Baby’s first NSF pre-proposal

I set myself the goal of writing at least three proposals this year before I officially take up my position at UW Madison next January. How exciting it would be to arrive with a full-fledged grant in-hand! However, I may have to settle for building up rejection karma. My pre-proposal for this year’s NSF DEB call was not invited to the full proposal round (along with 74% of the other submissions). Although I think I understand the point of the (relatively new) pre-proposal stage, it’s pretty discouraging to feel like the reviewers can tell that there’s no way your full proposal would get funded, so it’s not even worth trying to write one. After reading the reviews, I felt like I could draft a competitive full proposal immediately, incorporating their suggestions, and wished I had the chance to do so, instead of waiting another full year to try again.

Beautiful soils from NEON sites across the US on a project the NSF did want to fund (my DDIG)

Beautiful soils from NEON sites across the US on a project the NSF did want to fund (my DDIG)

In my case, I actually felt like the reviewers liked my proposal quite a lot – all three gave it very good/good ratings, and called it “well-thought out” and said things like, “Project creatively explores potentially transformative concepts.” Really, the only – but fatal – criticism was that I didn’t clearly show how I would extrapolate my findings to the ecosystem level. While I of course pitched my research in a “big picture” context, I appreciate the reviewers’ point – I didn’t incorporate those other elements of a project that would link my mechanistic work to larger scales.

Just as it was an interesting exercise to step back from my narrowly-focused Ph.D. work as I drafted my research statement for job applications, I am finding it a bit of a challenge to scale my grant-writing from $4,000-$13,000 ideas to $150,000-$750,000 ideas. I can propose the tightest, well-thought-out lab experiment or field study, but I’m not used to thinking at the scale of entire, multi-experiment, multi-personnel projects all at once. I’d love to hear how other researchers learned to make this transition as new PIs, and what advice you might have.