Proposal Writing 101 (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the GradFund Throwback Thursday blog series.  From time to time, we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past. If you are interested in learning more about research grants and fellowships to support your graduate study, be sure to visit the GradFund Knowledgebase.

At a basic level, nearly all merit-based graduate student award applications (from early graduate study to completion fellowships) include a set of common elements. If you have never written a proposal before, or are beginning a new draft, the suggestions below will help you get started in crafting these elements.

Introduction– The introduction will take up just 10% of your essay, and will set the stage for the rest of the proposal. At the very least, you will want to include one or more sentences explaining your research topic for the review audience, followed by one sentence stating your research question, and one sentence articulating your central argument or hypothesis. If you have a longer (~10 page) limit for the essay, giving you space for a second introductory paragraph, include details on the methods you will use to support your argument or test your hypothesis, and a sentence or two about the contribution your outcomes will make to the state of the field or the funder’s goals.

Literature Review- The literature review section will cover approximately 20% of your essay, serving the essential function of laying the groundwork to support your research question, methods, and contribution to the field. Therefore, you will want to carefully select citations that build an argument for the importance of your work, as well as justifying the details of your approach, such as research site selection or use of a non-standard methodology.

Methods or Approach- This is the largest section of a typical graduate-level award application, weighing in at about 50% of the total length, and should describe a sufficient level of detail to allow the reviewer to evaluate whether your planned methods or approach will answer your research question, and whether you will be able to accomplish all necessary tasks in the time allotted. Many students struggle with this section of the proposal, since research plans often remain in flux throughout the process, with new decisions made each day to accommodate the previous day’s outcomes. While reviewers know this, they also need you to demonstrate the ability to think through and plan a complicated approach to a research problem in the text. We suggest you work with your advisor and other members of your faculty committee to create a plan that is logical and attainable, and to describe the plan as though it will occur (even if the plan will probably change along the way).

Contribution to the Field– As a general rule, about 10% of a proposal is devoted to explaining how the proposed work will advance the discipline as a whole, or the funder’s goals in particular. You will want to use the references described in the lit review above to demonstrate how you will use the literature forward in a specific and concrete way. In addition, you will want to spend time addressing specific criteria or concerns the funder has set out (for example, for an NSF proposal, you will want to devote a section to explaining how your work will advance the Broader Impacts review criteria).

Additional Components– Depending on the application and its specific requirements, you may need to include details of your timeline, a personal statement articulating your graduate program and teaching or research career goals, specialized training such as workshops or language study, and previous research experience or preliminary results.

Ultimately, you should always follow the guidelines of the award program for which you will apply. If you are unclear on any of the details, contact the program officer for more information about that specific funder and award. Then, check out our blog post on Preparing to Write before you begin your first draft!

Rutgers graduate students should also visit the Proposal Writing Tools section of the GradFund Knowledgebase to download our proposal writing workbook, which has more detailed guidance and advice. For individualized guidance on your proposal, either before you begin drafting or after you have started writing, Rutgers graduate students can schedule an individual meeting with a GradFund Fellowship Advisor at any time.

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