Mystery and suspense, a hero going on a quest…why am I talking about this in a blog post about proposal writing? Because when you write about your research, you’re writing a story of ideas that explores uncharted intellectual territory. As you’ve developed your skills and knowledge of the field, you’ve identified a gap in what we know and a means by which you believe you can fill it.
That’s what makes proposal writing a special genre. While an academic paper lays out the results of an investigation, a proposal lays out the path and the quest. Here is what Otto Yang says:
“Research progress is very much like an ongoing story, with plot twists and surprises. A well-written application creates a tale that appeals to the reader. … Unlike a novel, however, the story is unfinished … and the questions you propose should reveal how you will unfold the next chapter.”
- Otto O. Yang, “Guide to Effective Grant Writing: How to Write a Successful NIH Grant Application”
The goal is to capture the reviewers’ imagination and make them curious about the outcome of the research—curious enough that they want to give you money to pursue it.
In this sense, proposals are a form of “hero tale.” Every culture has stories in which someone goes on a quest and overcomes a series of challenges to gain a reward. In academia, these people are the scientists and scholars whose hard work brings new knowledge to their disciplines. Reviewers are looking for the person whose clear sense of purpose will motivate them to complete their quest.
How do you get started on writing this “tale that appeals to a reader”? Consider the following:
What quest are you pursuing?
Your quest is your research question, and a good question is new and important to the field. Articulate it clearly, and give some context for what makes it important. Will it solve a pressing problem? Will it explore an area that has been neglected? The language used to articulate a research question differs from one discipline to another, but the point is the same—the reviewer must be clear on the fundamental question you are addressing.
If the scope of your project exceeds the duration of the fellowship, you might need to talk about the mini-quest you anticipate completing during the funding period. Will the fellowship allow you to carry out preliminary research, complete your data collection, or write some chapters of your dissertation? The funder will want to know how their financial assistance will help you achieve your ultimate goal.
What broader vision drives your question?
As a graduate student, you are at the beginning of a long, productive career. It’s important to articulate a broad vision for your career, and the long-term contributions you intend to make not only to your field, but to society as a whole. The research you anticipate pursuing during and beyond graduate school may help us better understand certain social or cultural phenomena, improve health or education outcomes, or lead to medical and technological advances. Make that connection explicit for the reviewer
What is the funder’s mission?
The funder has a vision, too, and reviewers are charged with selecting applicants whose research will support it. Some funders have a narrow focus: egg nutrition, cave and karst studies. Others speak more broadly about their mission to address specific societal challenges, or foster certain kinds of interdisciplinary work. Review the funder’s website carefully to understand their goals in supporting research, and spell out the fit between your work and their mission in your proposal.
Who is your audience?
In order to write “a tale that appeals to the reader,” you will first have to figure out who that reader will be. Are you writing for a disciplinary audience (experts in your field), a topical audience (people who are knowledgeable about a particular domain), or for a broader, interdisciplinary set of readers? The answer to that question will influence the terminology that you use and the elements of your vision that you highlight.
This post is part of a series on the Art of Proposal Writing to help student compete for and win external fellowships. Search our Fellowship Finder database to look for funding opportunities and be sure to visit our website to find additional resources for graduate students and postdocs.
Karen Ruhleder joined the Graduate College in 2014. As Assistant Director of External Fellowships, she presents proposal writing workshops for graduate students and postdocs in STEM fields and individually advises graduate students applying for grants and fellowships across all disciplines. She also helps manage the Fellowship Finder database. Ruhleder earned a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Information and Computer Science and a B.A. in German Language and Literature from the University of California at Irvine. Karen reviews for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship competition.