The research proposal is the lifeblood of scientific academia. It’s how professors get funding, which allows them to make the amazing, life-changing discoveries that universities are known for producing. Every year, literally thousands of proposals are denied, with only about the top 10% granted funding. This means that a proposal can’t just be good—it has to be brilliant. But many scientists aren’t particularly good writers, so this can be quite a hurdle to overcome on the road to funding.
That’s where we come in. We’ve put together a simple, easy-to-use guide to writing research proposals that stand out, improving your chances of getting that grant.
The most basic step in research proposal writing is figuring out what, exactly, it is you want to research. This isn’t as easy as it might sound, because there are a lot of factors to consider. When you have an idea, ask yourself the following questions:
If you can answer all of these questions satisfactorily, then you’re already half way there. When your topic is bullet proof, the rest of the proposal-writing process becomes much easier.
While this may overlap somewhat with the conceptualization section, it’s worth emphasizing: you must be well-read on the area you intend to research in. That doesn’t mean you’ve read most of the studies in the area (or just skimmed the abstracts)—it means that you have read all of them, straight through, and you have a full, clear understanding of the goals and methods of each study. You must become an expert on the literature in this area, and know exactly where your project fits in. Do not make the mistake of skipping those last few studies, because if one of them fills the niche you’re after, it’s guaranteed that the committee has found it and already wants to nix your project.
Reading all those studies also serves another purpose; it familiarizes you with the research methods typically used in the field. You don’t have to use the same tricks everyone else does, but knowing what works and what doesn’t is a huge leg up when designing your project.
Once you’ve got all that sorted out, it’s time to get started writing. Unfortunately, all you really have so far is your introduction, which should contain your problem statement, a summary of the extant literature, an explanation of the gap you identified, and a purpose statement explaining why your project matters. Thus, you still have a lot of work to do.
Your main focus should be on the methods section of your proposal. A really good proposal offers a detailed experiment design, complete with alternative methods for every step of the way, in case the committee identifies a problem. Don’t gloss over any points. If you’re unsure about any portion of your design, put more emphasis on it—not less. The more open you are about any flaws in your plan, the more likely the committee will want to help you fix it rather than reject it outright.
While the actual format of your proposal will change depending on the subject area and the preferences of the committee you’re applying through, here’s a general outline of what it should look like:
Once you have everything exactly the way you want it, give it to somebody else and encourage them to tear it apart. It might seem brutal, and it might hurt a bit to have your brain child so ruthlessly scrutinized, but editing is where a good proposal becomes a brilliant proposal. If you have the time and resources, get it edited multiple times. The more people it goes through, the better it will be. Good luck.