Describing a Research Project Before You Have One

A common requirement for grant applications is that you describe your project. It’s a reasonable request for the people offering you money to want to know what you’ll do with it. However, a lot of us enter graduate school without knowing what we’re going to study while we’re here. Particularly in the lab sciences, many doctoral students are encouraged to rotate through several advisers before selecting one. Even for students in other disciplines, it’s normal to not have one clear, specific research topic to which you commit forevermore. It’s expected that you will adjust or completely change direction as you gather more data from your research. In this case, how do you work with this uncertainty when applying for grants?

There are basically two steps: (1) choose a topic (2) write about it. As easy as it may seem on paper, I personally know that it can be a daunting task to have choose a single topic from a range of possibilities (I still haven’t settled on one). However, it’s a doable task. With the right perspective, it’s also a wonderful challenge. Grant writing forces you to evaluate the feasibility and merit of a project, making it a great tool for determining if you should start or continue a particular research path. Additionally, the writing process helps to improve and demonstrate your understanding of a topic.

In choosing a topic, try to select one in which your current or prospective adviser has expertise. They will be an important reviewer of your proposal and can provide feedback on your technique, understanding and project’s importance. Also, choose a topic in which you are interested. You will spend a considerable amount of time reviewing literature. If this bores you after 20 minutes, maybe you’re not that into your topic. Finally, make sure your proposed project is realistic. Building a time machine may be really interesting, but if you can’t tell the funder how you’ll obtain a flux capacitor, you’re unlikely to win the award.

Writing about the topic can be just as difficult. For this stage, be sure to utilize the GradFund resources to locate funding opportunities and get your application reviewed. At GradFund, we can help you with your writing style to make sure that you address a funder’s requirements and that your proposal is understandable to a general audience. Your adviser, other professors and colleagues are great reviewers to help you improve field-specific language and methods.

Finally, keep in mind that many funding opportunities do not require strict adherence to the submitted proposal. You may later find out that a different method would be more effective for your project or decide to completely abandon an idea. Generally, so long as you adhere to the mission of your funder, you can use the funds for other work. In cases where a funder wants progress reports or other proof of work, you may explain how and why the proposal can be improved and ask for approval before using the funds. You’ll likely have months before receiving an award and will have plenty of time to decide if you want to go ahead with your proposed project.

Overall, choose a topic, but don’t stress about having to commit to your topic. Treat grant writing as a way to explore the subjects in which you’re interested and determine if they’re suitable for your dissertation.

This entry was posted in Humanities, Proposal Writing Advice, STEM and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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