In my first semester of graduate school, I wrote a research proposal for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships Program. I had no guidance on how to write a proposal for this very competitive fellowship program. Many websites seem to contradict each other on the guidance that they gave. Ultimately, I was unsuccessful at attaining the fellowship.
The next semester, after I had written multiple academic papers, I then applied for an NIH T-32 Predoctoral Fellowship. When I started working on my proposal, I felt like I had learned more about what I had done wrong on my first proposal and had more guidance on how to write this proposal better. After multiple revisions, the proposal I submitted was successful and I earned a 2-year predoctoral fellowship.
After writing multiple proposals, I want to share the important strategies I learned to create a successful proposal!
Start with a Great Idea
Before you ever start writing your proposal, you need to make sure that you have a great idea. Your idea has to be novel, feasible, specific, and highly related to the mechanism or grant you are applying to. This process requires not only generating an idea but then analyzing and refining your idea. If you want specific exercises to develop research ideas, check out my 30-day research jumpstart guide!
Once you have an idea, you need to test your idea first for relatability. Look not only at the description of the mechanism you are applying to but also at the goals of that mechanism or organization. If you cannot explain why researching your idea directly helps advance the goals of the mechanism and organization, you need to alter your idea or the mechanism you submit it to. Even if you have the best idea in the world, if you are submitting to an organization that does not care, you are only wasting your time in drafting the proposal.
If your idea relates to the mission, then you need to ensure it is both novel and feasible. Novelty and feasibility are fairly exclusionary as the more novel something is generally the less feasible it is. The best way to combat this is to have a modestly novel idea that is reasonably feasible.
Your idea needs to answer a question that there is not currently an answer to, but you should be able to that you or others have been successful in about 70% of the methods you are using.
For example, if your idea is asking how exposure to a specific antiandrogenic toxin at a certain level in utero affects adult male fertility, you want to ensure that there is not a direct answer to that question. However, you want to be able to show that the toxin of interest affects fertility, either as an adult or at different doses in utero or childhood. You also don’t want to try to develop a new method or use extremely difficult (low success rate) methods to measure adult fertility.
Instead, you want 80% of the methods you use to be fairly routine, with maybe 1–2 methods that are a more novel or interesting approach. Therefore, your novelty comes from the examination of the toxin in a new way even if the majority of your methods are not novel. As a result, you can convince others that this project is very likely to succeed.
On the other hand, if you are developing a new method, you want to apply it to something that is fairly well known. For example, if I wanted to develop a new method to image molecules in tissue, I would propose applying this technique to standards first and then to a well-characterized tissue, such as the brain. Therefore, I can pull from relevant literature about the different structures in the brain and molecules that reside in the different structures. I can then compare my results to well-established methods to show my method works. In this case, while my method is very novel, I can illustrate feasibility by showing that parts of my method have shown success and that the model I am using is well-established.
The final test for your idea is whether you or your advisor can illustrate expertise in this research. You could create a relatable, novel, and feasible idea, but if reviewers would not believe that you could complete the work, they are unlikely to fund it. If you do not have the relatable experience, find an advisor that does and ask for them to co-advise or collaborate on the grant.
Create a Great Research Plan
Once you have your idea, you want to create your research plan before you start writing your proposal. If you do not have the aims of your research, there is no point in writing an introduction or background section. Instead, focus your energy on creating airtight aims.
Develop your aims
Your research aims are the 2–4 research questions or phases of your projects. Importantly, these aims need to be as independent as possible. If your first aim fails, you still need to be able to complete your other aims. However, each aim should contribute to answering the overall research question.
Given the toxin and fertility example above, I would create 2–4 specific questions to answer on adult male fertility. My first aim would analyze the androgen pathway in adult male mice since I know my toxin is antiandrogenic and androgens are important for fertility. My second aim would then examine semen and sperm quality, as androgens are important for sperm production and sperm/semen quality is essential for fertility. Finally, my third aim would examine mating and reproductive capacity for these adult mice.
These aims are independent and I can complete each aim simultaneously. However, each aim gives a different answer to how the toxin affects fertility. Even if the animals are able to mate and produce offspring, they still may have androgen or sperm issues. If they are unable to produce offspring, then it is important to answer why. The first two aims are able to provide two different answers to this question.
Plan your experiments
Once you have your aims, you need to plan your experiments for each aim. As we discussed above, you want to be able to provide references for how these experiments have worked before on similar, but not the same projects.
Given the example above, I would want well-established procedures to measure each aim. For the first aim, I would likely use radioimmunoassay (RIA) or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) to measure androgens and androgen receptors. In the second aim, I would use established methods to determine sperm count and use staining methods to determine sperm morphology. For the final aim, I would mate the experimental mice with control females and examine successful pregnancies and litter numbers.
For each of these methods, I could cite multiple times that they have been used in a similar context. However, I would also want to recognize where these methods could go wrong and decide on what else I could do to get my results. For example, if RIAs did not work, I might use ELISAs instead.
Clarify the details
When you have your overall plan, you then need to have the details clarified. The first detail is to ensure that you have all the proper controls in place and your variables clearly noted. Next, ensure that your experiments are measuring what you want them to and that you are not making multiple assumptions on what measurement will mean.
Your proposal should show that you have the capability to perform appropriate statistics. Therefore, you need to illustrate what comparisons you want to make and what these comparisons mean. You also want to ensure that you have a proper sample size to prove the reproducibility of your experiment.
For the example above, I would need to have control mice that are not given the toxin. I cannot compare my results to typical values. I need the control mice to go through the same experiences. Therefore, I would give my control mice the solvent that I dissolve the toxin in. However, another question comes on whether I should have a second control that is given water instead of the solvent. For example, if my toxin is dissolved in oil, I need to prove that the oil could not be causing the fertility effects that I want to measure.
Research Proposal Structure
Now that you have a well thought out research plan, you want to write your research proposal. The goal of your written proposal is to convince your readers that your idea is novel and feasible and that you are capable of completing the research. The most successful proposals I have seen and written have all followed a specific structure: background/significance, research plan, and impact/future directions.
The very first part of your proposal should tell your readers why this research is important. You should answer what is the significance of the problem you are trying to research.
In the current example, I would illustrate the increasing rate of male infertility and the negative impact it has. I would then illustrate the link between toxin exposure and male infertility. Finally, I would illustrate that the rates of toxin exposure have been increasing. I would complete all of this within 1 paragraph. After reading this paragraph, my reader will understand the significance that this problem has and the potential impact that researching solutions will have.
Next, I need to introduce my reader to what the problem is and the background information they need to understand and judge the science of the proposal. You should expect that your reader has no background knowledge within your field, but have a basic knowledge of science. However, your background section is not there to show how much you know about a subject, but instead to concisely tell the reviewer what they need to know to understand the proposed research.
After covering the significance of male infertility, I would discuss the causes of male infertility, antiandrogens and how they work, the effects of embryonic exposure to antiandrogens, and how androgens relate to sperm quality and to adult fertility. This information would allow the review to understand how each part of my research proposal relates to each other and addresses the primary research question.
Your research plan should be the bulk of your written proposal. You want to start this section with your hypothesis followed by an introduction to your aims.
For example, I hypothesize that exposure to X antiandrogenic toxin in utero will alter the androgen pathway, decrease sperm quality, and result in decreased fertility in male mice. To examine this hypothesis, I will expose pregnant mice to X toxin and test fertility in adult male mice through three aims: (1) androgen pathway alterations, (2) sperm count and morphology, and (3) mating and reproductive capacity.
After this introduction, I will then go through each aim individually. I think it is a good idea to make your aim a subheading. Within each aim, you should have 3 sections: Description, expected outcomes, and potential pitfalls and alternative approaches.
In your description, you should cover the hypothesis for the aim and the experiments you plan to conduct, including concisely stating the number of replicates and conditions of experiments.
Your expected outcomes should show what results you expect to have if the experiments are successful and what these results would mean.
Your potential pitfalls and alternative approaches section should identify what could keep you from achieving your expected outcomes. For every aim, you should have at least one potential pitfall if not multiple. There is always something that can derail your experiments. Then, for each potential pitfall, explain what you will do if that pitfall comes up, which is your alternative approaches.
Overall, this structure helps to answer reviewers’ questions as they come up and let you play devil's advocate to your own work. The more that you do this in your proposal the more confidence reviewers will have in your research ability.
The final section of your proposal should detail the impact that this research would have if successful. Do not be grandiose in this section. It is unlikely that your proposal will cure cancer. However, you do want to state that this research would be a first step to completing a massive breakthrough.
In my toxin example, I can’t say that the research would cure male infertility; however, I would say that the research would aid in understanding embryonic causes of male infertility that would be essential for prevention and therapeutic development.
Finally, you want to illustrate what types of research would be possible after the successful completion of this project. This further illustrates the impact of your research and convinces the reviewers why they should fund you and what they will get in return for funding you.