a strong potential for impact in the field or in science more broadly.  Taken collectively, the funded proposals present a balance across the dynamic and essential areas of the discipline.  This means that recommendations for award go beyond a simple ordering of proposals.

Strategy for writing a successful Applied Mathematics proposal

  • Convey your enthusiasm for your research.
  • Explain why it is important and what are the larger ramifications.
  • Provide background and references to show you know what has already been done.
  • Make sure the main points of your proposal are intelligible to the non-expert.
  • Provide only enough technical details to convince a reader that what you are proposing has a good chance of working out.
  • Try a "multi-pronged" approach, i.e. suggesting a number of topics from the quite applied to the quite theoretical.
  • Do not be afraid to include something which is more abstract if you think it scientifically fascinating (the grant reviewer may think so too).
  • Interdisciplinary connections can help (and it is possible other divisions may contribute to funding your proposal).  Mention actual collaborations.  These connections should be genuine; otherwise your proposal may be severely discredited.
  • Get a friend to proofread your proposal (especially if English is not your first language).
  • Ask to faculty mentor to review it.

What happens after I hear from NSF?

  • Even if you are sucessful, you might still be told to cut your budget (or asked for additional budget justification pending a possible cut).
  • You will be asked to prepare an abstract for the award.
  • You will eventually receive the reviews which could have some valuable suggestions.
  • It is generally possible to get a one-year extension of your grant (no additional money).
  • Annual reports must be submitted; otherwise your funding could be cut.
  • Final reports must be submitted; otherwise you may not get funding for any other grants (and you may jeopardize funding for the entire University!)

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Department of Mathematics
University of Utah
155 South 1400 East, JWB 233 
Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-0090 
Tel: 801 581 6851, Fax: 801 581 4148