The Art of the Introduction

Where to begin? Introductions are tricky beasts: Part meet-and-greet, part sales pitch, and all balancing act, a good introduction can seem like more art than science. However, behind the rhetorical craft, effective introductions to fellowship and grant proposals generally follow a simple set of guidelines that every writer can employ.

Generally, the length of an introduction is about 10% of the proposal (or essay) overall. If you are writing a two-page proposal, this means your introduction is just one paragraph (about 1/5 of the first page). If you are writing a ten-page proposal, you might devote a full page to the introduction. This rule of thumb tends to break down a bit at either end of the proposal-length spectrum: Shorter (one-page) proposals might be thought of as an introduction in itself, written in the way a one-page summary of a ten-page proposal might perform, while longer proposals still only use about one page to set the scene.

The introduction to a research proposal should accomplish a set of very specific goals. At the most basic level, it should provide just enough context on the topic to allow the reviewer to understand the importance of your research question, state the question clearly and succinctly, and articulate the argument or hypothesis central to your work. Looking at the introduction to the blog post above, “where to begin?” is the question, “introductions are tricky” is the context, and “everyone can use guidelines” is my argument. Just one paragraph!

In a two-page proposal, this might be all the introduction does. However, if you have the luxury of a full page, the introduction can accomplish two additional goals that lay the foundation for the reviewer’s understanding of the rest of the document. First, briefly explain the approach or methods you will use and how they will be used to answer your question (just one paragraph). Second, describe how your research will advance your field of study and the goals of the funding organization and award program (one or two paragraphs). If your length is somewhere in between two and ten pages, try to accomplish all three goals in the introduction by shortening your three paragraphs or condensing them so that the methods and advancements are explained in the same paragraph. Ultimately, the introduction should lead naturally into a short discussion of the literature and how it makes an argument for your project.

Personal statement and previous research essay introductions still summarize the most important key ideas of the essay, providing a “road map” to the rest of the document. In these cases, rather than research questions and arguments, key ideas might include career goals, research and personal experiences that drive your commitment to your discipline and topic, and skillsets you have acquired through past engagements.

Like all application materials, both types of introduction should specific but concise, and should be written with the review audience in mind (a mathematician will describe her project very differently if she is writing to other mathematicians versus a panel including scholars from the humanities and social sciences). And, as always Rutgers graduate students are welcome to schedule individual appointments with GradFund for help crafting all parts of their proposal essays!

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