Education Components of CAREER Proposals (UPDATED!)

This post is aimed at people who are considering applying for a CAREER award from the US National Science Foundation. For those who aren’t familiar, these awards are aimed at pre-tenure faculty. The key ways they differ from regular grants are: 1. they are restricted to pre-tenure faculty, 2. they are for five years instead of three, and 3. they include both a research component (like typical grants) as well as an education component (which, to a first approximation, is sort of like a broader impacts section on steroids). I’m focusing on the education component here. I am writing this based on experience applying for one (which included reading the CAREER proposals that had been written by a lot of different people), talking with people who applied for them about what worked and didn’t work, reviewing CAREER proposals, and talking with others who’ve reviewed CAREER proposals about what generally works and doesn’t work. With a CAREER proposal, if you don’t do a good job with the science part and the education part, you won’t get funded. I’m hoping this post helps people as they work on the education component.

As with any proposal, it is immensely valuable to get examples from people who’ve applied. Clearly it’s good to read proposals that were successful, but it also helps to read ones that were not, especially if the person is willing to share reviews, too. Knowing what doesn’t work can be as important as knowing what does.

In my opinion, the following things are needed to have a compelling education component of a CAREER proposal:

1. Focus on a particular subset of educational activities. Don’t try to do all the possible broader impacts that NSF lists! Choose 1-2 areas that you particularly care about and focus in on those. In my case, I focused on topics related to underrepresented groups in science. I had several different activities, but they all centered on that theme.

2. Convince the reviewer that what you’re focusing on is important and that what you’re proposing to do to address that problem really will address it. Cite your methods/approaches in this section of the proposal the same way that you would the methods in the regular part of the proposal. For example, if you are proposing to develop hands-on activities for middle school kids to try to help them stay interesting in science, show (with citations) why hands-on activities are particularly valuable, and why it makes sense to focus on middle school kids.

3. Convince the reviewer that you can do the proposed work. Don’t just say that you will recruit minority students, or that you will set up a summer program focused on math-bio, or whatever. Prove you can do it. It’s the same as with the regular part of the proposal: preliminary results help convince the reviewers that you can pull it off. Yes, this means that you need to do some of the work ahead of time, before you know whether you will be funded. But, in my opinion, that is time well-invested, in part because it increases the odds that you will be funded. And, if you take my advice from point 1 above (about choosing something you particularly care about), hopefully you’ll find that you enjoy the time you invest in this.

4. Take advantage of existing infrastructure at your university. Lots of places have units devoted to helping with teaching and outreach activities.  Maybe they already have an existing camp in place that you can work with. Maybe they can provide you with references related to pedagogy. Maybe they can help you design ways to assess whether your approach is working. Whatever it is, take advantage of these resources. At Georgia Tech, I established my own links with a camp at Piedmont Park (located in Midtown Atlanta near Georgia Tech), and I also took advantage of the help from CEISMC, which is Georgia Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing; they helped me add in realistic assessment tools.

5. Include a means of assessing the success of your education component. For example, if you are going to design an educational activity for K-12 students, you should assess whether that activity is an effective means of achieving your educational goals. In my case, as I said above, I relied on help from educational experts (from CEISMC) for developing those assessments.

6. Similar to a regular proposal, if someone’s help is essential to the success of the education component, get a letter from them. In my case, I included letters from the person who runs the camp at Piedmont Park, a letter from someone at CEISMC who could help me with assessments, and a letter from a colleague at Spelman College who helped me recruit Spelman students to work in my lab.

7. Devote funds to the education component: Another way to show that you are serious about the education component is to include funds in your budget to support it. There are lots of things you could budget funds for: supporting students and/or K-12 teachers, buying supplies for classrooms or camps, etc.

Of course, all of the above is just my opinion on what makes for a compelling education component of a CAREER proposal. If you disagree (or agree), please let me know in the comments!

UPDATE: In the comments, Ethan White pointed out something very important that I forgot to include in this post. It’s so important, that I will make it point 8:

8. The research and teaching components should be integrated with one another. Having a great education component that is totally unrelated to the research component will be seen as a major weakness. Reviewers will want to see synergy between the components (and are asked to consider that when reviewing CAREER proposals.)

20 thoughts on “Education Components of CAREER Proposals (UPDATED!)

  1. Great post! I think the education component of CAREER proposals is what people dread the most. In may case, I went overboard with my first submission. But I think knowing I proposed too much and getting good reviewer comments will help me a lot in my second submission. This will give me time to work on the science component.

  2. Hi Meg,
    This is interesting. I’m thinking about a CAREER this year and I’m at one of the largest Universities in the US in terms of enrollment. One of our big problems is labs: our majors don’t get enough and could actually graduate without ever taking a lab (which blows my mind). Instead of proposing a series of outreach-type broader impacts as seems to be more “typical” now of CAREER proposals (e.g. working with grade-school kids or impoverished urban high schoolers), I’m thinking that working with our ~2000 biology majors (many of whom are minority and/or first-in-family college students) might be higher impact, at least in terms of numbers. Under such circumstances do you think that CAREER panel members would be dismissive of, say, revamping our laboratory curriculum and getting a whole bunch of majors exposed to field work, just because it is perhaps a more “traditional” broader impacts approach? Thanks for the post!

    • I can’t comment on your question, but note that there is no “CAREER panel” (at least not in ecology). These proposals are mixed in with standard proposals, but are assessed with particular attention to the unique aspects of the CAREER program.

      • Yes, as you say, but the review still takes place as part of a panel (e.g. Pop. and Comm. Ecol. or Ecosystem Science). Poorly worded on my part.

    • John, I would bet your plan to actually revamp the curriculum to add genuine labs and field experiences for many students would be hugely valued. It’s an “education plan” and not just “broader effects.” You’ve got to take care of what’s at home first. Just be sure to explain what is missing and cite the literature to show that labs and hands-on experiences will make a real difference, which is pretty easy to do. And get supporting letters from your dean and faculty in education who support you, as well as some local agency with a field site that you might use for fieldtrips.

      • I agree with Terry’s advice. What I’ve heard is that you don’t want it to seem like you are proposing to do what would be part of your job anyway — e.g., just developing an upper level majors course in your area of specialization. But I think that what you are describing sounds like it could make a really interesting education component. Hopefully others will weigh in with their thoughts, too!

    • I think there is a lot of flexibility in what counts as a good education component in terms of who is being targeted. All of the broader impacts in my CAREER award are focused on upper level undergraduates, graduate students, and practicing scientists more generally.

  3. Question from a naive Canadian: what is the rationale for expecting early career researchers to do more education/outreach work than is expected of established researchers? I’m really struggling to understand the point of this. If anything, surely *less* education/outreach work should be expected of people who are just setting up their labs and trying to establish their own research programs.

    • The point of CAREER grants is to give very promising people a big push to start out a successful career, in the context of the institution where they received the award. All US university positions require teaching as a part of the job, and a successful career at at US university requires education. It’s a holistic career development plan, so it needs attention towards an education agenda.

      In NSF’s view, this education part of a scientist’s career plan should include broader effects of the research that work their way into the public, including K-12 classrooms. NSF sees this as part of the job of any scientist. So, the CAREER grants are designed to give the resources to faculty as they develop to build education into their career rather than just tack it on.

      If you’re not focused on education while you’re growing your own research program, you won’t magically shift to it once you’re established.

      • Ok, thanks, I can understand that.

        Of course, there’s still the larger issue of what “broader impacts” are and whether the best way to achieve them is to expect NSF grant-receiving faculty to do them. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation we probably shouldn’t get into here. I’ve already skirted close enough to hijacking Meg’s thread…

      • “So, the CAREER grants are designed to give the resources to faculty as they develop to build education into their career rather than just tack it on.” I hadn’t heard this before, but it does make sense. Thanks for pointing that out!

    • This is definitely a question others have raised, too. I’m pretty sure that I heard from a program officer (not the one who was my PhD advisor!) that NSF had some concerns about this, too — that it might be asking too much of early career researchers.

      • Also, keep in mind that a large number of CAREER awards go to faculty outside research institutions. Those faculty definitely need robust education plans.

  4. Meg, this is great. I think point 7 – actually putting dollars behind the education – is the biggie. You have to approach it with the notion that these things matter, and that you’ll spend both time and $ to do it. With this philosophy, that you’re trying to make a difference in education as much as research, the plan is more likely to look robust and more like to be supported by NSF.

  5. Great advice Meg! The other major thing that I’ve come across in both applying for and reviewing CAREER’s is that it is important to emphasize how the research and teaching components of the proposal are integrated with one another. On regular grants this seems to be less of a big deal, but with CAREER’s really showing that the two are tied together can be very important.

    For anyone wanting to see an example of a education section in a successful CAREER (without having to email folks who have them) mine is posted on figshare (

  6. Thanks for this post, Meg! It’s super helpful to know what to start thinking about that will matter down the line.

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