This time of year just about every PhD candidate in systematics who doesn’t already have one is working on a proposal for one of the NSF’s lucrative Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants. The DDIGs are one of the smartest ideas the good folks at NSF have ever had, and represent a critical source of funding for ambitious and independent young systematists. The sad fact is that there aren’t many other grants available to graduate students that offer the type of $10,000+ windfall that can be essential to making a good thesis a great thesis. Although the program is incredibly popular, some find the application process a bit mysterious. The NSF’s formal guidelines certainly provide you with all the basics, but they’re also somewhat open ended.
How one can best prepare a competitive proposal? Although there aren’t any foolproof answers to this question, I’d like to share a few suggestions I’ve developed for my own graduate students. These suggestions, which undoubtedly reflect my own personal biases, are being made on the basis of having read previously successful (and unsuccessful) proposals and discussions with NSF reviewers who have been involved in evaluating these proposals. I’m going to kick things off in this first post with some basic advice on organizing your proposal, followed by subsequent posts on how proposals are reviewed, how best to incorporate preliminary data, how much methodological detail to include, and how to effectively discuss broader impacts.
A good proposal begins with good organization. There are lots of ways to organize a successful proposal, so how you choose to organize yours is a personal decision that requires lots of careful thought. That said, one general organizational feature that tends to characterize successful proposals is the use of a strong hypothesis testing framework. Think of this as getting back to basics: remember how your freshman biology lab reports started by outlining the specific hypotheses you tested? Doing the same here is going to help your reviewers understand exactly what you are trying to accomplish with your work, while at the same time helping you organize the remainder of your proposal.
Instead of making vague claims like “I will investigate the biogeographic history of midges”, try to make a more specific statement like “I will test the hypothesis that the distribution of midge diversity is a consequence of a vicariant event associated with the uplift of the Andean plateau.” Distilling your work into a few explicit hypotheses can feel a bit constraining when your real goal is to understand why midges are so darned diverse, but being explicit about specific hypotheses does not preclude you from following up on other interesting results that might be somewhat peripheral. You need to provide some context for your hypotheses before introducing them, but try to get to them as soon as possible; your reviewers shouldn’t be able to get past the first page of your proposal without being provided with a concise statement of the questions you intend to address. Try to restrict yourself to a manageable number of hypotheses (things get a bit out of hand when proposals try to juggle a half dozen or more hypotheses, for example). Organize the remainder of your proposal (e.g., methods, discussion, preliminary data) around the hypotheses presented on the first page of your proposal. Make sure that your work can feasibly address each of your hypotheses.