I’m back to working on my class on Experimental Design and Data Analysis. One of my goals for the course is to have students work in groups to write an NSF-style proposal. So I sat down this morning to think about the steps it takes to write a research proposal. When I turned to google, I found a lot of tips on the writing of proposals, but not a lot of tips about how to actually generate the content that goes into the proposals. Since my course focus is how-to-do-science, I’m more interested in the content than the style. (Yes, I’m sure style can make or break a borderline proposal, but if your science isn’t good enough or isn’t spelled out clearly enough, style is not going to matter.)
I’m also intentionally leaving out the very-important-and-very-time-consuming bits about wrangling with forms, working out budget details and justifications, and paying appropriate attention to the broader impacts of the work. These are things that my students will have to deal if they become a PI or if they are writing and managing student grants, but they are not where I want my students spending effort in my class. With that for a preamble, I present…
ScienceWoman’s Guide to Writing a Research Proposal in Eight Easy Steps
- Select your collaborators based on shared research interests and complementary expertise.
- Brainstorm some general research topics that build on what you already know. (Read some recent reviews or research papers to help you identify open questions in the field.) Gradually narrow your focus to a few related possible research questions.
- Identify your funding source and read the solicitation carefully.
- Identify one major goal for your project.
- The next steps should proceed simultaneously and iterate until your research plan is coherent, if not fully fleshed out. All subsequent steps should also be accompanied by actually writing of drafts of text for your proposal.
- Define a set of objectives (or specific aims) in support of your goal. These objectives could be built around hypotheses to be tested or specific questions to be answered.
- Define the possible methods you could use to reach your objectives, given the limitations of expertise, time, funding, and your institutional resources.
- Collect, compile, and analyze any preliminary data that you can use to support your proposal.
- Add details to your research plan, making sure to consider (1) whether your experimental design will provide the appropriate data for the data analysis you intend to do and (2) the limitations listed above.
- Read more literature related to your research questions (and related questions). Start to write the introductory/background material. Tinker with your research plan as you learn from those that have gone before.
- Polish your proposal text until it is coherent, cohesive, concise, and correct in both content and style.
There you have it, how to go from a conversation over coffee to a ready-to-submit collaborative research proposal in just eight easy steps – albeit steps best taken with lots of iteration. OK, so who wants to
rip it apart constructively criticize before I inflict enlighten my students with it?
Oh, and see also Alice’s thoughts on the special responsibilities of a PI on a collaborative proposal.