How to Write a Brilliant Research Proposal

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.

 

Conceptualizing

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:

  1. Has it been done before? Find literature on the topic and see what studies have already been done in this direction. If your idea isn’t sufficiently unique (it’s okay to expand on research somebody else already did, but don’t duplicate someone else’s study), you won’t be able to garner much interest—nobody wants to fund a copycat project. Ideally, you want to identify a gap in the literature, and design your research proposal to fill it.
  2. Does it answer a real problem? Theoretical research is great—it helps us understand the universe and how we fit in to it all. But to a proposal committee, it looks like an expensive way to gain essentially useless knowledge. Pick a topic that has real-world consequences. The more tangible your topic, the more likely you are to earn that grant.
  3. Am I qualified to do this sort of research? It may seem like an obvious question, but it’s still important. Just because you understand the subject matter doesn’t mean you’re qualified in the eyes of the committee. If any portion of the project you’re proposing requires expertise you don’t possess (even if only on paper), find a collaborator who does, and is willing to lend assistance when need be. This will assure the panel that their money will not be wasted on a researcher trying ineptly to straddle fields, and has the bonus of demonstrating how broadly relevant your subject is.

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.

 

Research

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.

 

Writing

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:

  1. Introduction – Contextualize your research proposal in the wider world of scientific pursuit. Make it very clear what line of inquiry you will be following, and whether your study will be qualitative or quantitative. This is your chance to make the project make sense; after this point, very little should come as a surprise to your readers.
  2. Hypothesis – State your problem, how it fits into the overall literature, and what you expect to learn about it. This is the driving force behind your study, so be sure it is as clear as possible. Ambiguity spells death in this respect, so make sure there is no doubt about your meaning.
  3. Methods – Don’t skimp on the details when it comes to your experiment design. Write everything with painstaking accuracy. This allows the committee to understand exactly what you intend to do, and it will make your life a lot easier later when it comes time to execute your plan.
  4. Limitations – Don’t be shy about the flaws in your plan. Honesty is key in the scientific world, and pointing out places where you need improvement will convince the committee that you’re really serious about your contribution—not just grabbing for money.

 

Editing

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.

 

Additional resources:

  1. 10 Steps to Writing an Academic Research Proposal from Hub Pages
  2. How to Write a Losing Proposal by Alexander Scheeline of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne
  3. How to Write a Research Project Grant Application (from the National Institute of Health)
  4. How to Write an Academic Research Proposal (from Information Consult)
  5. How to Write an NSF Proposal (from Washington University in St. Louis)
  6. The Elements of a Proposal by Frank Pajares of Emory University
  7. The Proposal in Qualitative Research by Anthony W. Heath (from NOVA)
  8. Writing the Research Proposal from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota
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