Proposal Writing for Young Investigators

I’m currently attending a conference on Aerosol Research in Minneapolis. For me and many others, it kicked off this evening with a workshop on the subject of proposal writing, specifically aimed at young researchers.  I’ll summarize briefly what I took away from it here (with full caveats that this may differ from what anyone else took from it, or from what the speakers intended).

1.The first page REALLY matters

The 1st page is everything: present the big picture here. Reviewers do no have infinite time or patients to hunt through stacks of proposals searching for what the point is. They will have formed a clear idea about the quality of your proposal by the end of the first page (or possibly two pages). Your big idea and the reason it’s important and addresses the call for proposals (read this well, address it in full, be relevant) must be clear from this page. Even if the set format of the proposal (and for goodness sake stick to the requested format!) starts with background, this is where you must state what you propose to do  – don’t just talk about the problem and what else has been done about it.

Formula for a strong 1st page:

  1. state the larger problem
  2. state what you propose to do
  3. relate what you have proposed to do to the larger problem

2. Show that you have a a solution that will work and that you can deliver

The idea is not the point. The SOLUTION is the point. That is, it’s all too easy to talk about a big problem, and then propose some work within that frame-work, but the critical thing is to show how the work you propose to do solves the problem.

Particularly as a young researcher you will need to show that your idea will work and you will be able to deliver a solution. More experienced and well known researchers may be able to get away with stating a whole collection of problems that need addressing, and then saying essentially “give me money and I will sort it”, you, as a young researcher cannot. You must be robust in the details of how the proposal will be carried out.

3. Clarity is key

You do not get a chance to answer back or defend your ideas. Try and get colleagues (if possible a range representative of the variation in the panel reviewing the proposal) to read it and give feedback. If you find yourself justifying or clarifying anything you’ve written, you’ve made a mistake. You will have no second chance to rephrase or explain your proposal to the reviewer, so it must be clear from the outset. Make your arguments strong and robust.

On a side note, avoid over-use of acronyms. Even things you’re used to writing as an acronym in papers may be better written out in full, especially if your review is not a specialist in your field (very common) – don’t make reading your proposal an acronym-memory test for them – they will not like it!

4. Come at it from the other side

When you get asked to review proposals or be on selection panel take the opportunity. This will quickly show what differentiates good and bad proposals and give you a better understanding of who you’re writing for and what they are looking for.

This will also help you to consider your audience, which is key. It is important to know who will be assessing your proposal, what their background/area of expertise is, whether it’ll be assessed by a panel or not etc. and to take as much of this into consideration in your writing as you can.

Also, avoid stating the trite and the obvious in your presentation of the problem. No reviewer will enjoy reading the same thing in every proposal they receive.


5. It’s a process, it’s hard, it takes work. Do not be discouraged.

Success rates for proposals getting funded are low. You have to be prepared for rejection and not let it demoralise you.

Writing is an art. It takes practice and hard work. Do not be afraid of just throwing ideas on to a page. Often, you will write a first draft, then file it (or throw it away) and not look at it again as you write the next draft. This is not a problem, you’re clarifying your own ideas and figuring it through as you go. The process of distilling and organising your thoughts is exciting and enjoyable. Relish this opportunity to focus on the big picture and why you care so much about your work.


6. Do not be distracted from the over-all point

The important thing is to DO GOOD SCIENCE. Do not get bogged down in politics and strategizing. You’re writing a proposal because you have a good idea, so just focus on presenting it will and communicating why you’re so excited about it. Your writing needs to be engaging, and it will be if you can communicate your passion for the project well.


For those interested the two speakers were Susanne Hering, founder and president of Aerosol Dynamics Inc. (a company researching instruments for aerosol particle measurements) and Neil Donahue, Chemistry/Chem. Eng Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. The session was chaired by Ilona Riipinen Environmental Science Professor at Stockholm University and sponsored by TSI Inc.


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