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The National Science Foundation (NSF) awards grants to doctoral students to improve the quality of dissertation research. These grants allow doctoral students to undertake significant data-gathering projects and to conduct field research in settings away from their campus which would not otherwise be possible. Proposals are judged on the basis of their scientific merit, including the theoretical importance of the research question and the appropriateness of the proposed data and methodology to be used in addressing the question.

Many programs in the seven NSF directorates accept doctoral dissertation improvement grant proposals. Requirements vary across programs, so applicants are advised to consult the relevant program's solicitation and instructions.

Why Write an NSF Proposal 

  • Academic search committees place weight on grant-getting ability. 
  • Grant-getting is more difficult now than ever before.
  • Submitting successful grant proposals take practice. 
  • Money raises money. 
  • An NSF grant may permit you to collect data or undertake research that would not otherwise be possible. 
  • The process of applying alone could improve your dissertation or other research activities. 


  • Doctoral students enrolled at accredited doctoral degree granting universities and colleges in, and having a campus in, the United States
  • U.S. citizenship is not required.
  • The proposal must be submitted by the University on behalf of the advisor and the graduate student who is at the point of initiating or already conducting dissertation research.
  • The advisor is the Principal Investigator (PI) and the doctoral student whose dissertation research will be supported must be designated as a Co-PI. The student must be the author of the proposal.

What Will the NSF Fund? 

  • Significant data-gathering projects
  • Field research in settings away from campus 

Award amounts vary across programs, from up to $10,000 (excluding indirect costs) to up to $20,000 (excluding indirect costs). Unless otherwise specified in the specific program solicitation, the following costs are allowable for NSF DDRIG proposals:

  • Costs associated with travel and related expenses to conduct research at field sites, archives, specialized collections, and/or facilities away from the student's campus.
  • Costs for data-collection activities, including the conduct of experiments, surveys, and/or questionnaires.
  • Costs for securing data and for archiving data.
  • Costs for equipment necessary for the conduct of the project that will be devoted to the project over the duration of the award. (Note that any equipment purchased with NSF funds becomes property of the awardee organization.)
  • Costs for payments to research subjects and/or language informants.
  • Costs for materials and supplies required for the conduct of the project.
  • Costs for travel to one domestic professional meeting to present preliminary research results and obtain feedback to further improve the project. (Note that NSF will not recommend a DDRIG solely for sharing research results at conferences.)


including review process and award 

Before You Start 

  1. Discuss your plan with your advisor and faculty mentors.
  2. Carefully review the program solicitations and deadlines.
  3. Determine which program area(s) at NSF is/are the most appropriate to review your proposal.
  4. Identify the appropriate contact(s) for the program area(s) you think is/are most appropriate.
  5. Send an email to the contact(s) you have identified, including a brief description of your proposed project and a request for feedback.
  6. You may only apply to one program at a time, if you are unsure of which program is a better fit, contact the program officer. You may be eligible for co-review, which can only be authorized by the program officer.
  7. Read the solicitation for the program you choose to apply to thoroughly. Each program has a different budget limit. 
  8. Determine who will serve as your PI and confirm their willingness to serve as your PI (PI should be your faculty advisor).
  9. Request required PI documents/information from your PI immediately.

 What you will need from your PI (faculty advisor):

  1. Biographical Sketch
  2. Current and Pending Support
  3. Collaborators and Other Affiliations
  4. PI Statement
  5. PI must have up-to-date COI Disclosure

The Process 

These grant awards are not fellowships directly paid to the student or to a student account. Rather, the Office of Sponsored Programs at Syracuse University submits the grant application on behalf of the PI (faculty advisor) and Co-PI (doctoral student) and funds are awarded to the University. Funds are held in a university or department account and utilized by the student for research expenses as described in the application. 

  • You must work with the SU Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) to submit the application.
  • In the Maxwell School, your contact person for assistance and submission is Caroline McMullin (, Research Administrator in the SU Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP). Depending on your academic department, the departmental administrator or budget manager might also be able to help. 

  • Submit via the NSF FastLane system.
    • Both you and your advisor will need NSF IDs in order to access FastLane (see Registering for an NSF ID). 

    • The PI (your advisor) is the applicant in FastLane; if you change the PI after starting the application, all details will be deleted and you will need to start over.
  • The application must receive institutional endorsement. Notify the research administrator in your unit at least one month in advance of your submission date of your intention to apply (all application components must be in place two weeks before the deadline) to allow time for OSP to review and endorse your application, and if necessary, for you to correct any errors that OSP discovers.
  • Each section uploaded as a file must be individually paginated prior to being uploaded into Fastlane
  • Formatting:
    • Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, Courier New, or Palatino Lintoype, at font size 10 or larger
    • Font size of less than 10 may be used for formulas, equations, etc.
    • At least 1 inch margins

Planning Time Required for an NSF DDRIG 

  • As a general rule, writing an NSF proposal takes a minimum of four to six weeks' lead time. 
  • You need to start very early in order to assemble all of the necessary paperwork and to coordinate with your advisor. 
  • The proposal requires that your advisor submit certain documents, including a biographical sketch that is formatted according to NSF's specific guidelines. 
  • As an example, to meet the Cultural Anthropology Program deadline of August 17, you should have a complete proposal drafted by August 1. 
  • With a complete draft proposal, you will work with staff and with your advisor on the complex paperwork required to submit your proposal. 
  • Caroline can assist with your budget and other paperwork. 

The Steps: Part 1 

  1. Read carefully pertinent sections of the NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (NSF 20-1). Highlight or otherwise take note of important information. 
  2. Review the DDRIG solicitation from the applicable NSF program. If you are not sure which NSF program you should apply to, talk with your advisor. 
  3. Review recent awards from that program.
  4. Leverage your network to find successful proposal and/or peers who have been through the application process (whether successful or not). 
  5. Prepare a 1-page summary of your project. 
  6. Contact the program officer. 
  7. Write your proposal ... 

The Steps: Part 2

  1. Work with your advisor (PI) to seek and obtain approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) if human subjects are involved and possibly IRB exemption otherwise. 
  2. Obtain written documentation from hosting institution, collaborators, or other auxiliary resources, if applicable. 
  3. Obtain a letter of endorsement from your advisor. 
  4. Obtain other required paperwork from your advisor. 
  5. Finalize and submit your proposal and all necessary paperwork to Caroline in OSP well in advance of the deadline. Caroline will review, work with you to revise as needed, and submit the application to the NSF.  

The Documents

Adapted from:

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