James Lee comments

Here are my notes:

  1. The proposal is not great. It degenerates into a list of problems and reviewers generally dislike this format. – What it does well is setup an overall theme: Geometry in algorithms. I was careful to stress that the topic is well-grounded in the past (with lots of known applications), but also with *exciting, potentially revolutionary implications for the future*. Panels like it if they can imagine there’s a 0.0001 chance you will change the world.
  2. I tried to do more than boilerplate in the “broader impacts” section. This will not be possible for everyone, but if you can write a few convincing paragraphs about how your work affects other fields, it’s a huge plus. Reviewers are generally less persuaded by soft, generic references to nebulous impact.
  3. I would say there are two main goals when writing for NSF: (1) try hard to inspire someone and (2) don’t give the uninspired ammunition to shoot down your proposal. So, be exciting, ambitious, and passionate. Maybe even pitch a few crazy ideas. On the other hand, except for brief moments, stay grounded, indicate that you have the technical chops to carry out your plan, and cover all your bases. Don’t treat the broader impacts or the educational plan as just hoops to jump through. Even in these sections, try to be innovative. And at least once, it’s nice to give them a secret–some new idea that you’ve been mulling over. This is a hint that you’ve got lots of cool stuff up your sleeve.
  4. Additional advice after serving on many panels: Be aware that most reviewers will not have the time or patience to read your entire proposal. Have them hooked after the first page. I usually find that (literally) half the work goes into the summary and introduction. Once you’ve set the stage, the technical parts are much easier to write.

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