The writing required for a research proposal is not like other, more familiar, forms of writing. In particular, it does not work like an essay where you weave your ideas in and out of the different sections. Grant proposals are very segmented; each section is its own little pod. In general, you complete the section and never revisit the content in it – you simply move on to the next argument you have to make.
OUR runs a number of different grant programs. Our core proposal writing advice is connected to the Undergraduate Research Grant programs, where students apply to do independent research and/or creative projects in the summer or academic year. What follows is a brief rundown of a basic research grant proposal, and we encourage you to use our URG Proposal Writing Guide for a fuller exploration of what we want to see. We also have lots of Sample Grant Proposals across a range of fields to help you. Finally, OUR offers one-on-one advising for students applying to our programs, and we regularly review and provide feedback on multiple drafts.
We also have two other programs which use slightly modified proposal formats, and their guides can be found here (plus we have advisors for them too).
RESEARCH GRANT PROPOSAL BASICS
A proposal introduction is part abstract for your entire project and part movie trailer pitching its value. A good introduction tell us what the topic/issue is, why it is significant to study, and what you specifically propose to do about it. Grant proposals are an ask for money, so if they don’t know what you are asking for money to do (aka your actual project, not just its subject), we are in trouble! You are setting the frame for the entire proposal, so make it clear, compelling, and free of jargon. We recommend that you wait to write the intro until you are finished drafting the rest of the proposal because it is much easier to summarize a proposal once you know what it actually says!
WHY IS THIS PROJECT NEEDED? YOUR LIT REVIEW
Your first main argument needs to justify that the topic warrants the work you intend to do. What is currently known/explored about your topic, and why is your project needed/what value will it add? It is not enough to say that something hasn’t been done before; you also have to show that it should! This section focuses on citations and quotations; use the words of experts to craft your argument about why this project is needed in your field. Focus on making an argument for your project, not just listing a bunch of citations. The goal of this section to reveal your research question as the logical choice to make in the field. Make your lit review a funnel that leads clearly to your intended research question, so the reader will see that this project 1) needs to be done and 2) needs to be done that way you intend.
CAN YOU DO IT? YOUR QUALIFICATIONS
We don’t need a list of everything you have ever accomplished in your life. Instead, we want to see that you have the specific skills needed to do what you describe. In this way, this argument needs to be based upon the methodology you laid out in the previous section. If you lack a critical skills, don’t worry (we know you don’t have a PhD!), but demonstrate how you will fill that gap, i.e. I will do this training course or my faculty will work with me on preparatory interviews… Finally, end the proposal (there is no formal conclusion) telling the reader how this project will help you achieve your academic and professional goals. They want to know that this project makes sense for you.
WHAT'S THE PLAN? YOUR METHODOLOGY
Now that the reader believes that this project should be done, you now need to show them how you will do it. Take them step by step through the process you will follow. This section is the beating heart of your proposal, so focus on specifics. Think through (with your faculty) the full trajectory of the project and outline the steps and processes involved. Remember to not stop at research collection; they will want to know how you plan to analyze the data you collect, whether that is interviews, literary analysis, or scientific procedures. At the end of this section, the reader should be believe that you have a viable plan – if you follow these steps, then you should be able to answer the question at the end of the lit review.
THE KEYS TO SUCCESS
- Start early! Writing a good proposal takes time.
- Read examples of successful proposals.
- Get lots of feedback. From your faculty, and also from the advisors at the OUR, who are happy to read through drafts.
- Be prepared to write multiple drafts.
- If you are struggling with jargon, try this nifty resource!