Methodologies: It’s all in the details… or not?

Hello GradFund patrons! Many funding opportunities require some sort of research proposal that includes appropriate methodologies. However, most applications impose strict page, word, or even character limits. These limits serve two purposes. First, they keep applications short enough for a reviewer to read multiple applications in one sitting. Second, they encourage clear, concise writing.

This doesn’t mean that we should simply keep it as short as possible. You obviously do not want to leave out any important information. You should never sacrifice overall clarity simply for the sake of brevity. The most compelling applications are both concise and complete.

Audiences: Work the Crowd

So how do we find the appropriate balance? First, we have to consider the audience. For whom are we writing this proposal? Who will be our judge(s)? This is a difficult question to answer using a broad brush. Each funding organization is different. For the National Science Foundation, there are specific research tracks with specific reviewers who have backgrounds relevant to the track. The reviewers may not be experts in your specific field, but they do possess doctoral degrees relevant to their assigned tracks. So a common level of language can be extrapolated. The National Institutes of Health is similar. Each reviewer selected by an institute is a scholar recognized by that institute as an expert in their field. Other applications may even be reviewed by non-experts or even non-scholars with specific interests and agendas in selecting the candidates for their organization’s awards. This means that you need to make a judgment concerning common language. Anything that doesn’t fall into this common language net may need to be addressed or further explained.

Some funders’ websites, such as the American Council of Learned Societies, will explicitly describe their review process, including the overall makeup of their review panels. Others, like the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation, actually list the names of potential reviewers along with their disciplines and affiliated institutions. When this information is not readily available, it may be beneficial to contact the program officer and ask about their process. But always check the website and the FAQs first.

Other Considerations

Once you understand your audience, there are a number of factors that influence the level of detail expected. First and foremost, what stage of research does the funding opportunity target? Fellowships intended for first-year graduate students, such as the NSF-GRF, generally do not expect dissertation-level sophistication with regards to methods. A fellowship aimed at supporting dissertation research or dissertation writing, such as the NIH Kirschtein Training Fellowships will entail much more detailed descriptions.

Second, does the opportunity support the entire dissertation or a smaller project? Dissertation-style proposals naturally require more information. Smaller opportunities, however, may only require a short-term project description. By focusing on this smaller project, you can often squeeze more information into the proposal. The Fullbright IIE is a good example of a proposal that doesn’t concern the entire dissertation.

One final factor is the length. This should be one of the last considerations you make as you attempt to edit and revise your application. Whatever level of detail you deem appropriate obviously has to fit into the allotted space. Consider these factors as you construct your research plans.

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