Writing a research proposal is always a daunting task, especially for a beginner. However, it is a skill that is vital for anyone aspiring to pursue a career in research. In the past twelve months, I have written at least three research proposals. I have also taken courses, attended workshops on proposal writing and grantsmanship, as well as seminars where research proposals were presented. These opportunities have provided an excellent learning experience for me. While I cannot yet say I have gained mastery of the act, I get better at it every day and I hope to continue improving. Inspired by the number of requests I have received recently, this piece is aimed at sharing some guidelines when preparing your research proposal and tips based on the experience I have gained so far.
- Know your audience: With every research proposal you write, you should aim to tell a story that would captivate your readership and trigger interest in your write-up. How you go about it depends to a large extent on the purpose of writing the proposal and the scope of your readership: graduate school applications or grant applications? Are the people who would read through your proposal experts or non-experts in the field? Your audience should determine the way your proposal is structured and your choice of words. It is always best to be as clear as possible in communicating your ideas: it is better to be safe than sorry.
- Showcase your unique selling point: No matter how original or innovative your research might be, no one would see that unless you make it obvious. I know I sound like a broken record right now, but even your research ideas could use some marketing skills. In my opinion, you do not need to do jaw-dropping, nerve-racking research to capture great attention. What is crucial is your ability to present your simple research in an unambiguous way such that people see how relevant your proposed study would be. Do not leave people trying to figure out the relevance of your work. Make it evident to them. To effectively do this, you need to have carefully reviewed the extant literature and identified knowledge gaps that need to be filled. In your proposal write-up, aim to use short sentences, careful punctuations and be sure to format your work properly. To improve readability, you might consider including a table of content/outline.
- Be a step ahead of the game: You should be able to anticipate possible challenges to your work and devise a means to circumvent it. This makes your proposal really strong, I think. Acknowledging the challenging aspects of your work gives the reader the impression that you have given your proposal critical thought. It is wisdom to identify the most successful research groups in your field of study and follow them actively. This keeps you abreast with the current trends. In this era of social media, this is extremely easy to do.
- Use technology to your advantage: These days, there are a lot of tools at your disposal to reduce your stress in research proposal writing – leverage on them. For example, you do not need to curate your reference list manually: use freely available referencing managers such as Zotero and my personal favourite, Mendeley. Grammarly is very helpful for grammatical checks, proofreading and plagiarism checks.
- Don’t shoot yourself in the foot: I understand how busy life gets sometimes and how convenient it is to have the tendency to push things to the very last minute. When it comes to proposal writing, this is the shortest path to failure. Always give enough time for proposal development and writing: it is really time-consuming, trust me – especially when you desire to put in your best. Let me drop this fact right here: you can never improve in your proposal writing skills until you start writing. I know you know this already, so take it as a reminder. Once you overcome the inertia and get started, your first draft might not be so great. Don’t give up. Continue writing, and you will find that each draft would be a considerable improvement on the previous. With time, you will become a pro at it. So #KeepPressingOn…
- See the end from the beginning: In writing your proposal, you should convincingly show your readers that you have a sound research idea, you have asked yourself some questions and have designed experiments to test your idea and answer your questions. You should also demonstrate that you have (at least a vague) understanding of the nature of results that your experiment would give and you know how to analyse such data. Your budget and timelines should show that the proposed research is feasible within the stipulated time and with the resources available.
- Say no to grammatical errors! Let us be very real here: nobody enjoys reading stuff with a lot of typographical errors – not even those reviewing your proposal. To avoid this, ask friends (experts and non-experts) to go through your work and correct for mistakes you might have made. It is easy for you to miss some essential words while you proofread your work, and this could distort the meaning of the concept being conveyed. It helps to take breaks – just a few days off proposal writing. After the break, you tend to see your writing with “fresh eyes”, and you are more likely to identify errors. It also helps to print your proposal on paper as errors are more easily spotted when compared to using digital platforms.
- Find a mentor: I cannot overemphasise the relevance of this. A mentor is someone with a wealth of practical experience. He/she can quickly identify your strengths and weaknesses, areas that you need to improve on and guide you on how to go about making improvements. Another peek of having mentors is that they can provide guidance if you are scouting for opportunities and can link you up to possible collaborators.
Mastery in proposal writing can only be gained through constant practice. The best time to write a captivating research proposal was yesterday, the next best time is NOW! Armed with these helpful hints, it is time to get to work writing your proposal…
Categories: My PhD Experience