In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the proposal as a genre — the story of your journey into uncharted intellectual territory, driven by a vision of your contribution to your discipline and beyond. Your reviewers are excited! They want to help you complete your journey! But, they want some details. The proposal is the roadmap you provide.
There is no right or wrong way to structure a proposal. There may be disciplinary norms or funder guidelines, which is why it is essential to look at successful proposals in your discipline and read the program solicitation carefully.
Regardless of the structure, there are some commonalities in proposals across all disciplines and funders. Here are some tips for putting together a good roadmap for the reviewers:
Give the reviewer a general sense of where your journey is taking you and how you plan to get there. One approach is to construct the opening of your proposal narrative as a mini-proposal in which you state the broader issue you are addressing, introduce your central question or hypothesis, and lay out your overall approach and anticipated outcome. Keep in mind that the introduction is not the place to dive down into the details.
Establish why your question or topic is important. Perhaps you have identified a gap in our current understanding, are pursuing a promising avenue of inquiry, or are offering a new interpretation of evidence. To lay this out, give the reader a selective overview of research in your field upon which you intend to build. You might highlight recent advances or address any controversies, and discuss preliminary research you have carried out.
By the end of the Background section, your reader should understand why your proposed project is a logical next step in a succession of advances in research. Those advances represent the intellectual road trip you’re on with other people in your field.
Now we’re moving into uncharted territory! It is time to lay out how you intend to carry out your project, leading the reader from general to specific. Outline the type of data you will collect and the methodology you will use to analyze it. A primary research question might break down into several smaller ones, or you might be pursuing multiple independent aims, each with its own plan for data collection and method of analysis.
How can you give the funder confidence in your ability to complete the journey? Identify the lab, center, or institute where you will carry out the work, and list your advisor, mentors, or hosts. If you’ll need special equipment or materials, clearly state that they will be at your disposal. If you’ll require access to field sites, subjects, or informants, explain what arrangements you have made. There a many permutations, but they all carry the same message: you will have resources you need and the guidance to use them effectively.
Pitfalls and Contingency Plans
What’s a road trip without a flat tire? Do you have a jack and a spare tire in your car? You don’t need to discuss routinely employed methodologies or techniques. However, you do need show that you’ve had the foresight anticipated major problems that might derail your project, and that you’ve given thought to some alternatives. Your advisor and other experienced researchers can help you with that.
At the end of your journey, what do you expect to have accomplished? What new knowledge or understanding will you be able to share upon successful completion of your project? In the Background section, you cited other people’s work. This section lays out at a high level why other people might cite you on their own intellectual journeys at some other point in time.
Fit with the Funder’s Mission
Remember, reviewers are working on behalf of the funder, and want to understand how your project will advance the funder’s mission. Here is a great place to return to your vision and to your understanding of the target audience. Funders may have multiple goals in mind (“support basic science in order to improve cancer treatment”). Be sure to address each one in your narrative.
At the end of your journey, will there be a travelogue? In order for the work to have an impact, others need to know about it, so tell the reviewer how you intend to share your results. Be specific about the conferences and journals to which you plan to submit. Some funders have additional requirements (e.g., presentation at a Society’s annual meeting), so don’t forget to mention that you’ll fulfill them!
Sections Specific to the Funder
So far, I’ve discussed commonalities across research proposals. In some cases, you may need to add a section tailored to particular guidelines. “Include a timeline” is pretty obvious, but sometimes instructions are quite general. A funder may say that a proposed project must be “original” or “interdisciplinary.” While there may be no requirement to have a section entitled, “Originality” or “Interdisciplinarity,” having one could help the reviewer find this information.
Every road trip requires a planning and communication. Work together with your advisor and committee members to put together a clear roadmap. Get the reviewers on board, and help them envision your journey from start to finish.
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.
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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.