Writing a Successful Proposal

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Writing an effective proposal is the key to getting funding that makes all research possible.

Agency Specific Requirements

NSF Guidelines

Excerpts of NSF guideline for reviewing a proposal

What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?

    • Potential considerations: How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
    • To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative and original concepts?
    • How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity? Is there sufficient access to the necessary resources?

What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

    • Potential considerations: How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?


Defense Advanced Research Project Agency

DARPA questions

  • What is the problem?
  • What is the state-of-the-art?
  • What is the main barrier to overcoming the problem?
  • What is your solution to the problem that will lead to a quantum jump
  • What is the impact of your solution?


Proposal Writing Tips

Clearity, Simplicity and Impact

Answers are Easier than Good Questions

In general solutions to problems are much easier to identify than the problem itself

    • What is interesting?
    • What is really the important question to answer, or in other word “don’t try to treat the symptom but rather the disease”.
  • If you can’t sell the proposal in the first page give up.
  • Don’t fill space with information that the reader doesn’t need to know
  • Keep you style consistent including references
  • Distinguish between what is good to do and what is good to propose
    • A good proposal must be defendable
    • A good idea must simply work!


Frame the Question Clearly and Early

  • Cut to the chase.
  • What is the problem?
  • Why is it important?

Be able to explain it to your parents assuming that they are non-technical

  • Who is going to care if you ever do this?
  • Assume that you are asking some one to give you money to do- why should they.
  • Important: Impact can be scientific or technical or both, but it needs to be clearly stated

Get Your Facts Straight!

  • Use literature searching effectively.
    • You can go far even using Google but that is not adequate.
    • Use Bielstein
    • Web of Science
    • Sci-Finder Scholar
  • Be clear on what is known and what is not known
  • When you propose something make sure that it is feasible
    • Do reality checks
    • Ask why things will NOT work not simply why your idea can work.


Be Precise About What You Will Do

  • If you want to do study want to do structure property relationship be clear about
    • Exactly how you will modify the structure
    • What effect you would expect it have
    • How would you measure the property
    • Exactly what is the observable and how do it relate back to the property
    • What defines success


Be Impartial

  • Always, in a scientific proposal, try to define the problem in such a way the success is not tied to making something better than something else
  • Success is an unambiguous answer to an important question
  • Take care to not have the experiment biased to the answer that you “seek to get”
  • Thing about sources of artifacts and error and their magnitude relative to the measurement itself.

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