Writing a Research Proposal – Quick Tips

Great science writing might be described as a strange form of poetry that brings beautiful ideas to life with piercing clarity and purpose.  Getting good at this is a career long endeavour.  PhD students write for awards, for preliminary exams and for manuscripts to be published.  Postdocs write for journal manuscripts, fellowships, awards, and ultimately, their own grants!  Professors write for everything from grants to journal manuscripts to textbooks.  Write…write…write.  Communication is a central component of a science career.  This article is about how to write a research proposal, which is often done to get money from funding agencies, and is therefore, very important.  Here, I include useful tips I have gathered from experienced and successful colleagues. 
 
A Basic Outline for a Five Page Research Proposal
 
Some General Comments:
Your proposal must present a great idea to address an important and interesting problem.  Be Original.  Focus the proposal on one clear central problem such that the Aims logically work towards addressing that central problem and the whole proposal logically adheres to a major theme.  Break each aim into separate goals that address the proposed aim.  For each goal, clearly lay out (1) the Rational (background logic), (2) the Problem (what is not known), (3) the Approach (how you will solve the problem), (4)  What you expect to learn and why it is significant, (5) A final transition sentence that logically prepares the reader for the next goal or aim.  Whenever possible/appropriate, emphasize some unique strength or expertise you have that will set you up to achieve what you are proposing and convince the reader you are the person for the job!
 
DO NOT EXCEED THE MAXIMUM PAGE LENGTH BY EVEN ONE SENTENCE – KEEP IT TIGHT.  Do not shrink fonts or margins that might make it more of a strain to read.  Do not repeat yourself.  Do not repeat yourself.  Introduce ideas and supporting studies strategically, such that they appear in the context that they are the most effective.  For example, don’t introduce an idea in the introduction that is specifically meant to set up an experiment in Aim 3.  
 
Assume readers will not make any intellectual leaps on your behalf.  Therefore, clearly explain what you are proposing and why you are proposing it throughout the grant.  Above all keep it simple.  Note that excessive detail will disrupt the flow, the logic and the excitement and will expose you to criticism.  Strategically use italics and underlining to highlight key points and steer the reader’s attention throughout the text of the proposal – make it easy for the reader to find the important information.  I tend to save bold print for titles.
 
Number your aims and goals to maintain a logical organization.
 
In many ways, a truly great research proposal can take years of thought, planning, experimentation and pruning.  I keep a database of ideas and I am constantly developing new research programs that could be grants.  Many good ideas get rejected in order to focus on a core idea.  You MUST get feedback from colleagues and in my experience your first draft should be completed 4 weeks prior to the deadline to allow you to really nail it!!!  It takes that long to go through internal reviews and develop corrected drafts with busy colleagues.  So plan ahead.
 
Finally, I believe that humans fundamentally understand things in terms of stories and good stories have a particular structure and feel.  Your proposal is a story about an idea, a discovery or a deep desire to understand something fundamental and potentially transformative.  Inject your prose with that active feeling of excitement, because that is what you want your readers to feel.  Do NOT use a passive voice in the writing.
 
Write a long draft and then start working on the poetry to polish it and get it within the size limits…
 
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1.  Title:
Must be brief, snappy, informative and interesting.  Beware of including buzz words that will bury your proposal in the pile of others doing similar work.  Find a title that encapsulates the main themes and most unique aspects of your research proposal.  Be original.  Avoid boring words like “Characterization of…” or “Investigation into…”.  Get feedback!
 
In addition, if it is appropriate, I like to put a picture on the title page.  It can be a schematic or artistic image.  Something that speaks to the central theme and will help the proposal standout from the stack of competing papers.  People are visual creatures and a nice image is eye catching.
 
2.  Abstract (1 paragraph):
This is a make it or break it section.  It has to be crisp, concise and have punch.  It needs to express:  (1)  The rational for the study, (2) The central problem to be addressed in the study (“Based on these new data, I propose to investigate…”), (3) Clearly state the specific aims that will address the central problem (“I will pursue the following three aims:  (1) …, (2) …,  and (3) … “).  I usually present the aims in bold print, so they standout.  (4)  One sentence that summarizes the significance and potential impact of the work.
 
3.  Introduction (2 paragraphs):
In general, describe the published works that have revealed the central problem of interest.  Your first sentence must immediately communicate the big picture importance and context of the work.  The introduction includes information that builds the logical foundation of your proposal by drawing from previous work and different disciplines to bring together a new, coherent and exciting direction for your field.  You likely do not want to beat an old horse by rehashing logical, but well studied research directions that everyone is pursuing and publishing on.  Novelty must shine through.  Exclude any extra information that does not logically flow toward your central problem of interest, and may therefore distract the reader.  In the final sentence of the introduction, clearly and concisley state the central problem that arises from the work described and cited or at least provide a summary statement with a logical link to the Background section.
 
4.  Background (1 paragraph):
Use this section to describe what you have done thus far to bring you to this problem.  Did you discover something?  What?  Have you developed some new approach?  What is it?  You need to sell the idea that no one is better than you to address the problem built up in the Abstract/Intro through the studies that will be proposed.  Also use this section to clarify supporting and opposing evidence for your previous findings.  In the final two sentences of the background, highlight the major questions that have arisen as a result of your work and clearly and concisley state the direction of your study.  Keep the logical flow of the abstract and introduction.  This is a good section for a figure that highlights an important and very interesting aspect of your previous work.
 
5.  Specific Aims:
Typically, a grant/research proposal has 3 specific aims.  Specific aims should be stand alone projects that are interrelated, but not interdependent.  Ask yourself, what happens if Aim 1, 2 or 3 fails – will it take the whole proposal down with it?  Each aim must be fantastically important and interesting in its own right.  Ideally, an aim should look contain a logical project that one can imagine a student or postdoc carrying out.
 
Each aim is subdivided into specific goals that clearly indicate a particular problem to be solved to achieve the aim.  Each goal is 1-2 paragraphs.  For each goal, include the following information:
1.  The rational for this goal (2 sentences).
2.  The problem to be solved (1 sentence).
3.  The approach that will be used to solve the problem (experimental design).
4.  The potential findings and impact of these findings (1-2 sentences).
5.  Where to next?  Include a final transition sentence to flow logically into the next goal or aim (1 sentence).
 
Titles for aims and goals should be considered carefully.  Words like “Characterize…”, “Investigate…”, Explore…”, “Identify…” or “Study…” can be construed as proposing fishing expeditions, though they may be appropriate.  When possible, a clear statement that flows from a hypothesis is preferred and words like “Determine whether…” or  “Test the hypothesis that…” can be more powerful and direct.
 
6.  Figures:
Embed simple figures in the text that present provocative preliminary findings.  Insert them directly into the text and use the text wrap tool in Word.  Write a short caption underneath by inserting a text box.  The font for figure legends can be smaller than the main text 12 point minimum.  The figures must be thought provoking and support the central questions and approaches posed in the grant.  These figures need to strategically address potential sticky points by illustrating complex ideas or by revealing that your ideas are on the right track.  In addition, they should present stuff that gets reviewers thinking about the possibilities of your proposal.  Give them a chance to imagine how big this idea could be, so they get excited!  Less is often more.  Don’t make the figures to complicated, just thought provoking seeds.
 
7.  Timeline (indicate in brackets with aims and goals or provide bulletin points in a separate ‘Timeline’ section):
Reviewers need to known when specific aspects of your proposal will be initiated during the funding period and how long you think they will take to complete.  Based on this information they will decide if you have proposed a project that reasonably fits with the timeline of the funding period.
 
8.  Significance (1 paragraph):
Use this final section to first clarify the big idea you are proposing.   Next, address how the results will be transformative conceptually.  Address the potential impact on the field.  Finally, address the potential impact for human health and wellbeing.  Be concise and clear about what will come from the study.  As always, if you are vague and descend into buzz words, the impact of this section will be lost.  The reviewers really want to known exactly what you expect to find, so tell them and be clear about why you think it will be awesome.  Thinking a lot about this section can help you clarify in your mind what the central importance of your study really is.
 
 
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