The Grant Cycle Diaries: Grantastination and Broader Impacts


“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Dear Diary,

July 22 is the due date for this cycle’s NSF CAREER grant. This is nine days away, and I have nine full days of stuff that I still need to do. This is stressful. I take partial blame for my plight—it seems I cannot do today what could be done tomorrow. In January, I was thrilled to read this article about the creative benefits of procrastination. It turns out that in some situations, you will have more creative ideas if you let your mind wander for a while before getting down to work on a task. As a natural procrastinator, it was great to have behavioral psychology cut me a break for once. However, there is no denying that procrastination makes many if not most situations in life much more difficult. Through great effort I have managed to moderate my procrastination to some degree, to trick myself into starting important projects appropriately early, and to generally be a somewhat productive member of society. The struggle continues every day.

But I really did start early on this grant application! My favorite trick for getting started is to sign up for some kind of structured (and hopefully social) program. With that in mind, this February I attended re:boot Number Theory, a grant writing workshop/bootcamp at Duke University, aimed mostly at female number theorists. We spent 3 full days working on our own proposals, as well as learning about NSA (National Security Agency) and NSF (National Science Foundation) grants from previous applicants and representatives from the agencies. Although I had applied for the NSA Young Investigator grant twice, I had no idea how many additional aspects were involved in the NSF grant. The workshop was incredibly helpful because it provided

  1. All the official information you could possibly want about the programs.
  2. Great, patient people to answer the ridiculous number of questions that arise in working on one of these.
  3. Structure and dedicated time for getting started on each aspect of the application.
  4. Moral support from other people who are also attempting this same difficult and discouraging task.
  5. A useful guilt trip—we were all asked to pledge that we would applying for at least one grant in the 2016 funding cycle as a condition on our attendance.

I pledged to apply for the CAREER grant. If you are annoyed by this kind of thing, you may find it upsetting that CAREER is treated like an acronym but it definitely doesn’t stand for anything: the official name is the Faculty Early Career Development Program. Coming to terms with the non-acronym is the first and least difficult step of the application process. The CAREER grant is for non-tenured Assistant Professors who are in tenure-track positions. It is a 5-year program, with a minimum award of $400,000. This should support both an extensive research program and an educational component, which helps to provide “broader impact.”

CAREER grants are very competitive, so I almost feel like I’m overreaching by applying, but I hate even writing that, because I hate the idea of one of my students or colleagues feeling that they are “not good enough” to even apply for something. Ugh! So much tangled impostor syndrome and negative thinking there. Also, people are 100% right when they say “the one [blank] you definitely won’t get is the [blank] you don’t apply for.” This is not what I want to hear when I’m looking for an excuse not to do something, but it is true. Also, I want women to receive a fair proportion of these grants, and it seems likely that a larger percentage of female applicants would result in a larger percentage of female awardees.

Starting out, I felt ready because I had all the materials from my NSA grant application. I worked hard at the bootcamp, worked on the application a lot more through the spring, got in touch with my University’s and College’s research offices, made a budget, patted myself on the back for being ahead of the game, and then… ARGH! It’s nine days before the proposal is due and I am nowhere close to done! Almost nothing is all the way finished! I still need to get letters from 10 different collaborators attesting that they will work with me if I do get the grant. I still need to address several important questions in my proposal, like how I will evaluate the educational component, and why 5 years is the right amount of time for the proposed work.

Why? Why didn’t I do these things earlier? I console myself with the fact that I really did do many things early, but I had many other things to do, and there are just many, many pieces of a grant application, which take an extraordinary amount of time to assemble. And I know that because I care about these projects, I will keep putting time in until I am satisfied with everything, which will never happen, so in some sense it is actually impossible for me to be done ahead of time. Working up until the last minute doesn’t always mean procrastination—sometimes it just means going overboard. I will be working hard for the next week to get everything in order, but even if I had more done, it would still take me all week to do the rest.

Right now I am working on polishing up the educational/broader impact components of my proposal. The following slides, from a November 2015 NSF talk about the CAREER program, give a general idea of what they say they are looking for in education/broader impacts.


Many people that I talked to had a very easy time outlining their research plans but struggled to come up with broader impacts that they found exciting. My experience with this was different: I found thinking of broader impact ideas to be incredibly fun, and couldn’t stop once I got started. I had a list of ideas much longer than I could use and had pare down to a realistic and cohesive plan. It seems important to match your real educational interests, to integrate the education with the research component, and to propose something that will not take a ridiculous amount of time away from your research and the rest of your regular job at your institution. At the workshop, we brainstormed some more specific activities that could meet these criteria. Here are just a few of the more popular ideas that people had:

  • Run a speaker series, potentially focusing on women or other underrepresented groups when inviting speakers.
  • Organize a conference, coordinating with/making use of an existing meeting (like the Joint Meetings or a regional AMS meeting) if possible.
  • Contribute to an existing Math Circle, or start your own (many people at the workshop pointed out that starting one can be a lot of work, but could work for you if you are passionate about it!)
  • Organize or give a talk in a science pub lecture series.
  • Write expository articles/introductory notes on advanced material in your research area, especially if there is no introductory textbook available.
  • Write a great math blog.
  • Contribute code to an open source software package like Sage, or make contributions to online math resources like the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences.

I had better get back to working on the actual application now, but I’d love to hear how other people are doing with their grant applications, and any other great ideas for broader impacts or not procrastinating.

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