How to write a proposal – part I

A friend of mine contacted me recently to ask for help on writing a research proposal, and I said I’d send her an e-mail about it… But after thinking about this carefully, it might be better to make this advice publicly available. Writing a proposal is a vital skill for anyone planning on working in academia, and it’s one which seemingly takes a while to master.

proposal-writing-2I ought to say upfront – I am no expert. While I must have been reasonably successful to win a postdoc fellowship, I’m sure there will be areas where my advice is lacking. I would welcome any advice from those more experienced on the matter, as I most definitely have a lot to learn. On the flipside, given that I’m, once again, applying for postdoc fellowships and hopefully soon to start attempting to apply for large grants as a principal investigator, consolidating my knowledge this way might help me out too. This is a selection of things which I’ve considered, things I’ve found out, and advice I’ve been given.

So, in no particular order, here are several tips for any early career researcher trying to write a research proposal…

Know Your Aims

Consider what research topic you want to look into. Take a look at what you enjoy (and don’t enjoy) and ask yourself where you’d like to go next. If you really enjoy the subject you’ve been working on previously, you may way to focus more closely on something you’ve looked at before. You may want to take a step to one side and examine something but from a different angle. You may choose to take a step forward and use something from your existing work to progress and look at whatever topic you think should come next.

Alternatively, you may have decided that for whatever reason, this subject isn’t for you. And that’s ok too. Examine what tricks and techniques you’ve learned and see how they may apply to another topic. Look at how to bridge the gap and progress from where you are to where you’d like to end up. For example, if you’ve been using spectroscopic techniques to look at interstellar matter, it’s not too much of a jump to use the same kind of techniques to look at planet formation. The trick is to see somewhere you can use your own skillset, and consider how you might be able to work on that method.

Additionally, go and read the literature. Any good idea has probably been had before. But that doesn’t mean that it’s been published. And if it has been published, it doesn’t mean it’s been explored fully. Go and look to see if anyone else has had your idea. If they haven’t, cool, you can move in and make it yours (reviewers like words such as “novel” and “innovative”). If they have, not to worry. Read anything published and see if you can find an interesting side to it which hasn’t been fully investigated.

Know Your Research Field and Connect

It really pays to know who does what in your field. Who’s connected to whom, and who has research interests which match your own. This is where any conferences and research visits you may have been to will come in handy. Hopefully, you met some people or were introduced to some people, and you can contact them to ask if they’d be interested in working with you as a postdoc.

Alternatively, if you don’t know anyone working in that area, all is not lost. Finding someone who’s working on your chosen topic shouldn’t be too hard. Look at the names in author lists on papers. Check the department staff pages on University websites. Look at the listed contributors (especially invited speakers) in conference attendance lists and proceedings. Then write a simple e-mail. It doesn’t need to be exceptionally well thought out or eloquent. Just be polite, and explain yourself. You’ll be surprised how often people will get back to you.

proposal-writing-3And remember, most university faculty are unlikely to say no to an additional researcher. Particularly if you’ll be applying for a fellowship and therefore hope to arrive with your own source of funding. It’s likely that everyone will benefit from this. In an ideal case, an academic will be quite happy to send you copies of their recent publications and/or review articles which you can use to try and find a research idea which fits with what they work on. Then you can work together to develop the idea further.

Of course, there is one reason for them to say no and that’s if your research interests are too far mismatched with theirs – in which case you’d be better off finding someone else to work with anyway. You can always ask if they know anyone who’d be interested.

Find Your Topic

Remember. You are a unique scientist with a unique set of skills, ideas, and abilities. Even if a subject has been covered before, it won’t have been covered in the same way you might cover it. Think back to those aims I was talking about before, and those papers you read while investigating your idea. Here’s where they become extra useful, and you try and graduate your idea into a full hypothesis.

Any well written paper should make its findings clear. It should draw conclusions, and possibly make references to future work. Here’s where you need to think laterally, and if you don’t worry too much about it, it can be the fun part. Look at the conclusions and consider how they could be applied elsewhere. Consider how you could use another example and further test their hypothesis to see if it works.

As an example, my Fellowship here in Tokyo was based on the results of a single paper from over 10 years ago, and another one from 3 years ago. They were good results, but they only covered a single planetary nebula and hadn’t been followed up much by anyone else. My proposal simply took that idea and applied it to a whole catalogue of archived data. It was a good idea, based on solid, published material, and it’s been quite successful as a result.

Make a Xanatos Gambit

A Xanatos Gambit is actually a plot device used in movies and comic books, but it applies pretty well to proposal writing. The gambit works because whoever plays it has considered everything carefully and chosen to take an action where every possible outcome benefits them. If you can plan your proposal the right way, you should try to do the same. You have one main aim, and proving this aim is your primary objective. But what if you can’t prove it? What if you disprove it? What if something else happens? What if you can’t get the data you need?

You need to ideally have a contingency plan for these outcomes. With a scientific research proposal, this means that any outcome should give you a result which you can either learn from, or publish. This is why you construct a null hypothesis in case you disprove your idea. Why you should establish potential upper and lower limits in case your data is insufficient to prove your idea. Why you should consider other possible hypotheses, in case you get an unexpected result.

In short, if you can win even when you fail, you have a solid proposal.

Choose your Working Environment

proposal-writing-1These things require you to stretch your brain into all kinds of shapes. Sometimes you may find that sitting at a desk and staring at a screen isn’t the best way to go about it. If you find yourself failing to make headway, try a change of environment. Take your laptop to a café or find a sunny park bench. Maybe curl up on a sofa with some music in the background. See if that helps. If you’re anything like me, you probably find yourself getting easily distracted or restless while you’re writing something like this, so try and make yourself comfortable and you’ll be less inclined to try and find somewhere else to get away to.

Proposal Construction

Remember that whoever reads this proposal will also have a stack of similar ones to read through, so try and make your proposal stand out in some way. I’ve been advised before that a well chosen figure on your front page will make it a lot more memorable. Remember to pay attention to your abstract. Some people like to split their abstract into short sub-sections for things like Context, Aims and Methods, and Expected Outcomes.

State clearly what it is you intend to do with your proposal. You could try stating a few questions which you specifically aim to address with your work. Then go on to elaborate on how you intend to do this.

Finally, be certain to read the instructions. Sometimes you’ll be allowed a 10 page limit to your proposal. Other times, you’ll only be allowed 3. This varies depending on who exactly is awarding your funding. Remember to stay within the limit. Also, if you’re asked to discuss specific sections, such as including a researcher profile describing yourself and your host researcher, or details on how your work fits with a research institute’s goals, be certain to do so. Otherwise, you’ll only be proving that you didn’t read the instructions properly.


I think I’ve written plenty for now, but this post is likely to be a work in progress as I get advice from other people and learn more about how to make things work. In the meantime, I hope this helps someone…

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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