Top 10 Ways to Improve Your NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship (AAPF) Proposal

Joan Schmelz is a solar physicist at the University of Memphis. She works with EUV and X-ray images and spectroscopy in order to address the coronal heating problem. She is also the chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and is currently serving as a rotator in NSF’s astronomy division.

The NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship (AAPF) program provides an opportunity for highly qualified, US citizen, recent doctoral scientists to carry out an integrated program of independent research and education. Fellows may engage in observational, instrumental, theoretical, laboratory or archival data research in any area of astronomy or astrophysics, in combination with a coherent educational plan for the duration of the fellowship. The program supports researchers for a period of up to three years with fellowships that may be taken to eligible host institution(s) of their choice. The program is intended to recognize early-career investigators of significant potential and to provide them with experience in research and education that will establish them in positions of distinction and leadership in the community.

As the NSF Program Officer for AAPF, I’ve seen my fair share of proposals that were rejected because the proposer did not follow the directions. I’ve also seen the review panel lower a proposal’s ranking because components of the proposal were not as strong as they could have been. In addition to the detailed instructions for proposal submission and information on recent awards, here are some items to consider carefully as you are putting together your proposal.

1. Your proposal must include a Letter of Commitment from each prospective host institution. This letter must be signed by both the department chair and the proposed sponsoring scientist. Important: the letter is NOT a letter of recommendation and can make no subjective statements regarding you, your proposed research, or your education plan.

2. Your proposal should discuss how the AAPF will broaden your experience with research that moves beyond your previous focus and takes a broad view of integrating disciplines, extending technical approaches to problems, or expanding collaborations. This is especially important if you are proposing to remain at your current institution. Suggestion: be sure to provide a strong justification for your selection of a host institution.

3. A creative, in depth educational component is vital for the success of an AAPF proposal. A generic “working with grad students”, “teaching a course”, or “giving public lectures” is guaranteed to get low scores from the reviewers. For AAPF, you should put as much effort and creative energy into your education/outreach activities as you put into your research component. Suggestion: check online to see what current and past fellows are doing for their education/outreach activities.

4. Your scientific research should be compelling. This does not mean that you should simply quote the findings of the Astro 2010 decadal survey. The AAPF program is competitive, with only a 10% success rate. A lot of great science is proposed! What is it about your work that makes it worth funding? Suggestion: before writing the proposal, take the time to construct a detailed outline that tells a compelling scientific story; then turn that outline into a page-turner!

5. Ask a colleague who is NOT in your specific subfield to read your proposal and provide comments. The topics for the four AAPF review panels will most likely be: (1) Planetary (planets, exoplanets, dwarf stars); (2) Galaxy (stars, star formation, gas & dust, SNs, transients, etc.); (3) Extragalactic (near z); and (4) Extragalactic (far z). So pitch your proposal to a general, astronomy-knowledgeable reviewer, not an expert in your subfield. Avoid as much jargon and as many acronyms as possible.

6. You must be a citizen or permanent resident of the US; you must state this on your biographical sketch.

7. You must have earned the doctoral degree in an appropriate scientific field within five (5.00) years prior to the proposal deadline or will complete the doctoral degree by October 1 of the award year. Include your PhD date on your biographical sketch.

8. You cannot have participated in postdoctoral training for a combined full-time-equivalent duration of more than three (3.00) years prior to the proposal deadline. This includes time you may have spent as a postdoc before your actual PhD date.

9. The Project Description has a hard 10-page limit (NOT 15 pages like most NSF proposals). Please follow the strict margin and font size limits. The reference format is tedious, so be sure to leave plenty of time for this.

10. The proposal deadline is 5 pm (proposer’s local time) on the second Wednesday in October; this year’s deadline is 2014 October 8.

Thanks to AAPF fellows and alums, Regina Jorgenson, Sarah Thom, Kim-Vy Tran, and Doug Watson for helpful comments and suggestions.

5 comments… add one
  • Astronomer Aug 13, 2014 @ 11:20

    2, 3, 4 and 5 are tips, the rest are rules.

    • Joan Schmelz Aug 15, 2014 @ 17:11

      Yes, because as I said above, some proposers don’t follow the directions and components of some proposals are not as strong as they could be. Either could keep your proposal from being funded so you need to pay attention to both.

  • Chris Mihos Aug 13, 2014 @ 12:21

    Hang on, I’m confused by one thing– you say in #3 “For AAPF, you should put as much effort and creative energy into your education/outreach activities as you put into your research component.” This is certainly not true, is it? Having sat on this review panel in the past, that is certainly not how we evaluated them. The EPO effort should be substantive, yes, but not equal to the research effort.

    In fact, looking at the AO for the AAPF program, it explicitly says “As a rough guideline, Fellows should plan to dedicate no less than 10% and no more than 25% of their time towards their educational activities.”

    Can you clarify what you meant there? Did you mean that in the proposals, as much effort should be spent *describing* the proposed EPO efforts in the proposal as is done describing their proposed research efforts? (as opposed to equal effort in actually DOING the two sides of the project)

    • Joan Schmelz Aug 15, 2014 @ 17:06

      Planning the EPO activities and writing this part of the proposal.

  • Alice Aug 13, 2014 @ 13:54

    Could an astronomy education research proposal be competitive/eligible? Or is that not worthwhile to write? (I’m not applying for postdocs now, but I will be next year.)

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