Lab Life

A Strategy for Writing a Standout Research Proposal

Deanna Montgomery

Writing a research proposal, whether for a candidacy or qualifying exam, a thesis, a fellowship application, or a grant, can be intimidating. For first-timers and seasoned researchers alike, this genre of writing is particularly difficult by nature because it’s about research that hasn’t been done yet. Scientists are not fortune tellers, but the task of painting a confident picture of a likely future can feel like clairvoyance is expected.

You can feel more prepared for the task by strategizing your approach to the three major parts of the proposal writing process: planning, writing, and editing. Though it can be tempting to view these as three distinct stages, proposal writing, much like other forms of writing, is often a cyclical process in which you’ll need to revisit each stage several times.

Planning for your proposal

The adage “failing to plan is planning to fail” is as true in research proposal writing as it is in research. Before diving in, you must first spend some time working out the ideas and the logistics for execution.

Start by double-checking the instructions for your task. Review the web pages or other documentation from the department, funding agency, or organization that will be receiving the proposal, and look for answers to these questions:

  • Who will be reviewing the proposal? How much background will they have about the topic?
  • Are there additional documents that must be submitted in addition to the proposal itself (researcher bios, CVs, recommendation letters, etc.)?
  • Are there formatting guidelines or page/word limits?
  • What is the submission deadline?

Once you’ve answered these questions, make a concrete plan for completing your proposal. You can create a timeline by scheduling milestones starting with the deadline and working backward based on how much time you have available. A good rule of thumb is to aim to have a complete draft of your proposal at least 1 week before the actual deadline to allow time for feedback and revisions. If you plan to get feedback from people who tend to be very busy or if you are writing a long proposal, you may need to allow even more time.

As much as possible, break the proposal up into discrete sections or tasks and give each smaller task its own deadline. If you are prone to procrastination (who among us is immune?), allow each task more time than you think it should take. Consider sharing your deadlines with a friend or lab mate to help keep you accountable to your plan.

Finally, consider when, where, and how you do your best work. Use this information to figure out how you will put your plan into motion and make the process less stressful.

Here are a few ideas that may help with the process:

  • Use the Pomodoro technique. Work in short (25 minute) bursts, interspersed with short (5 minutes) and long (10 minutes or longer) breaks. This can make it easier to set aside your phone, email, and other distractions, knowing that you’ll be able to check them during an upcoming break.
  • Do your writing in a place outside your normal routine. If you are getting distracted or struggling to be productive in your lab, office, or home, try a coffee shop, library, or public park.
  • Carve out space on your calendar. Look for times when you will not be in meetings or conducting experiments and when you can spend at least 2 hours on deep work. Be sure to communicate with anyone who needs to know that you will be unavailable during these times.
  • Reward yourself for progress! Whether you measure your progress in time spent productively working on the proposal, number of words you’ve written, or specific tasks/sections you’ve completed, small rewards are helpful for keeping up your momentum. Treat yourself to whatever brings you joy as an incentive for forward progress, and make the size of the reward commensurate with the size of the accomplishment.

Writing the content of your proposal

A good plan can keep you on track, but even the best plan will not keep you from staring at a blank page on day one of writing. Start with free-form brainstorming or outlining to get past that dreaded empty document. To make sure you are ready to write, consider answering all of the questions in the Heilmeier Catechism as a way to flesh out your ideas on paper. Then use your answers to these questions to form the basis of an outline.

As you refine your ideas and put them into words, here are some things to consider about the content of your proposal:

  • Make sure to propose a project of appropriate scope. Does the amount of necessary resources (time, money, equipment, etc.) match the context? If not, think about expanding or constraining your ideas as necessary. For example, the amount of work proposed in a faculty research statement should generally be much more than that found in a master’s thesis proposal.
  • A research proposal should clearly describe both the significance and innovation of the proposed work. Significance refers to the importance of the proposed work: How will your field or the world at large be better if this project is funded and successful? Innovation refers to the novelty of the proposed work: How is what you are proposing different from what has been done previously? 
  • Provide the minimal necessary background for your readers to understand and care about your proposed work. Often, first-time proposal writers include too much background. They want to share all of the information that they have learned from a recent literature search on the topic. On the other hand, experienced researchers sometimes give too little background information, forgetting that reviewers may not be as familiar with the project or field as the author. Be sure to include enough background so that your readers can understand both the technical detail and the motivation behind your proposed work, but do not include auxiliary information that does not serve these purposes.
  • Describe possible limitations of your approach and propose backup plans. Research, by definition, is doing something that no one has ever done before. It follows, then, that not everything will go according to plan. Developing secondary and even tertiary plans will not only save you time and effort later but will also help you convince reviewers of the likelihood of your success.

Editing your proposal

Once you have a full draft of your proposal, celebrate … and then revise, revise, revise. Often, good writing is actually bad writing that has been through several rounds of editing. You will want to leave plenty of time for revision and, just as important, get feedback (from multiple people and at multiple stages, if possible). You may receive conflicting advice or opinions, but this will serve you well as a reminder not to accept every comment at face value. Before you make a change—especially a significant one—consider how that change will make your proposal stronger or clearer.

It’s best to start revisions by focusing on the content before tackling writing style, wording, or formatting. There is no need to optimize a paragraph that will not make the final cut. Discuss your research ideas with your adviser, lab mates, or others knowledgeable about your field to workshop them before you commit them permanently to your proposal. Remain open to feedback and try not to get married to an idea.

Throughout the editing process, consider maintaining a “graveyard” for ideas, paragraphs, or sentences that you cut from the proposal. Copying and pasting these into a separate section at the end of your draft or in a separate document can make it easier to let go of things that do not belong in the current proposal but that could serve as source material for future proposals.

Last thoughts

At the end of the day, a successful research proposal is one that clearly presents a novel, exciting, and important research project. The best way to achieve this is to allow yourself appropriate time to plan, write, get feedback, revise. And celebrate your milestones. You deserve it!