How do NSF postdoc proposals work, anyways?
Since the Ocean Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (OCE-PRF) has just been announced, it seems like a good time for a quick discussion of how to apply, or how to begin thinking of applying for NSF postdoc fellowships! Many of these are due in early November so as of September prospective postdocs have about 10 weeks to refine their projects. This is a modification of a twitter thread I wrote a year or so ago, but it does have some extra information if you’ve already seen it.
My experience applying for PRFs comes from applying for the ‘Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology”, PRFB, in 2019 and 2020, and applying for the OCE-PRF in 2021. With that as my background, some of this advice will be program specific, but much of it is some of the ‘unwritten rules’ of NSF so hopefully it can be helpful to other fellowships as well. Ultimately, I was funded on my 3rd attempt at an NSF postdoc and getting to that point was quite a learning curve. In particular, I didn’t know what to expect regarding timeline or paperwork.
First, and definitely the most important - connect with Program officers (or Program Directors - seems to vary by division). Do this as early as you can, and feel free to check in with them multiple times: their names are listed on the NSF website for your specific proposal. As a graduate student it can be intimidating to reach out to Program officers, but you should 100% email them and discuss your proposal idea. It is the job of Program Officers to help you make sure your proposal fits the brief of the solicitation before you submit it. They can also answer questions you have about formatting or paperwork. For proposals due in November, contact them now to start refining project ideas.
While drafting the proposal attend the Q & A session(s). These are important to clarify solicitation language and answer questions you didn't know you had - You don't want a proposal rejected because of a formatting error! Make sure to go to the session or get detailed notes from someone who did. The Q & A session dates are listed on the NSF page for your proposal. Sometimes these are also listed on the solicitation (the hella long HTML page with all the specific language) but not always. They’re normally listed as important dates on the website that links you to the solicitation itself. As of this blog, some programs now offer Office hours - these are great places to get questions answered and connect with the Program Officers (double whammy!).
Like the Program Officers, the IT at NSF is an excellent resource for you. Proposals are submitted through an online portal (currently Fastlane, though that is changing). If you have questions or if something isn’t working, reach out to IT. I had computer issues uploading a proposal and they responded fast and fixed the problem.
Because of the jankiness of the upload portal, upload drafts of your proposal early. Like, two or three days early. Every time that I submitted proposals I tweaked files up until the deadline, but I made sure I had a good enough copy of each file uploaded a few days before. This was useful because it let me see what wasn't working (and led me to contact IT).
When you’re writing your proposal, in addition to the description of your project and the budget etc., you will need to have letters of support from your potential mentors. Make drafts of support letters for mentors that they can work from. Mentors can use your draft as a springboard and rewrite it, but your draft will help them understand the role they have in your project more clearly. Writing it out for them not only saves time, but forces you to be explicit about your mentorship goals and needs.
After you submit your proposal the earliest you can expect to hear back is ~ 3 months. If your proposal is recommended or declined, you should hear around the same time. If you haven’t heard anything by then it doesn’t mean you weren’t funded, but it doesn’t mean you were. There is always a batch of proposals that NSF would like to fund, but that are low on the priority list. If you can resist, avoid constantly refreshing the status page 😛If you haven’t heard back & have deadlines looming (accepting job offers, etc.), reach out to the Program Officer. They are super helpful & responsive - they helped advise me when my proposal was in limbo, even when everything was a mess due to COVID shutdowns. They can’t tell you if your proposal will be funded, but they can give you insight into timelines, etc.
If your proposal is selected, you will hear back over email - make sure to check those spam folders. You will need to send back paperwork to accept the award. In my experience, this has a tight deadline (less than business 5 days) so you will need to work fast.
The paperwork involves coordinating with your host institution and NSF. You might need to get a version of your proposal through the institution’s research grant office. Get in contact with your host institution’s department’s coordinator/grant manager/director because they are the experts.
For my proposal I also needed to draft a letter “concurring with the transfer of the award to the host institution.” I couldn’t find any examples of those online, but I drafted one up using the standard business style letterhead. My letter went like this:
Dr. Allison Cramer
National Science Foundation
2415 Eisenhower Avenue,
Alexandria VA 22314
To the [fellowship name] Program,
This letter concurs with the transfer of Proposal ID ##### [proposal title] to the primary host organization, [institution name].
After the letter and all the other paperwork is sent back there is another batch of waiting. During this time your proposal status page might not change, and the only “proof” you have that you got funded is re-checking your email compulsively. After a few weeks the proposal status shifts to Recommended & a few days later you will receive emails that your proposal is being funded and the status changes to Awarded. Some of these emails are auto generated so have weird subject lines (so check spam folders).
Whether it was funded or not, after you hear back you will get feedback from proposal reviewers. This feedback includes a summary and individual reviewer thoughts about your proposal. The summary of proposal reviews is most important - it synthesizes individual feedback to highlight what matters. For example, one reviewer for my funded proposal found aspects of my proposal unclear in their written feedback; in the summary however this wasn’t mentioned at all. The other two reviewers understood that part of my proposal, so it was hashed out among the reviewers in the in person discussions they had. In contrast, on one of my unfunded proposals two reviewers highlighted a gap, and that gap was again emphasized in the summary feedback. This let me know to focus on it for my next attempt (the successful one!).
Here I am going to plug Program Officers once again. You can contact them about these reviews and they can help you make sense of the feedback. They are ‘in the room’ when the discussions happen, so can help identify what to prioritize for revisions should you resubmit. In general, postdoc proposal or not, contacting program officers is good practice for any researcher looking for NSF funding. It is essential for connecting with NSF programs, and for parsing solicitations. NSF wants to fund good science. The Program Officers help researchers frame their questions and put their best proposals forward.
All of the above info is my experience with NSF. If you have questions about being in this strange postdoc stage, feel free to connect with me on twitter @AlliNCramer. You can DM me and I can point you in the right direction. Good luck to all of you writing those postdoc proposals!