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NSF Graduate Research Fellowships: Maximizing Chances for Success

September 10, 2015 Leave a comment

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) offers Graduate Research Fellowships (GRF) to applicants who are beginning or about to begin a Ph.D. I’ve advised a student who has written a successful one, I’ve reviewed applications internally for people in my department, and I’ve become intimately familiar with the current review process for the NSF. There’s no magical formula for getting one that I’ve discovered, but there are definitely things you should and shouldn’t do to maximize your chances. This post seeks to capture my experiences and advice—of particular relevance to those in computer science and human-computer interaction but perhaps applicable in other fields as well.

My grad student Greg Wilson received an NSF GRF in his first year at Virginia Tech. His proposal discussed solid and interesting ideas related to mobile and ubiquitous computing, but what really appealed to the reviewers was his outreach efforts. He has a passion for K-12 education, and his application discussed that in detail. He described prior outreach efforts in his personal statement, thus demonstrating an interest and ability in similar efforts in his graduate work. Receiving this fellowship allowed Greg to pursue his own ideas and really make a difference with his work. He completed his MS at Virginia Tech and went on to a Ph.D. in education at the University of Georgia.

The Virginia Tech Computer Science Department hosts an internal review process for national and international graduate scholarships and fellowships like the NSF GRF. It is organized by faculty member T.M. Murali and includes work sessions, early reviews by fellow grad students, and reviews by faculty in the department (including myself some years). It’s a great way to get feedback both from peers and from potential committee members, and I feel like it really made a positive difference for my student Greg. If you don’t have this available to you, find a way to get feedback from a breadth of other people.

I am very familiar with the reviewing process for NSF applications. For the last couple of years, it has taken place via teleconference, in which reviewers read and comment on applications prior to a pair of online meetings. The meetings present a listing of ratings, then ask for champions of lower-rated proposals that seem particularly worthy. The 20+ person online panel breaks into smaller 3 person groups to discuss moving proposals up (or down) the ranking if a proposal’s champion makes a compelling case for why it should be moved. If you can attract a champion, you’re greatly improving your chances. The final listing serves as a recommendation to NSF program officers and other personnel, who make the final determination as to who receives an award.

A few summary thoughts and recommendations that can help with a successful submission:

  • Follow the guidelines. Yes, there are lots of them, and I’m sure you have great ideas that you might feel should carry your proposal even if you don’t pull together your application just right.  But failing to follow the guidelines can obfuscate your expected contributions. You risk annoying the reviewers and the program managers by making them dig for (or guess at) certain elements of your proposal.
  • Provide a roadmap for your proposal. Keep in mind that reviewers will be looking at lots of proposals, and secondary reviewers and program managers will be looking at even more—sometimes for very short periods of time. As such, make sure the key points of your proposal can be found at a glance. Label sections and subsections, highlight key terms, craft figures and tables that are both descriptive and easy to understand. And don’t use a tiny font just to squeeze more in—find a way to say what you want to say concisely. Of course, none of this matters if the content isn’t good, but good content that can’t be understood easily can also sink a proposal.
  • Think about intellectual merit. The NSF cares a lot about this (and the next bullet, broader impacts). Read the full description on the NSF site and specifically address ways in which your work will have intellectual merit. Even if you feel your entire proposal is all about intellectual merit, make sure to explicitly highlight your expected contributions.
  • Think about broader impacts. This one is even harder, but as with my student it really matters. It’s important to show how your work will make a difference, keeping in mind that reviewers will be generally knowledgeable about your field but not necessarily deeply knowledgeable about your topic. As such, don’t just make a laundry list; e.g., stating that your work will lead to improved interfaces for scientists, bricklayers, moms, bartenders, etc. Instead really draw the path to the future utility of your work—and if you can show yourself guiding the research down the path, all the better.
  • Get good letters. This one, to some degree, is out of your hands—but that doesn’t mean you can’t make choices that maximize your chances for good letters. The best letters are from people who BOTH know you AND know how to write good letters. A letter from someone who knows you very well but doesn’t understand NSF GRFs might be a poor choice, just as a letter from a highly regarded individual who clearly knows nothing about you and has little to say about you likely will be unhelpful. Seek to approach people who’ve been part of successful NSF GRFs in the past, and from people who will help you toward your proposed goals. But make sure these are people who can either say good things about your prior work and/or good things about your proposed work—people who have been a meaningful and integrative part of your research life.

Finally, keep in mind that, for better or worse (usually better), the NSF regularly changes the guidelines and procedures for fellowships, so make sure to verify that your submission matches the way things are done. There’s lots of other advice out there, so seek to find it and identify the path that is most promising to you. There’s always a bit of randomness to the procedure, but there are steps you can take that can increase your chances of receiving an award. Most of all, pursue interesting and important ideas that appeal to you and your collaborators. Good luck!

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Google Faculty Summit recap

July 29, 2011 Leave a comment

In July 2011 I attended the Google Faculty Summit at Google NYC. The Google offices contained everything that I’d heard about: open offices, tons of meeting rooms, high-quality free food and drink every 50 feet or so, scooters to take you from place to place, old video game console library where you can “test out” old games, a giant Lego play area where people create Google logos and Sergey pictures and such, a rec room with foosball and ping pong and medicine balls and yoga classes, the by-appointment massage area, great meeting rooms with views of the city, and all the other perks I’m forgetting. It was a smart decision to have the meeting at the headquarters–definitely a positive experience.

The meeting started with a series of presentations, with Vint Cerf (yes, that Vint Cerf, now a Google employee) leading things off. Other speakers included John Wilkes (Omega), Andrew Chatham (self-driving car), Johan Schalkwyk (mobile voice search), Stuart Feldman (Google around the world, especially the East Coast sites). Most of these things you can learn about online–though it was good to put faces with the projects and be able to connect with the speakers afterward.

Seems like meetings of this sort have one big “half-baked idea”–for the Google Faculty Summit it was the Library Wall–a wall-sized display of all of the Google Books. You could swipe around with it, open books, read parts of them, add them to your personal collection (no wonder Borders went under). It was great fun…not sure what will become of it.

The afternoon of the meeting was pretty free-form, with lots of breakout groups, which was a bit frustrating. I ended up in a meeting that started off great but went in some directions not at all interesting to me–and it wasn’t really possible to switch to anything else. (Other rooms were full, or discussions were well under way.) It was good to get to talk to Johan about mobile voice search–though 2/3 of the people in there were algorithms folks trying to get him and his team to adopt their latest algorithm. The rest of us tried to push the Google team to broaden what the API can do (e.g., use more limited vocabularies, return correctness probabilities) but no promises!

Breaks and dinner provided a great opportunity to connect with people (my UC Boulder Department Head Jim Miller, NCSU/UVA colleague Mark Sherriff) and re-connect with people (Jason Hong and his pending baby and tenure case, Ben Bederson and the new UMD professional MS program). More time for that sort of interaction would have been great.

One interesting aspect of the second day was a rehashing of Google Health by its creator, Alfred Spector. Google had recently announced that they were shuttering Google Health at the end of the year. Most people assumed that it was the security and privacy issues that led to the closure, but Alfred’s take was that they never had enough data to really run into those issues (kind of scary that they were collecting data without a model of how it would be used/shared). Alfred pointed to two issues that were more relevant to GH’s failure: buy-in and objectivity. First, nobody was joining–not enough people to make it worthwhile for the types of tools Google wanted to develop. Second, it was difficult to establish objectivity; e.g., if liver function is poor but improving, it’s hard to say whether it should be classified as “good” or “improving” or “disastrous”…all of which may be true (or false).

Alfred also explained the Google research model–to focus on things that are useful now, to have researchers working side-by-side with developers, to seek out flexible knowledge dissemination paths (i.e., not papers). Not sure how ideas for the long-term will emerge from that, but it seems to be working for the short term.

Alfred also pitched all of the university programs–grants, focused awards, named fellowships, internships, visiting faculty, postdocs, summer of code, CS4HS–all great. In talking with the Google folks afterward, it’s clearly valuable (essential?) to have a high-up contact at Google to make this happen. Guess that should be my next step…Google Boulder, here I come!

Addition and CE21

February 2, 2011 1 comment

Just got back from NSF’s CE21 meeting. CE21 is short for “Computing Education in the 21st Century”, so good thing they shortened it! It’s a new program that melds/merges/replaces a bunch of other NSF programs: the BPC (Broadening Participation in Computing) program, the CPATH (CISE Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education) program, and various education programs. I was there representing two BPC Alliances–A4RC and STARS–and it was our job to connect with emerging CE21 proposals to help them address their BPC needs. There was an interesting mix of people from all three communities, with the goal of developing collaborations toward creating interesting and fundable CE21 proposals.

Any time you have such addition of areas, the sum total is sure to be interesting…to point of chaos at times! The CE21 program solicitation is large and somewhat vague, and by some accounts it was intentionally so. (The NSF will sometimes create a vague solicitation, see what directions the field moves in, then fund the most promising directions.) There were lots of academic hook-ups, and I picked up a number of “maybes” for partnerships with A4RC and STARS.

Jan Cuny was one of the people in charge of the meeting: one thing she liked about CE21 was that it provided an avenue for CS researchers to engage in education/EHR research, which is underrepresented in GK-12, ITEST, and the like. There’s a large and significant body of literature that needs to be considered, and she encouraged everyone to avoid the typical “1-2 day summer workshop” or “4-hour afternoon at a school” approaches that she indicated might have minimal impact. (However, in the next session Mark Guzdial referred to literature suggesting that even the most brief engagement and encouragement can have positive and long-term effect…hmm.) Jan also said that diverse teams are a must, and that researchers pursuing this first round of CE21 funding need to forge new ground, define things like “computational thinking”, use CSTA/ACM curriculum standards, leverage the CS principles framework, and, did I mention, connect to the BPC Alliances!

Jan also noted that it’s an important time for re-defining BPC Alliances, pointing to NCWIT and Access Computing as the ones that best fit the CE21 mission. She highlighted alliances that focus on underrepresented groups as most problematic–why does each underrepresented group need its own alliance was the question. (One with some good and well-reasoned answers, IMO.) She also noted NSF’s new focus on “Broader Impacts”–it’s going to be taken much more seriously moving forward.

Much of my time at the meeting was spent with fellow BPC Alliance members, trying to re-tool A4RC and STARS to fit the CE21 mission. STARS may have it easier–there’s a big component of STARS that’s all about outreach to K-12 and K-14. It seems that STARS needs to be making promises to CE21 proposers that their students will receive STARS stipends and invitations to the STARS celebration for doing STARS things that connect with CE21 goals. But A4RC may be more vital–the pipeline of African-American students from HBCUs to graduate programs doesn’t fit so well into the CE21 vision that I can see. There’s some talk that the repository of videos and other materials might be the way to go.

So moving forward with A4RC, we’re looking at various approaches–a name change to AACER (Alliance for African-Americans in Computing Education and Research), more emphasis on the materials repository (including videos to encourage K-12/K-14 students to pursue computing), and a new hub-spoke model. And Jan wants us to connect to the BPC Portal. And Ed Fox wants us to leverage Ensemble to do indexing, searching, etc. And…whew, lots of possible directions.

One other interesting note: Jan wants more “highlights”–short descriptions of interesting projects that can be reduced to 2-3 lines and a tiny 1-inch high picture to appear in the congressional record. They’ve gotta appeal to “people”…not fellow scientists.

That’s it for now–Mark Guzdial provides his own perspectives in his blog, Jan promises to post all meeting material and notes, CS@VT has a Digital Education Research Group meeting Friday at 5 to talk about pursuing CE21s, and lots more is sure to emerge in coming weeks.

NSF note

February 2, 2010 2 comments

One last reflection note before we get a full month into the new year, this on the NSF and their dispersal of money. I served on a number of panels over the last year, and many more in my 10 years post-Ph.D., and I’ve had a few grants funded, both as PI and co-PI. Mainly, this will serve as a reminder to myself, but others may find it useful.

1. Write for a “champion” on the panel. You can have a bunch of people who like it, and even like it a lot, but you need one (smart, motivated, convincing) person to champion it.

2. Contact the program manager once you have an idea, just to make sure you’re in the ballpark and covering all the bases. There always seem to be proposals that seem to be high quality in terms of ideas and writing, but just didn’t touch upon things in the call…thing that the program managers will say again and again in the panel. So call yours and hear them before submitting. (And occasionally there’s even a “cheat sheet” of tips, so at least ping a program manager about that.)

3. Fish in a lot of ponds. That is, submit lots of proposals, and don’t wait around the 6 months to find out about a proposal before submitting another. But don’t submit the same proposal to multiple places…there’s always that panelist who was on that other panel too. Some peole disagree with this rule–thinking that it is better to aim for a smaller number of really great proposals–but there are just so many variables regarding panels that I prefer the many ponds approach.

There are always exceptions to these rules, but clearly many of the top proposals in the panels I’ve been on have been crafted with these rules.

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