Tips on NSERC proposals

NSERC time

It’s that time of year again.

Hundreds of Canadian mathematicians are spending part of their summers writing their next NSERC grant application due this Fall. I serve as Chair of the Pure Mathematics section in the 1508 – Mathematics and Statistics Evaluation Group (EG), and this is my third and final year adjudicating grant proposals. As such, I’ve read dozens of proposals over the years.

There are many parts to the application, from your Notification of Intent to Apply submitted in August, to your CCV, your HQP plan, through to the actual proposal itself. Since I’ve been giving panels and fielding questions with colleagues about Discovery Grants, I thought it would be useful to write out some tips about the proposal, which is arguably the most important part of the application.

Ingredients of a winning proposal

First and foremost, read the instructions set by NSERC. Seriously, read these carefully, line by line. That is my most basic advice but most important. When in doubt about anything not clear in the instructions, contact your Program Officer with questions, or touch base with your institution’s Research Office.

The proposal is a maximum of five pages plus an additional two pages for references. To save space, you can cite your own papers listed in your CCV with a different numbering. Five pages really isn’t much space, but if you are efficient, you can easily get your points across within those confines.

You must state your objectives (both long- and short-term) and put your work in the context of the literature in your field. I usually see those items presented first in proposals. You need to describe your recent progress, methodology, and discuss the significance of your work. For example, you could focus on three topics, introduce each, set objectives, then explain the significance of each.

You should clearly identify objectives and it is useful (but not necessary) to identify those on the first page. The proposal should be original and innovative, pushing the envelope in some area. Incremental progress is OK, but it should be part of a larger vision, such as settling a conjecture, finding some interesting example/counterexample, or developing a new direction. You also need to explain your methodology for tackling this work. While you have a separate HQP training plan, it is a good idea to tie this in with the proposal, emphasizing the role the HQP in tackling your objectives.

The Grid

We refer back to The Grid (NB: the capitals!) over and over when evaluating grant applications during competition week. Print this out and put it on your office door. Put it on your fridge and under your pillow at night.  The panel must refer to the grid merit criteria and the adjectives used there to judge proposals.

For example, is your proposal original or highly original? Will the work lead to advances or lead to groundbreaking advances? The descriptors “highly” or “groundbreaking” are taken into consideration by the EG when we vote on your proposal, and not achieving those criteria can cost you lower scores and bin funding levels. Not all research will be groundbreaking or highly original, so we can’t all expect to get to that point.

Remember the motto: The Grid is absolute. We apply it uniformly and equally to all applicants. For example, EG members can’t say “the proposal is outstanding especially considering the applicant is from a small university without a graduate program.” Rather, we would say “the proposal is outstanding given the high degree of originality it contains along with the potential it presents for major advancements”.

The Grid.

I suggest to everyone applying to use The Grid and self-evaluate your proposal. Use it as a reflective exercise, and also use it a tool to increase your scores. Remember, the only thing you can control right now reading this is the quality of the proposal. You might have another student graduate or have a paper appear, but the proposal is the main thing you can adjust in the months before the deadline. That is why I recommend you start working early on your proposal.


Make sure to include the relevant directions in your field in the literature review. You should be the exact right person to work on the proposed research program. Math jargon is fine to a point, but remember EG members from outside your field will be reading and voting on your proposal. So make sure much of it is understandable or at least coherent. Mathematical terminology is OK but use it sparingly. Don’t be afraid to be technical in places, however, as the panel wants to be sure you have currency in your field. And the external referees are experts in your field so they will have a good idea of what you are proposing and its viability.

Don’t try to be something you are not. As my colleague Pavol Hell said at an NSERC panel recently, don’t write about telecommunication networks if you have no direct application in your proposed research in that direction.

Don’t list simply a series of problems. We are looking for a research program, not a project.

Do make the opening sentence and paragraph highly readable and gripping. Others have argued the first sentence of your proposal is all important, and there was a seminar I once read about devoted to the opening sentence of grant proposals. For example, don’t start the proposal by talking about and then stating a displayed equation. Don’t start with a definition. Don’t start by saying “Let G be a graph.”

Edit, edit, and then edit more

There are those of us who can write awe-inspiring proposals in a weekend. I am not one of those people and most of us aren’t either. I work on many drafts of my proposal over months until I think it is perfected, putting it away for weeks at a time and then coming back to it with fresh eyes.

Have your colleagues read your draft proposal and give honest feedback. The more eyes that see it the better. Colleagues who tell you it is great are likely not reading it carefully. Take all constructive criticism and use it to improve the proposal.

I highly recommend having someone with professional editing skills take a close look at the proposal. Research offices often provide such services or you can hire them using your professional development funds; you want to use them to make sure your grammar and style are flawless. Proposals with typos or grammatical errors will hurt your chances. I ask my husband (who is not an academic) to read it. If he can read it and have a solid sense of what I am proposing, then I am good to go.

Final thoughts

While NSERC grants are relatively small, they are often the primary source of funding for Canadian mathematicians. For that reason, it is vital to put the necessary time and effort into writing a strong proposal. With hundreds of applications coming to 1508 each year and with NSERC’s limited budget, our EG like all others have to make tough decisions about who gets into what bin level.

The good news is that you have complete control of what you write in your proposal. That is a powerful chance to map the course of your research program over the next half decade.

Throughout the process, remain positive. Your NSERC proposal is your opportunity to shine.

Anthony Bonato



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