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CAREER proposal (under perpetual construction)

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) that funds the research of recently hired assistant professors. The CAREER program is very competitive. The NSF's official success rate for computing and information sciences and engineering is 23%. The popular perception in my particular community, which is communication theory and signal processing, is that the success rate is between 5% and 10%. I have no inkling as to which of these numbers is more accurate. The CAREER award is also very prestigious and important, effectively playing the role of a rite of passage into the academic community. While it is not a prerequisite for promotion, it does make things considerably smoother.

When I started writing my CAREER proposal I did some research to find ideas on how to write it, but most of the material I found were useless tips. What I felt I needed was a few sample proposals, but I found very few posted, and none of them fell in my research area. The purpose of this page is to make my CAREER proposal available. I do not claim that this proposal is particularly good, particularly well written, or worthy of your time in any sense. But it may help you to get some ideas on how to organize your own. In case it is of any further help, I also describe here the contents of this proposal and how I settled into this structure.

Proposal contents

The proposal consists of fifteen pages plus a one-page summary. In this fifteen pages it is necessary to introduce the problem to be addressed, discuss related pieces of work, present the technical approach, detail the proposed research and describe the education agenda. In my proposal I decided to divide the 15 pages as follows:

  • Introduction and proposal preview (2 pages)
  • Work in context of existing research (1 page)
  • Technical approach (5 pages)
  • Proposed research (5 pages)
  • Education plan (2 pages)

For want of a better name I call this page distribution the 21,552 rule. You may choose a different page distribution, but it is not difficult to see that it cannot be much different from the 21,552 rule. Indeed, the technical approach and proposed research sections are the bulk of the proposal and of similar importance. Therefore, they should be allocated the bulk of the writing with similar lengths. The third section forming the body of the proposal is the education plan. I cannot see how it is possible to write a coherent education plan in less than two pages. The introduction and proposal preview is the most important section of the proposal, because it is the only chance to capture the attention of the reader. Given its importance, I allocate two pages to its writing. Contextualizing the work is important, but clearly less important than any of the preceding and is therefore allocated a single page.

Discussion on the approach to these different sections is given below.

Introduction and proposal preview

A research project involves a goal whose fulfillment requires the completion of specific tasks, for which a particular method or technical approach is followed. Bearing these observations in mind, the primary objective of this section is to describe the research's goal, specific tasks and technical approach. A subsidiary, but not less important objective is to show the unique properties of the technical approach that give credence to the claim that difficult obstacles can be overcome. A third objective of this section is to demonstrate why the proposer is the right person to execute the proposed technical approach. This is typically established by references to earlier achievements.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the proposal to write is a preview of the proposed research. This part has to be general enough to be understood by most people on your broad research community, while being detailed enough to offer a complete picture to someone working on related problems. I deal with this difficulty through the use of high level explanations mixed with the use of keywords. For example, I claim that I will develop Adaptive algorithms and protocols to learn probability distributions of channels while searching for optimal operating points. Most researchers on signal processing and wireless networking understand this sentence. But for researchers closer to my area of expertise the key-phrase Adaptive algorithms and protocols, is a very clear indication of what type of equations I'm going to write down.

Work in context of existing research

This section is important but not fundamental. Akin to context section of a paper.

Technical approach

The technical approach presents the problem formulation, the tools to be used to attack the problem, and what prior result has been achieved that. This is easy because it is like the problem formulation section of a paper. May introduce preliminary results

Proposed research

A CAREER proposal is awarded for five years. Thus, it should include five different directions to be pursued. One idea should follow clearly from the technical approach. This is what will be done next year. Two or three ideas should be plausible, you have to state a clear problem and describe what kind of tools can be used to solve it. This is what you will do in years 2 and 3, maybe 4. One or two ideas can be less well thought out. This is to be done 4 years from now

Education plan

The education plan is an important part of any NSF proposal, but even more so for a CAREER proposal. There is a fundamental reason for that, which is that if you disagree with the previous sentence you've chosen the wrong career. Over the course of a year I spend about ten percent of my time teaching. That may not be a lot. However, a tenth of my professional life is still too much to be doing something I don't feel strongly about. You also have to realize that fifty years from now your papers will be most likely forgotten, but if you have some positive impact in the life of some of your students they will tell their college bound grandkids about you. There is also a practical reason. The cutting line between fund a not fund is very difficult to place. It is quite possible that the difference is made by your imaginative teaching ideas. To put it clearly, your proposal does not stand a chance if the proposed research is not among the top quintile, but once there a good education plan may make a difference.

I think a good education plan consists of three pieces: philosophy, implementation at the undergraduate level, and implementation at the graduate level. Your teaching philosophy is an statement of what you believe is wrong with education in your field and what you believe you can do to change that. For example, I believe that too few people study engineering and that this is because we make engineering education boring. I think we can change that by making engineering education more difficult and more interdisciplinary (see here if you're interested in my ramblings). You then have to explain what concrete actions you're going to take to implement that philosophy at both the undergraduate and graduate level. In my case this entails developing a class at the undergraduate level that abides closely to this philosophy and a class at the graduate level that abides closely to the proposed research.

A closing plea

In the time that has elapsed since I published this page most of the assistant professors that I have met at conferences have been kind enough to extend their gratitude for having made my CAREER proposal public. Each time that this happens brightens my day. Yet, I am under the impression that there are not that many CAREER proposal examples publicly available. Allow me then to plea with you to make your proposal available when the time comes for the fortunes to smile upon you. Best of luck.

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Page last modified on May 30, 2014, at 09:59 AM