The FINESST1 program is one of the largest funding programs for US-based graduate students in Earth and Space Sciences. Unlike many other large funding programs, FINESST accepts applications from international students. It encourages submissions from graduate students at any stage in their studies, from newly-admitted to all-but-dissertation. New FINESST proposals are typically due in mid-February, and selections are announced in the summer. The most recent FINESST solictiation can be found here.
Why this page?
When I originally created this page, information and advice about applying to the FINESST was lacking compared to similar fellowships in other fields. This page was created to serve as a starting point for FINESST applicants and to help explain some of the “insider information” needed to apply to a grant or fellowship.
Since my original post, other proposal writing resources have become available. Some of my favorites are:
The advice on this page is based on my own personal experience in writing FINESST proposals as well as other applicants and reviewers and does not serve as an official recommendation from either myself or NASA. Double check all FINESST guidelines on the NSPIRES website before submitting your proposal!
I took heavy inspiration from Alex Lang’s fabulous NSF GRFP fellowship website when designing this page. If you are early in your graduate studies, you might also consider applying for the GRFP.
What is FINESST?
The FINESST (Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology) Program is a NASA program which funds graduate students to design and lead research projects which are directly related to the goals of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD). Awardees are called Future Investigators (FIs) by NASA to emphasize that the goal of this program is to train future leaders in Earth and Space Science2. An FI can only submit one FINESST proposal per year, however PIs can be on multiple submissions. Awards are a maximum of 3 years at $50,000 per year, about $40,000 of which goes toward a stipend. Proposals are evaluated on four criteria: scientific merit, relevance to NASA SMD goals, research readiness of the FI, and cost reasonableness3.
Note: The FINESST program was previously known as NESSF (NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship). The program was redesigned as part of ROSES-19 for proposals due in February 2020. In the transition from fellowship to research grant, the transcript and recommendation letter requirements were removed.
At first glance, FINESST may seem like a fellowship, and in some ways it is similar to one. However, FINESST is a research grant and not a fellowship4, and there are a few key differences from other large fellowship programs such as the NSF GRFP:
- FINESST considers both the relevance of the proposed project and the ability of the FI to carry out this work.
- Similar to a fellowship, the applicant must be enrolled at a US university and seeking a postgraduate degree.
- However, applicants need not be US citizens.
- Unlike a fellowship, FINESST will not discourage submissions based on the number of years of funding requested (up to the maximum 3 years) or the number of years a student is anticipated to be enrolled in a degree program. In other words, FINESST proposals for only one or two years of funding are allowed and encouraged!
- Similar to most fellowships, indirect costs, or overhead, cannot be charged to FINESST accounts.
- Unlike some fellowships, you may continue your project even after graduating (if the FI and PI and the institution agree to the arrangement)
NASA generally selects about 130-150 FINESST proposals each year across all divisions, or about 15% of total submissions. So don’t feel bad if you don’t get selected! Be sure to resubmit your proposal the following year using the feedback provided by your reviewers.
If you’re interested in more specific stats about FINESST proposals and selection rates, check out this post.
Elements of a FINESST proposal
The FINESST proposal has changed substantially over the past few years, however the Science/Technical/Management section of the proposal has stayed largely the same. The most recent FINESST solictiation can be found here.
A FINESST proposal is composed of following parts:
Science/Technical/Management (STM) Section (6 pages) This is the real meat of your proposal. This is where all the science goes. This section must be written by the FI only! The PI can not contribute content to the proposal but may assist in copy editing (this assistance should be stated in the acknowledgements).
References and Acknowledgements (no page limit) References do not count to the 6 page limit of your project description. No specific citation format is required, so long as the papers can be easily found. (In my personal experience, reviewers do sometimes check the references!)
You should acknowledge any contributions to the STM section that did not come from the FI. Your proposal should be your own work, however you are allowed to recieve editorial assistance from peers, colleagues, writing centers, etc. on the “grammar, clarity, and structure” of your proposal.
Open Science and Data Management Plan (2 pages) A brief description of the data/products/software you expect to generate and an explanation of how, when, and where they will be made accessible to the public. This is now a standard part of all NASA ROSES proposals, as a part of NASA’s open science initiatives.
Research Readiness Statement (1 page) This is similar to a personal statement but focuses specifically on how previous and planned coursework, internships, conferences, work and volunteer experience, and other experience has prepared the FI to undertake the proposed project.
You must also include a graduate study timeline which states the type and subject area of your graduate degree program and gives your expected enrollment and graduation dates.
CVs for both PI and FI (2 pages each) This is where you can show off your previous accomplishments. You may have to shorten your CV so that it fits within the page limit. If you do so, make sure your shortened CV reflects your “research readiness.”
Current and Pending (C&P) Statements for PI and FI (no page limit) This is where you explain where your current funding is coming from (if any) and if you have applied to any other grants or fellowships recently. Your PI also needs to provide a list of funding sources, separate from yours.
Mentoring Plan or Agreement (2 pages) You and your PI must agree to a mentoring plan which describes how you will work together to complete the proposed project. If your institution has a standard mentoring plan/agreement/checklist, you may use this (but you may wish to personalize it to more closely meet your needs).
Budget and Narrative (2 pages) This section will most likely be completed by someone else at your institution, your PI or OAR.
A note about money: NASA will give your institution $50,000 every year. NASA recommends that $40,000 of this money goes to a stipend, but the amount you receive as the FI may be considerably less, depending on the ’normal’ stipend at your institution and whether you are required to pay any university fees. What happens to the remaining $10,000 varies by institution, but in most cases the FI does not see much (or any!) of this additional money, and instead it goes to tuition/fees/insurance/etc. However, in principle, this money could be used for publication costs, travel expenses and conference fees, or other research expenses. Discuss this with your PI/AOR before you apply so there aren’t any surprises later!
How to write a FINESST proposal
Step 0: Be enrolled at a US university
You as a Future Investigator (FI) must be enrolled at a US university, however you generally do not need to be a US citizen. (Citizenship restrictions can get tricky if your proposed research projects has ITAR restrictions. I will not even attempt to cover these complexities in this short guide.)
You may submit a FINESST proposal as an incoming student, so long as you will be enrolled at the time of the start date in your proposal—typically September of the same year.
Step 1: Find a PI
If you are already enrolled at a US university, your adviser will likely serve as your PI. In order to submit a FINESST proposal your PI must be affiliated with a US university or one of a few other eligible organizations. Your PI will serve as your mentor for the project, and you must agree to follow a mentoring plan which is submitted with the proposal.
Make sure that your PI knows they have to contribute a C&P and a two-page CV for the proposal.
Step 2: Create your proposal in NSPIRES
NSPIRES (pronounced enn-spires) is the proposal submission system used for most NASA proposals. Creating a NSPIRES account, and figuring out how the system works can be a little tricky, and it’s not something you want to be fighting with on the day the proposal is due! There is some information about NSPIRES here.
Tell your PI that you would like to submit a FINESST proposal and they can create the proposal in NSPIRES. At this point you will need to come up with a title for your proposal. (I think you can technically change it later, but it is might be hassle to change it at the last minute on all the proposal documents!)
Once your PI has created the proposal in NSPIRES, they can add you to the proposal team. You will get an email notification asking you to link your account to the proposal. Once you do so, you will have the ability to make changes to the proposal in NSPIRES.
At this stage it would also be a good idea to get familiar with the person who will actually be submitting your proposal. This authorized representative (AOR) might have a separate internal submission deadline which is different from the NASA deadline. Your AOR may be someone in your department, but they are probably someone in your university research office. Check with your PI and/or AOR to determine whether you’ll need to have your proposal completed substantially earlier than the NASA deadline. More about this in Step 5.
Step 3: Determine your research topic
You must submit your FINESST proposal to one of six different research areas generally corresponding to the divisions of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate: Astrophysics, Biological and Physical Science, Earth Science, Heliophysics, Planetary Science, and Science Activation. All six divisions have the same due date, but they will be evaluated by different groups of reviewers, and selection decisions are announced for the different divisions at different times.
Choosing which division to submit to is not always trivial, and there is bit of overlap between divisions. Most of the edge cases are defined in the FINESST solicitation documents. But don’t lose too much sleep over this; proposals are sometimes shuffled around between divisions after submission!
Step 4: Write your proposal
The Science/Technical/Management section of your proposal is the longest and most important part of your proposal, so that’s what I’ll focus on here. The text of your project description, and any associated figures and tables must fit within six pages, single-spaced. The STM section contains three parts:
- A description of your proposed project and the research question it answers.
- A description of the relevance of your project to NASA SMD.
- A timeline showing major milestones of your project.
There are no page limits for these subsections, but generally about 5-5.5 out of the 6 pages are allocated to the research description, and the relevance and timeline take up the remaining space.
Consider the audience of your proposal. Your reviewers will be colleagues in your subfield, but may not have specfic knowledge of the background of your research question.
It may be useful to divide your project and research questions into smaller tasks or goals, each consisting of approximately one year of work. This can help in determining how much funding to apply for and in creating your research timeline. You do not have to apply for all three years of funding. If your project fits into two years, ask for two years of funding. Your reviewers will know if you’re trying to stretch the timeline!
Be as specific as possible. Which exact model/code are you using? Or which equations are you using? How many samples will you be measuring and why did you choose this number? What is the expected precision/uncertainty of your measurements/analyses? What signal-to-noise ratio do you need to achieve in order to do your analyses?
Account for any anticipated complications or difficulties. What if your mission/instrument fails or its launch is delayed? What is the instrumental noise level of your measurements? What if there is a null result…how would that inform your research question? Do you already have planned observing time on the instrument you need…what is your plan if you don’t get time on that instrument?
Don’t make your reviewers search for information! Highlight important information, such as your main research question or your main goals, in a different color or in bold.
Include tables and figures! These can help break up the text in your paper and make it more exciting to read. A good figure is worth 1000 words—but a bad figure is worth negative 9000, so make sure your figures are relevant and easy to interpret!
When considering the relevance of your proposal look at the guiding documents for your division. This might include:
- NASA’s most recent Science Plan and Strategic Plan
- the most recent Decadal Survey document for your division:
- or for Planetary Science submissions, documents from the various Exploration Analysis Groups: MExAG, VEXAG, LEAG, MEPAG, OPAG, SBAG, and ExoPAG.
It is often helpful, to quote directly, or to reference specific sections, tasks, or goals from these documents. Be as explicit as possible. Make it painfully obvious to the reviwers as to how your proposed research aligns with NASA’s goals.
Step 5: Submit your proposal through NSPIRES
There are 6 elements on the NSPIRES proposal page:
- Proposal Summary
- Business Data
- Program Specific Data
- Proposal Team
As the FI, you will primarily contribute to the Proposal Summary section. You can think of this section as an abstract for your propsal. If your proposal is selected this summary will be made public! The majority of the Program Specific Data will be completed by your PI, however the FI might contribute to sections such as the Data Management Plan. Some tips for writing a Data Management Plan can be found here. The other sections will probably be completed by your PI or support staff at your institution.
In addition to these 6 elements, you must also attach your proposal document as a single pdf file. Combine all the contributions from you and your PI in a single file and upload it to NSPIRES. Depending on the specifics of your proposal you may also need to upload separate documents such as High-End Computing requests.
When your proposal is complete, your PI will ‘release it to org,’ i.e. send it to the authorized representative (AOR) at your organization who is in charge of submitting proposals. This person will review your proposal to check for things like formatting and to make sure all the components are included, and then, if everything is OK, they will submit it. This process takes time! If something needs to be changed, the AOR will “unlock” the proposal and send it back to the PI to make changes. This process can occur several times before submission.
Because of this process, you do not control when the proposal gets submitted! In other words, no staying up late with the expectation that you’ll be able to submit the proposal at 11:59 pm! You will most likely need to have your proposal completed a few days early (some organizations require proposals to be submitted at least a week early!) in order to make sure that everything is processed by the AOR before the due date. Check with your PI to determine what your internal deadlines are.
After submitting a proposal
Relax! 😮💨 Celebrate! 🥳 Take a weekend off! 🏖️ Proposal writing is hard work. You deserve a break! 😊
Now begins the waiting game…
Selections are announced anywhere from late-May to July. Each division makes their announcement separately, sometimes only a few days apart and sometimes a few weeks apart. It’s hard not to get antsy when other divisions get announced before yours, but hang in there!
When the selections are announced, the successful proposals are generally notified first. The PI will receive an email from NSPIRES notifying them of a change. You, the FI, will recieve an email a bit later notifying you of the decisions. Hopefully your PI has informed you of the good news by this point. If your proposal was not selected, the same process will occur, but about a week (or sometimes many weeks) later. Around this time, the full list of selected proposals will be posted to the FINESST soliciation page on NSPIRES.
The review process
You can get a sense of what FINESST review panels look for by checking out some of the reviews submitted to the database below. As far as I know, each division has multiple FINESST review panels that correspond to broad disciplines in the division, so your proposal will be reviewed by experts in your sub-discipline, but they may or may not have specific knowledge about your research question.
After selections are announced, your PI can log into NSPIRES to see the reviews. You’ll receive an adjectival rating (this is just a fancy way of saying “score,” ideally you’ll recieve an “Excellent” or “Excellent/Very Good”) and comments from the reviewers for each category. The three assessment criteria are:
- A: Scientific Merit
- B: Relevance to SMD
- C: Research Readiness Assessment
You may also receive general comments from the reviewers at the end of your review document. These can sometimes include very useful tips about papers to read or ways to improve your methods. But other times, they are notes like “You forgot a comma in your references.”
What to do if your proposal is selected
Celebrate! ✨ Then, email the FINESST Program Officer to either accept or decline the award. After that, submit your proposal to the database! 😉
If your proposal is selected you are required to provide updates to SMD about your progress towards the goals outlined in your proposals. These brief progress reports are due to your program officer in March of every year. They are typically 2-4 pages long and contain updates about the progress you have made thus far and your future plans. More information can be found in the FINESST solicitation docs for your application year. Your continued funding is contingent on these progress reports. Do not forget to do them!!
What to do if your proposal is not selected
Don’t feel too bad. There’s a large element of randomness to which proposals are ultimately selected. Besides, writing a proposal is hard work, and simply submitting a FINESST proposal is something to be proud of.
Ask your PI to share the proposal reviews with you, if they haven’t already (the FI does not have direct access to the reviews!). Then, come up with a to-do list with concrete steps to improve your proposal for next year. Consider getting feedback from your peers or mentors about potential changes to your proposal.
My personal thoughts
It is more than ok to ask for less than the maximum amount of funding. I actually found it much easier to write a proposal for two years of funding vs. three years because I could more fully explain my new smaller project. And if you try to stretch a short 12 month project to fit the three year maximum, it will be obvious to the reviewers.
Before you submit your proposal, ask a peer/colleague/family member outside of your field to read the STM section. They can give you a sense of whether you’ve included enough background information in your proposal.
Make sure you address the limitations/weaknesses of your proposed work. No project is perfect! Your reviewers will know if you’re stretching the truth.
Apply, apply, and apply again! It took me 4 tries to get my proposal selected. There are many highly-ranked proposals each year and a limited pool of funding, so whether or not your proposal is selected is entirely at the whims of the review panel, whose organization and membership varies from year to year. The program officers also have a say in which proposals get selected, so the always-shifting priorities of NASA might also affect which types of propsals get selected. (My proposal, about Venus’ atmosphere, was only selected after the exciting/controversial discovery of phosphine…whether this actually impacted the review panel, or if my proposal was just better rated that year, is unclear)
Example FINESST proposals
Contribute a proposal to the FINESST base using this link!
You can access the FINESST Proposal Database below or at this link:
This acronym is pronounced like ‘finest’ or ‘finessed,’ with ‘finessed’ being slightly more common. Nobody can agree on the pronunciation, not even NASA administrators. ↩︎
I personally dislike this nomenclature because PI and FI look very similar in writing. Alas, I have no say in the matter. ↩︎
The cost reasonableness criterion is somewhat fixed by both the FINESST guidelines and the rules and regulations of your institution so don’t worry about it too much. Just don’t stretch a one year project into a three year one. It will be obvious to the reviewers. ↩︎
Some institutions treat FINESST like a fellowship internally becasuse indirect costs cannot be charged to it, which only adds to the confusion! ↩︎