Blog Articles 6–10

Spending Startup

If you are starting a tenure-track research-oriented position at a US university, you should have a startup package to help you get started. When I began as a faculty member, I did not have a clear idea of how to use it effectively; 4 years in, here are some thoughts about good use of startup funds based on my experience and reflection, as well as things I've read and heard from others along the way.

This is written from the perspective of a computer science tenure-track position at a mid-tier research-oriented US university. Startup levels, existence, and structure vary between universities and disciplines, so keep that in mind.

The Purpose of Startup

The purpose of your startup funds is to enable you to establish your research program with the expectation that you will obtain grant funding to continue it.

That is, your startup fund is there to give you the starting point to get grants. Really, that's it. It isn't enough money to fund a research program that will earn you tenure — it's to land the funding that will fund your research program that will earn you tenure.

Structure and Negotiation

Startup funds vary in their structure and amounts. Some are all-cash, others are a combination of cash and specific resources such as a department-funded research assistant.

There will usually be a time limit for spending them. At both of my universities, the limit was 2 years. In the negotiation process, you can ask for an extension of this. Do so. Giving you 3 years to spend your startup is quite possibly one of the easiest concessions for the university to make and gives you more time to figure things out. Your first year will probably suck, and more runway to respond to the lessons you learn will only help.

Try to find out as much as possible about the resources and their spending power during the interview and negotiation processes.

If your startup is all-cash, how much does a graduate assistant cost? Do you need to pay their benefits as well? Some universities don't bill you for benefits if you are using startup to fund a student.

If your startup includes a GA, are they 20 hours dedicated to your research? 10 hours? Ph.D or M.S.?

Beyond that, I don't have a lot to say about the negotiation process, in large part because I am not very good at it. I didn't even negotiate an extension, but was able to obtain one after my first year.

Existing Resources

Find out what existing resources are available before spending startup. For example, if your university has access to a computing cluster, you may not need to purchase your own statistical or scientific computing hardware.

Other resources may also be available. I talked to our department's sysadmin about my need for a database server, and it turned out we had some donated used hardware no one had put to use yet. $5–10K saved.

Looking Ahead

In order to develop a successful research career — and earn tenure — you will need to develop an independent career. It should naturally draw from your previous work in Ph.D and, if applicable, postdoc, but starting a faculty position is the time to begin a new line of work that is meaningfully different from that of your mentors.

Startup is to fund that. Anything else is probably a distraction.

If you have the opportunity, getting a head start doing a first project in that new line as a side project while you finish writing your Ph.D dissertation is a good idea, but isn't necessary. I had started thinking about the ideas that are now my main direction my last year but didn't have an opportunity to start doing anything with them.

It's common to have some loose ends to tie up from the dissertation; last pieces to get published, or immediate follow-on work. Do that work — it's a great way to keep your publication pipeline going while you wait to get results on the next thing — but try not to spend much money on it.

Targetting Grants

You should probably plan on submitting to NSF CAREER. Do be careful not to put too much hope in it; it is a complicated and difficult grant to write, and many successful researchers do not win the CAREER. However, if you are at a research-intensive or research-growing institution, your chair and dean probably expect you to go for it. In computer science, its funding rate is also higher than many other NSF programs (as of 2017, 20–25% vs. less than 10% for some core programs).

Think about when best to apply. You have 3 shots before tenure. Unless you're coming off of a postdoc or similar experience and already have a clear, strong direction, your first summer is probably not the best time to make your first attempt. It takes time to develop the research direction, education and outreach integrations, and make the connections to make it all credible.

Computer science also has CRII, the CISE Research Initiation Initiative. This is a small ($175K over 2 years) program meant as a starter grant for junior faculty in computer science, and it should be on any new faculty member's radar. You can apply twice in your first three years; receiving any other NSF grant as PI also disqualifies you, so apply early.

These are the two major programs that most junior faculty in CS should definitely target, along with relevant general programs from federal agencies, state and local governments, and companies. But the key point, for the purposes of this article, is that your goal is to get one or more of these to hit by the time your startup runs out. Assuming you negotiate an extension, by the end of year 3 you want funding lined up to keep paying your Ph.D student.

Doing the work needed to secure that is the purpose of your startup fund.

Preliminary Results

So how does startup funding help you get grants?

By funding the research that produces the preliminary results you will use as evidence that your grant proposals are worth funding.

In my successful grant proposal, I had three main pieces of evidence from my prior research. One was my body of work from my Ph.D, demonstrating that I can do the software development and methodological work needed to carry out my research, because I've done it before. The other two were more proper preliminary results: showing existing techniques don't solve one of my research questions, and a set of early results on a first-order approach to another research question. Both of these results came from M.S. students' theses, with follow-on work by additional students I employed.

If you have student lines, or employ students directly out of your startup funds, preliminary results for the next thing should be your priority. Equipment you need to carry out this work is also top on the list.

Building your Network

Another useful purpose for startup is to work on building the network of collaborators you will need to carry out your research, either by maintaining existing collaborations or building new ones.

Will your next line of work engage with a research community that you haven't been part of yet? Go to a relevant conference.

Is there a more senior researcher in your topic you can bring in for a seminar talk? Besides being fun, this a good opportunity to exchange ideas, introduce your students to someone from your community, and give your department leadership another perspective on the importance and impact of your work.

Get Training

If your NSF directorate has a workshop for CAREER applicants, go to this. It's a very good use of startup funds.

There may be other grant-writing or research cohort-building activities that are worth attending as well.

Your department or college may have a separte pool of professional development funds that can partially support one of these trips, enabling you to stretch your startup funds more.

Start Slow

This wasn't entirely deliberate — I failed to hire a post-doc, for which I am grateful — but I spent my startup slowly at first.

This was a good idea, I think. Especially if you negotiate a spending extension, burning slowly the first year while you get your feet wet, tie up some loose ends, and work on building and maintaining your network frees you up to spend the money after you've spend a year thinking about what you want to do next.

Things Not To Do

You may have loose ends to publish from your dissertation, or immediate follow-up work. This work is good to pursue; the dissertation should be the beginning of your career, not its conclusion, and those papers help you keep your publication pipeline going while you start the next project.

But they do not, directly, establish you as an independent researcher, and so they're good things to pursue on your own or with existing collaborators; I don't think it's wise to spend much startup on them, unless you have surplus after funding work on the Next Thing or they are a clear bridge from your prior work to the Next Thing.

Don't automatically hire the first student that comes your way.

Wrapping Up

To reiterate, your startup is a launchpad for your career as an independent PI with a robust, externally-funded research program.

Focus spend on that.

Author Gender in Book Recommendations

I’m very pleased that we will be able to present a piece of research we have been working on for some time now at RecSys this year.

In my work on fair recommendation, one of the key questions I want to unravel is how recommender systems interact with issues of representation among content creators. As we work, as a society, to improve representation of historically underrepresented groups — women, racial minories, indigenous peoples, gender minorities, etc. — will recommender systems hinder those efforts? Will ‘get recommended to potential audiences’ be yet another roadblock in the path of authors from disadvantaged groups, or might the recommender aid in the process of exposing new creators to the audiences that will appreciate their work and make them thrive?

In this paper, we (myself, my students Mucun Tian and Imran Kazi, and my colleagues Hoda Mehrpouyan and Daniel Kluver) present our first results on this problem. This work, along with our work on recommender evaluation errors, formed the key preliminary results for my NSF CAREER proposal.

This paper has a few firsts for me. It’s my first fully-Bayesian paper, and is also the first time I have been able to provide complete code to reproduce the experiments and analysis with the manuscript submission.

Michael D. Ekstrand, Mucun Tian, Mohammed R. Imran Kazi, Hoda Mehrpouyan, and Daniel Kluver. 2018. Exploring Author Gender in Book Rating and Recommendation. In Proceedings of the 12th ACM Conference on Recommender Systems (RecSys ’18). ACM, pp. 242–250. DOI10.1145/3240323.3240373. arXiv:1808.07586v1 [cs.IR]. Acceptance rate: 17.5%.Cited 4 times.


In this project, we sought to understand how author genders are distributed in book ratings and in the resulting recommendations when those ratings are fed to a collaborative filter. We had three main questions:

  • How prevalent are books by women in users’ book ratings? Effectively, what is the input data bias1 with respect to author gender? We also looked at gender distribution in the Library of Congress catalog as a baseline of ‘books published’ to provide context for interpreting user profiles.
  • How prevalent are books by women in the recommendations users receive? In other words, how what is the overall bias of different recommender algorithms?
  • How do the gender distributions of individual users’ recommendations relate to their rating profiles? Here, we are looking for the algorithms’ personalized bias: for an individual user, how do the recommendations respond to the input?

Data and Methods

We combined book rating data (from BookCrossing and Amazon) with library catalog data from OpenLibrary and the Library of Congress and author data from the Virtual Internet Authority File to build a book rating data set with attached author demographic information. Linking all the data together was an entertaining problem, but solvable with a few hundred gigabytes of SSD and PostgreSQL.

We then trained collaborative filters on the rating data and generated recommendation lists for a sample of users. We used a hierarchical Bayesian model to infer distributions of user rating behavior with respect to gender and to estimate the parameters of a linear model relating each recommender algorithm’s output to users’ input profiles. Our key variable of interest was ‘% Female’: of the books whose author’s gender we could identify, what percent are by women?

Recommender response to user profile balance.


Here are our key findings:

  • Users are highly variable in their rating tendencies, with an overall trend favoring male authors but less strongly than the distribution in the Library of Congress catalog. If women are underrepresented in our set of published books, they are less underrepresented in users’ ratings.
  • Algorithms differ in the gender distribution of their recommendations. Nearest-neighbor approaches were the most personalized in our data set, and their recommendations were comparable to the input data, though there was less variance between users’ recommendation lists than between their rating profiles.
  • Nearest-neighbor algorithms were relatively responsive to their users’ profiles, with solid linear trends particularly in implicit feedback mode.

This is just the beginning — we have many more things planned in the coming years to build on these results and more thoroughly understand what recommender algorithms do in response to content creator representation.

Fun Statistical Tricks

This is the first paper I’ve published with a fully Bayesian analysis, a thing that pleases me greatly. We fit and sampled our distributions with Stan, letting us choose vague priors without concern for conjugacy and giving us good first-pass diagnostics for model fitting problems. It took some time to get it all working, but the end result was a pretty good experience.

We also used a logit-normal model for our proportions, and regressed on log odds instead of proportions. I’ve generally found odds and odds ratios difficult to intuit about, particularly compared to probabilities and proportions, but this project has helped me become more fluent in them.

If one of the outcomes of this line of work is learning to think natively in log-odds, I will be amused and also likely somewhat twisted.


Our study has some important limitations. The algorithms are a small sampling of types of algorithm families, and trained on very sparse data, so the behavior may not be representative of their behavior in the wild.

The version of the work in this paper also uses a binary operationalization of gender. This comes up in two places: first, the underlying data is binary (all VIAF assertions of author gender are ‘male’, ‘female’, or ‘unknown’). This is a major problem, and it is a key limitation of this data set. The Library of Congress itself seems to do a better job in its authority records, but their coverage is smaller and we have not yet integrated their authority data into our pipeline (libraries tend to publish author records [authority data] and book records [bibliographic data] separately). The MARC Authority Format is flexible in its ability to encode author gender: the gender field is defined as gender identity, it uses open vocabularies, and it supports begin and end dates for the validity of a gender identity. The data we currently have available, however, does not make use of this flexibility.

Second, a proportion-based model reifies gender as a binary construct (although we could compute other proportions, such as ‘% Non-Binary’, if we had data that records such identities). We are currently working on addressing this problem by reframing the statistical model to perform what we are calling an author-perspective analysis: rather than looking at the proportion of a profile that is of a particular gender (\(P(\mathrm{gender}|u \mathrm{rated})\)), we are looking at the author’s likelihood of being rated given their gender. So far we have successfully fit a basic model for the overall book collection, and see comparable results. This model, once we have extended it through the rest of our analysis, will be more readily extensible to non-binary gender identities, as well as other non-binary identity frameworks such as ethnicity, than the proportion-based model.

Our approach in this work is to learn what we can with the data we have, while being forthright about the limitations and weaknesses of our data and methods and working to improve them for the next round of research.

  1. We use bias in the statistical sense, not in a moral sense. We do not know what ‘neutral’ is or should be; we are concerned with what the distribution is, and how the recommender responds to that distribution.↩︎

Five Years

You don’t know when the sad will fall. You can sometimes see it coming; like , it has some predictability. Unlike the water, it does not afford much opportunity for control, and you never know quite what to expect. When you see it coming, you can brace for impact; with practice, put on the happy face and soldier on.

That’s the idea, anyway.

It hit like a tsunami a little after 7 pm. The date was August 30, 2017; the place a cafe on a side street in Como, Italy.

John should be here.

3 hours earlier, I stood on on the stage in the final session of RecSys 2017 with my friend Sole and a committee of amazing people. We announced the 2018 conference and invited everyone to join us in Vancouver. The conference itself until that point was a blur; one colleague described me as a ‘man hunted’. Dozens of people to talk to, a more focused list of contact objectives than usual as we tried to make sure we connected with all our co-chairs & I prepared for a post-conference workshop, and a failed recovery from inbound jetlag. But I found the emotional energy somewhere to think of John from time to time during the conference.

I don’t remember how all that manifested. I know I wished he could have been there when we announced the upcoming conference.

I definitely remember 7 pm, going to my first RecSys Steering Committee meeting.

John should be here.

He should be in this room. It should have been John who talked with me about what to expect, told me what happens in these meetings.

August 14, 2017, Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’m tagging along for drinks with a group working on data science in journalism. Also joining the group is Mark Riedl (no relation), one of my Twitter heroes.

He tells me about meeting John at a conference banquet some ten years previously. It’s one of those stores that is so typically John, filled with his care for younger researchers.

I had no idea how much I needed that.

If only John were here.

It’s late December. Still 2017. In a conference room, trying to figure out a grant proposal.

We're struggling with it. The project is great, but the grant won’t write itself.

If only John were here. If I had even had one more year with him, I might have been able to learn what I needed to know to write our way out. We’re having the kind of problems he was good at solving.

My colleagues here are good people. Safe, so I don’t have to keep it together. I can lower my guard (at least a little; we do still have work to do).

If only John were here.

But I don’t have the presence of mind to embrace the moment, to take the time I need. I don’t say what I’m really thinking, and my friends don’t know why I’m sad.

February 23, New York City. Another steering committee meeting, also off an exhausting travel experience. The pain isn’t acute this time, though. It isn’t John’s space.

If John could see me now.

This is what he trained me for. We’re figuring out how to build and nurture this new community. How to develop and support an intergenerational and interdisciplinary band of researchers dedicated to making computing systems good for people. To measure when, how, and why they go wrong.

Taking big questions of human flourishing in the information age and subjecting them to the cleansing, confounding light of science.

It’s what John lived for, and I get to do it. With an incredibly thoughtful, rigorous, and compassionate group of people.

February 26, 2018. I’m in my morning routine, making coffee and smoothies. In one of the waits I turn on my phone and open Gmail.

‘Tentative good news on your CHS CAREER proposal’

I can’t call John.

I knew that would come. I’d prepared for the day, ran mental drills. I knew, if I landed the grant, I would want to call him and be unable to do so. I brace for impact; the rails hold.

I call Joe and give him the good news. I wapp some friends, they join Jennifer and I that night. I spring for the 18-year Macallan and raise a glass.

I can’t call John.

John Riedl (CC-BY by U:Rummey)

It’s now been five years. The night John died, I wrote ‘I feel a bit like Rocky, training for the big fight, but Apollo’s dead.’

I didn’t run off to Siberia and retrain as an oncologist.

Somehow Jennifer and I made it through; we didn’t know it at the time, but John’s death was only the halfway point in the losses that defined the eighteen months we now call the Year of Hell. Eighteen months that forever changed our life together.

Some people say the hardest times, the most trying times, are when you learn and grown and mature the most. I have no idea what they’re talking about. We survived, scarred and bruised. @mermatriarch put it well when she said ‘what doesn't kill you gives you a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms and a really dark sense of humour’.

Joe is fantastic and has guided me well through finishing the Ph.D and launching my own academic career, and was very supportive in the remaining loss of that year. He mentored me in to co-organizing RecSys. I had always seen GroupLens as a family, but the family really came through in the wake of losing John.

The best way I know to honor John’s memory is to do good science with good people.

So that’s what I’m trying to do. Trying to figure out what on earth fair recommendation looks like. Working with great people. Trying to help my students achieve their dreams.

I have some safe places now. People with whom I can drop shields, be me, be sad or happy or whatever. Maybe to finish grieving, if that’s a thing that is ever completed. I'm doing better now than I have been since before he passed.

I didn’t see anything make John prouder than to see his students succeed. I can’t think of a better tribute to give him than to do that, boldly and kindly.

I don’t usually drink Heffeweisens, but I had one today. John’s beer. Wish you were here.

Nazi and Alt-Right Imagery in GIF Search

Online platforms take different approaches to moderating — or not — the content that can be published or discovered through their platforms. I discovered today that some of the GIF search engines are censoring certain search terms. So I decided to poke a little more and see what is happening.


When you search for ‘nazi’ on Giphy, you get this:

Giphy search for 'nazi', resulting in 'No GIFs found for nazi'
No Nazis!

In WhatsApp's gif search, powered by Tenor, you see:

WhatsApp GIF search for 'nazi', resulting in 'No Results'
Also no nazis.

It seems, though, that this filter is implemented by WhatsApp. Tenor's web site will happily return Nazi GIFs. No, I'm not going to provide a screenshot.


Curiosity killed the frog, so I went farther. What do these search engines do with ‘pepe’, the green frog mascot of certain corners of the alt-right?

Giphy doesn't like the frog, but instead of no results, it return results related to soccer and a skunk I don't recognize:

Giphy search for 'pepe', with no green frog results
Relevant, but not the frog.

Neither WhatsApp nor Tenor do this filtering, though - a search for ‘pepe’ returns a plethora of images of the frog.

Interestingly, it looks like Giphy is employing image recognition for this filter instead of relying solely on tags to keep Pepe away. When I search for ‘frog’, I find a number of frogs, including everyone's favorite green frog, but no Pepe in the first several screens:

Giphy search for 'frog'

A Tenor search for ‘frog’ includes Pepe:

Tenor search for 'frog'
Frogs on Tenor


It looks to me like Giphy has made the decision that they do not want to be a source of GIFs for alt-right and neo-Nazi communication, and invested nontrivial effort to avoid it as evidenced by the fact that it appears their curation and filtering goes beyond keyword matching. I expect this has minimal impact on actual online communication — people who want to spread Pepe gifs will find them — but it removes one source of media resources & reduces the likelihood of Giphy being linked to such communication.

Tenor has not made this decision. WhatsApp is unclear: they may simply be deploying efforts to be compliant with German and French laws against dissemination of Nazi imagery worldwide. Twitter's GIF search seems to work the same as WhatsApp.

Lessons Learned Writing the CAREER

So, I won the NSF CAREER award. To say I’m excited about this would be an understatement — my first Ph.D student has support locked in, I get to actually do the work I’ve been building towards for years now, and we’re going to have a much better understanding of how recommender systems (mis)behave in response to their individual and social human contexts.

One of the things I found useful while planning and writing was hearing a variety of ‘path-to-the-CAREER’ stories and trying to take from them the things that would work for me. So here’s mine, for what it is worth. There are many paths to success; the opening line of Anna Karenina does not apply to grantwriting. My road is neither necessary nor sufficient.

This post is adapted and heavily expanded from notes I wrote in preparation for the successful applicant panel at Boise State’s CAREER prep workshop this spring.

Preface: Don’t Listen to Me

Survivorship bias by McGeddon, used under CC-BY-SA.

But don’t listen to me
We just met
What do I know?
— Propaganda, ‘Don’t Listen To Me’, Excellent (2012)

Academic advice writing, panels, etc. are plagued by the problem of survivorship bias. When we put together a panel of successful grant applicants or people who landed good jobs post-Ph.D, we sample success. Success is great, but looking only at successful cases often obscures the factors that actually made a difference between success and failure.

Keep that in mind whenever you are reading or hearing advice. That doesn’t mean observing success, or listening to people who have succeeded at something is entirely useless; it just means that, in order gain generalizable, applicable knowledge, you need to interpret the data in light of that bias.

Context: Timeline

I’m willing to wait for it.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda, ‘Wait For It’, Hamilton (2015)

I started my faculty career in Fall of 2014. I immediately submitted my first attempt at the CRII, building on my dissertation work; this proposal was declined. In summer 2015, I submitted my first CAREER attempt; this went down in flames, as I had no idea what I was doing — I submitted because ‘submitting CAREER is what junior faculty do’.

In Fall 2015, I decided to focus my energies on understanding fairness, bias, and discrimination in recommender systems. I submitted my second (unsuccessful) CRII attempt on the key idea that would later be the heart of my CAREER grant, and had a couple of my M.S. students work in earnest on projects that would produce preliminary results for future grant proposals.

In Fall 2016, I moved to Boise State, attended my first FATML in New York, and began to make in-person connections to the algorithmic fairness research community. I submitted an unsuccessful proposal to the Google Faculty Award program for a project that would become Research Objective 1 of my CAREER. I also began working informally on planning out my CAREER proposal’s research scope and getting feedback on the ideas.

In spring 2017, I began working specifically on the grant. I attended the NSF CISE CAREER workshop, scoped out collaborations and support across the university, and drafted my project summary for program officer feedback.

In April and May I did the bulk of the writing, and delivered a complete draft of the project description in late May. I then went on conference trip & drank terrible wine1 while our college grant specialist reviewed it.

I spent the first half of June revising, securing letters, and preparing the rest of the application package. With a complete application package ready, I sent it to our grant specialist and friends & colleagues for review, and took 2 weeks off to visit Belgium and the Netherlands. Didn’t touch it to clear my mind for revisions.

When I returned, I spent 2–3 weeks revising, finalizing, and submitted in mid-July.

Startup is There to be Used

Every morning when I wake up, uh
Money on my mind
— Dr. Dre (with Kendrick Lamar), ‘The Recipe’, good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012)

This probably deserves a blog post of its own, but the purpose of startup funding at a research-intensive institution is to get your research program started while you apply for grant funding to keep it going. CAREER is just one of the biggest and most signpost-y of those grants.

My top priority for my Boise State startup was laying the groundwork for the work that I would propose in CAREER. I focused this on the work itself, not on the grant — that would put a few too many eggs in one basket — but I put my student to work on projects that would advance my recommender fairness work and produce results that I could cite in CAREER and other proposals as preliminary findings. Loose ends from previous things I mostly worked on myself, with external collaborators, or put on the back burner.

Other things I paid for that I found helpful:

  • Traveling to NSF grant-writing workshops
  • Traveling to conferences
  • Traveling to give seminar talks (talking about my ideas gave me practice in pitching them and responding to questions and critiques)
  • Hosting a seminar speaker and picking his brain for feedback
  • A good computer setup (dual 4K monitors help me a lot)

Good Community

I built more than a rap career
I got my family here
— Sims (with Doomtree), ‘Bangarang’, No Kings (2011)

I am not a solo researcher; I do my best work in a vibrant intellectual community, where I can regularly have both serious scholarly discussions and informal banter.

The support of my great colleagues at Boise State Computer Science played a major role in getting me ready to write & carrying me through the process.

Good Institutional and Collaborator Support

Boise State is particularly good at providing resources and helping prospective CAREER applicants locate them. Each spring we have a 2-hour workshop for prospective applicants that provides pointers to many campus resources (along with a panel discussion on successful proposals), and a faculty learning community focused on the educational and outreach component.

Relatedly, I found it useful to connect my work directly to local and regional needs, and several people at Boise State were helpful in identifying those as well as securing collaboration commitments to address them.

And finally, I documented this support in Letters of Collaboration. Strategically, I saw this as demonstrating that my university is behind me (beyond the letter of commitment from my department chair), and that I already have some of the connections necessary to successfully carry out the work you are proposing. It’s easy to say I’m going to work with libraries on improving public information literacy with regards to recommender systems and similar modern information technologies; having letters from my first library and one of our Boise State librarians with connections to libraries across the state shows that the project has a decent chance of success. My full application included 9 letters of collaboration (and a table on the last page summarizing the role of each collaboration).

Connect to My Situation

Part of a research proposal is demonstrating that the work is worth funding. But another part, that seems particularly important for CAREER, is demonstrating that you should carry out the work at your institution.

I spent about two-thirds of a page on how the work I was proposing connected to my career and professional preparation and goals (including such details as a rural public library’s role in planting the seeds of my career, connecting this to my plan of working with libraries on information technology literacy) as well as to my department’s stated learning objectives and ongoing curricular enhancement activities. Part of my educational activities involved extending a current department effort in our undergraduate program to our graduate artificial intelligence classes.


The single most useful source of wisdom I found was the NSF CISE CAREER workshop; slides from the talks are still available. It often isn’t terribly well-advertised, so contact your program officer in January or so if you want to go.

These workshops are one way to break the survivorship bias bubble. The one I attended had a talk on Top-Ten Mistakes that was very valuable. Breakout sessions with specific divisions and clusters were helpful in figuring out where to target my proposal.

Scoping The Work


The CAREER solicitation provides a minimum budget, but does not provide much guidance for actual expected budget; budget was a place I got in trouble in my initial attempt.

At the CISE workshop, they provided a lot clearer guidance: one student + one month of summer per year, and associated research expenses.

This obviously helped with the budget, but also helped me scope the work in general.

I approached the research components of the proposal as if I were writing an overly-ambitious version of my first Ph.D student’s thesis proposal.

Explain Everything

Unusual methods via GIPHY

Somewhere along the way, I received some advice that said that you need to be explicit about a lot in a proposal — if you leave gaps, the reviewer will fill them in with something you didn’t intend, and judge the proposal on the basis of their assumptions. The way to avoid this is to explicitly say things, even if you find them obvious.

I had the particular problem of using somewhat unusual methods for my field: simulation studies. Current recommender systems research does not have a lot of simulation work, for good reason: it has a lot of weaknesses, and there are better ways to answer the research questions that a lot of research to date has asked.

I tend to find the common questions less interesting. And it turns out that simulation is the only way, with current technology and data, to answer the questions I want to answer. I handled this by taking time (about ⅔ page) to lay out the space of recommender system research methods and explain how my choice of simulation studies is necessary for my questions, and that it will enable more generalizable results. It worked in so far as none of the reviewers had a problem with my methods and the program officer called them out as one of the fundamental expected contributions in the abstract.



With any of my high-stakes writing, I would rather have my friends tear it apart so I can rebuild it better than to have to wait for a round of reviews to point out the flaws. It’s like a free review cycle — every objection I can identify and address (or decide to ignore) before submitting increases the likelihood of success. And I can’t find them all myself.

There are several classes of feedback that I made use of (and I am immensely grateful to everyone who took time to help me):

  • Concept feedback, mostly from colleagues but also from our college grant writing specialist in our grant planning meeting.
  • Early idea feedback — I ran ideas past colleagues a number of times to see if they might work out prior to putting them into the proposal.
  • Proposal reads from colleagues — at least one of my close collaborators provided feedback on proposal drafts. This helped catch ideas that weren’t working, unclear content, etc.
  • Professional reviews — our college grant writing specialist gave me two full review passes with detailed feedback, and I also got a review round from a consulting group that Boise State contracts with.
  • External ‘candidate panelist’ review — a senior colleague who is in my general field, but not deeply familiar with my research program, graciously agreed to read my proposal and gave me some very helpful feedback on improving my positioning and calibrating the level of detail in my research proposal.

It’s difficult to overstate the value of the candidate panelist review — if you can find such a person, I highly recommend it. Such reviews are one of the services provided by some grant prep consulting firms. Bear in mind that whoever you ask to do this will have a conflict-of-interest when it comes to actually reviewing, and research ethics demands you list them either in your COI form or in Reviewers Not To Include if they don’t fit in one of the defined COI categories. Long-time collaborators aren’t necessarily the best pick if you want to maximize the likelihood of finding one of your blind spots.



I wrote my way out
Wrote everything down as far as I could see
— Lin-Manuel Miranda, ‘Hurricane’, Hamilton (2015)

At the end of the day, with a lot of prep and planning and logistics and feedback, you still need to write. There’s no one right way to write a winning proposal; we have a successful proposal library at Boise State, and they’re all over the map in both the low-level writing and high-level organization.

Here’s some things I did:

  • Win by Page 2. Based on advice & tips I read and discussions with colleagues with proposal reviewing experience, I figured that if I didn’t win the grant by page 2, I wouldn’t win. Details later in the proposal could sink my proposal, but they wouldn’t persuade a panelist or program officer to recommend funding. This governed a lot of my decisions in proposal structure, such as summarizing my research & educational objectives in second page forward references for the details.

  • Write in first person. Certainly not necessary, but it’s the approach I took. We like to think about dispassionate interest in science, but a CAREER proposal is asking for financial backing for your career of research and education.

  • Use active voice. The passive voice should be avoided.

  • Write what I believe. This is generally a good practice, but it’s worth restating. It’s easier to be convincing when you are convinced.

  • Write what I want. Very related to the previous point, but I took the approach of just writing what I wanted to do. I have been thinking about the next steps of my research for a while, and was planning to pursue this rough agenda regardless of this grant. I went in to this proposal at the point where I believed the work I was proposing was the most important thing for me to work on over the next few years, so I wrote it all down.

  • Help the reviewer. The easier you make it for the reviewer to like your proposal and find ways to defend it, the more likely they are to do so. Explicitly and concisely tell them why it is a good idea. I also used a larger font than required (11.5pt Times instead of 11pt) and slightly relaxed line spacing to make the proposal easier to read. Reviewers are people subject to psychology; I gambled that what I lost in room for exposition I would recover in reducing fatigue and frustration reading the proposal.

Winging It


Pilot pen in pocket, I’m riding instinct and ink jets.
— Dessa, ‘Fighting Fish’, Parts of Speech (2013)

I got feedback, I took advice, but at the end of the day, I also trusted my instincts. I figured that if I didn’t fully buy in to what I was doing, either in the work itself or in how I presented it, that would come through and make the proposal less credible.

I can also be stubborn, especially when I’m convinced of something. I came to Boise State with a fresh sense of purpose, determined to make information systems good for people or lose my job trying. I deeply believe that understanding recommender systems’ social impact and consequences is the most important thing I can work on right now, and that my proposed methods will illuminate the subject. I have to believe that conviction came through in the proposal and made it more persuasive.

And when I’m writing, hip-hop is my psych music. Dessa goes on heavy repeat when I’m working on a grant proposal, and Hamilton has helped a lot. The rap I like best walks a fine line, balancing concision and repetition, storytelling and summary. Its rhythms and rhymes give it flow, building materials for working out the principle that good writing sounds good. Dessa’s urgent, confident blend of lyricism and boxing fueled my ‘Win by Page 2’ approach. ‘My Shot’ keeps me inspired to seize the day and try for the next project. The prophetic assessment of society that drips from the pens of socially-conscious rappers keeps me mindful of why I do this work.

I just wish I could have called John the day I got the news.

F*** the plan, man
I’m tryna call an audible
Probable lost cause
But I got a thing for long shots
— Dessa, ‘Warsaw’, Parts of Speech (2013)

  1. Merlot, that tasted like it was poured from an old boot.↩︎