You and Your Research Proposal

It’s that time of year again, when researchers young and old gear up to write research proposals. Graduate school hopefuls are preparing research statements, Ph.D. students are writing fellowship applications, students who are trying to graduate are writing thesis proposals, and professors are writing grant applications to funding agencies.  At the core of each of these activities is a single kernel: a research proposal.  Since research proposals show up in many forms throughout one’s research career, figuring out how to write a good one is one of the most important skills that a researcher can learn (and hone).  I think it’s also important to embrace the process—as a researcher you’ll be writing a lot of proposals, so learning to enjoy the process (and becoming good at it) is an important part of one’s happiness (and, hence, ultimate success) as a researcher.

I was initially motivated to write this post as advice for Ph.D. students applying for fellowships, as part of the Intro to the Ph.D. class I’m teaching—we had a long discussion about fellowship applications last week, and some of the content in this post crystallizes that discussion.  As I thought about it, however, I realized that much of the advice that applies to writing a fellowship application can be applied to writing a good research proposal in general, so I’ve decided to generalize the advice that we discussed.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is exactly what it sounds like: it is a proposal to perform a certain research project.  It is a plan that is typically non-binding.  In the words of Eisenhower: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”  Your research proposal will thus outline a vision and a plan of work for a research agenda that spans generally three to five years.  This timeframe appears to be common across almost every form of research proposal.  Shorter timeframes generally do not account for the fact that research is an inherently uncertain process and ideas take time to germinate (i.e., if you knew you could complete the work in one or two years, it likely wouldn’t be a research project).  Timeframes that are longer than five years are impossible to plan—generally, there is far too much uncertainty in life, in the world around us (technologies, other discoveries and advances, etc.) to say anything credible about reasonable problems to work on ten years from now.

In all likelihood, nobody will hold you to the plan that you outline in a research proposal.  It is well understood (at least by your colleagues who will review your proposal) that research can take unintended twists and turns, and you may find an exciting thread to pursue mid-course that you could not have imagined or foreseen at the beginning of your journey.  Therefore, as long as you do not stray too far from your original mission, you generally have the flexibility to adapt your research as you proceed.   There is definite value in specificity (I always try to outline specific paper-sized tasks in a proposal), but the broader vision is equally important: The specifics of your proposal (and how or whether certain aspects of your proposal are ultimately executed) are likely to evolve, but the vision is likely to stay roughly the same over the course of the project.

For these reasons, I think the process of writing a research proposal can be tremendously fun.  It is also a crucial part of the research process.    Writing a research proposal is an opportunity to think more broadly about a research agenda, and to be introspective about what problems you think are really important.  Because it is an opportunity to think as far as five years in advance, you can think about the bigger problems that you really want to solve and the best ways to go about solving them.  Because you have a longer time period to solve a problem, you can think about the best methods to solve the problems with and the best people to work on those problems with—even if you don’t know everything about those methods now or aren’t working with those people yet.  Thinking in this unconstrained fashion about bigger problems on a three-to-five year arc allows us as researchers to think beyond the next paper and consider how the work we do fits together into a larger picture. It is a lot of fun.

A recipe for a winning proposal

Of course, we should be clear that success is never guaranteed.  Many factors will affect your proposal’s chances of success, including some factors that are completely out of your control.  A research proposal is often evaluated by a committee.  In the case of a fellowship or a grant proposal, that committee may be made up of people of varying levels of experience and familiarity with your area of research.  They also bring their own biases and assumptions, some of which may be incorrect but be nonetheless held with strong conviction.  You cannot control who reviews your proposal or whether their pre-conceived biases will clash with your vision of a better world.  Fortunately, a few simple steps can dramatically increase your chances of success.

Get to the point.  I remember when I asked a colleague to read my NSF CAREER proposal.  He said, “Here are some comments. Sorry, these are based on only about 30 minutes of reading, but that’s probably the most any panelist will spend reading the proposal, anyway.”  You may find it disheartening that you spend hours, days, or weeks putting together a research proposal, only to have its fate turn on the whims of a reviewer who spends 30 minutes or less on your proposal before rushing off to teach a class or returning to tomorrow’s paper deadline.  That’s life.  Remember that there is more to the process of proposal writing than what one person ultimately thinks of the proposed work (see above on the benefits of the proposal-writing process).  What’s more, if you can’t capture someone’s attention in a few minutes of reading, chances are you need to work on distilling your message more.  You should be able to draw the reader in with just a few sentences or a paragraph at most.  A reviewer is obligated to start reading your proposal, but they are not obligated to finish reading it—get to the point as fast as possible (more below on what your point should be), and entice the reader to continue.  Make it easy for the reader to digest the key points; use bullets and bold headings as necessary (this post is an example of such a writing style).

Tell a story with vivid contrasts.  Everyone loves a good story.  If you want people to enjoy reading your research proposal, then the proposal should tell a good story.  The story, of course, needs to be of a certain type, and written in a certain style (I would not recommend the “mystery novel” approach, for example).  One of my favorite recipes for telling a story is to set up the problem context, explain why the problem is important and hard to solve, and then draw a succinct, stark contrast between your approach and every other previous approach.  For example, many research proposals I wrote about email spam filtering followed this recipe: (1) spam filtering is an important problem; (2) everyone else has been trying to filter spam by looking at the content of email messages; (3) in contrast, I will develop spam filters that discriminate good from bad based on the network traffic, without looking at the content of the messages at all.  I’d then proceed to explain why this was a promising approach and likely to result in new breakthroughs (which it ultimately did).  Your research proposal can and should also follow this recipe.  Tell the reader what sets your work apart, and why it’s likely to succeed where others have failed or otherwise come up short.  Effectively, you are painting your work as so promising and so different from everyone else’s approach that it would be foolish not to fund the proposed work, because nobody else is going to do the work, and not doing it could result in a missed opportunity for a breakthrough.

Answer the Four “Whys”: Why Important, Why Hard, Why Now, Why You?  I think every proposal should answer the following four questions.  Every proposal I write aims to answer these questions, and when I review a proposal, I also look for the answers to these questions:

  • Why is the problem important?  I heard a professor at MIT once tell a fellow Ph.D. student, “There are an infinite number of hard problems.  You might as well work on one that’s worth solving.”  In your proposal, it is important to convince the reader that there is a problem that needs to be solved, and, if your research is successful, it will result in solutions that will make the world a better place for some people.  You might be ridding the world of a certain kind of cyberattack, designing better user interfaces for some class of technology, making it easier to debug software programs, or something else.  There are many ways to advance knowledge and make the world a better place in doing so.  You should first convince the reader that there is a problem out there that needs to be solved—in fact, you should convince the reader that the problem is too important to be left unsolved.
  • Why is the problem hard?  I’ll follow up on this more in a later post, but you should beware of industry “bulldozers”.  The problem that you are working on should require deep thinking and insights, and possibly the application of tools and techniques from multiple disciplines.  It should require a level of thinking that goes beyond the next couple of months (quarterly deadlines, etc.).  If your problem does not pass this test, it’s likely that industry could solve your problem, and they could likely solve it better.  Industry has the capability to hire armies of software engineers to rapidly churn out code.  If the solution to the problem that you propose is a “simple matter of engineering”, and the problem is worth solving, then there is a strong risk that industry will solve the problem better and more quickly.  Convince the reader that the problem that you are working on cannot (or will not) be solved by industry, and that investing money in research on the problem is the best (or only) way to solve the problem.
  • Why now? Most research problems are not entirely new. You may think that you are the first to propose a particular problem.  In many cases, however, problems are longstanding, and many people have proposed variants of the same problem before.  For example, to return to the example of spam filtering: people had been working on the problem for at least ten years; why now is there a possibility to make headway on an old problem, where many others had attempted the same problem?   The answer to this question may be a recent technological advance (e.g., the ability to monitor traffic at high speeds); it might also be the emergence of new technologies in other areas that bring new “hammers” to an old nail (e.g., a new machine learning algorithm that makes an old approach more tractable, efficient, or accurate).  Regardless of what creates the “perfect storm” for doing the research at this time, you should aim to convince the reader that “things are different this time” because of recent advances, changes, etc., and that you’re equipped to take advantage of these new opportunities.
  • Why you?  I think this is perhaps one of the most important elements of a proposal, and one that is commonly forgotten.  Why are you the right person to carry out this research?  You may have convinced the reader that you have identified a hard problem that is worth solving, but if you are a networking researcher who has identified a hard and worthwhile problem in complexity theory (or vice versa), you will have a very hard time convincing the reader that your proposal should be funded.  You must establish credibility, and convince the reader that you are qualified (and, ideally, uniquely qualified) to carry out the work that you have proposed.  Establish your “secret weapon” that you will use to solve the problem that other people don’t have (e.g., domain expertise, a certain body of knowledge, collaborations with people in the appropriate discipline).  Tie back to successes from your own previous work, where possible, and establish bridges between your old (successful) work and the new work that you are proposing to do.  This aspect is where some delicate balancing comes in: You should lean on your past record to establish credibility for the proposed work, yet the proposed work should be visionary enough to encompass three-to-five years of future work.  One way to do this is to include some preliminary work in the proposal to demonstrate that your vision is feasible and that you are qualified to carry it out.  It’s worth noting that this is not the time to be modest.  You’re not talking with friends at a cocktail party; you are selling yourself and your research.  If you don’t sell your work, someone else is going to sell their work, and their sales job may edge your proposal out.  We can be cynical about the need to give a sales pitch and promote ourselves, but the fact of the matter is that if you don’t do it, the other researchers who are competing for the same fellowships, grants, etc. will anyway, so you might as well put your best foot forward and so that your proposed work can be judged on a level playing field.

Be meticulous.  Make sure your proposal is accepted or rejected for the appropriate reasons. Absolutely do not forget to include all mandatory sections of the proposal (e.g., the National Science Foundation takes education, diversity, and outreach extremely seriously; leaving out discussion of these aspects is almost certainly a showstopper for your NSF proposal).  Don’t forget to read the fine print about certain things that reviewers expect to see; if a call for proposal explicitly asks questions, be sure to answer them.  Perhaps most importantly, spell check your proposal, and have it read by a native English speaker before you submit it.  Sure, we all have the occasional typo, but more than one or two typos suggests extreme carelessness and sloppiness.  How can someone trust you to conduct your experiments carefully if you can’t even be meticulous with a short research proposal?  Can someone trust your code or research results if he or she can’t trust your ability to proofread a short, simple document?  Do not convey carelessness, ever.  It is a surefire way to put off reviewers and set you back significantly.  Running a spell-check is super easy, so there is absolutely no excuse for spelling errors.

Have fun, and enjoy the process. Hopefully these pointers will help you in the proposal-writing process.  Not every proposal will win the fellowship or get funding. Remember that there are always factors that you cannot control.   Like many things in life, the process is often as important as the outcome, and with these tips, hopefully the process of proposal writing can be both enlightening and fun.

[Update (October 23, 2013): From Craig Partridge]

I had a great chat with Craig Partridge, one of the Internet’s luminaries, chief scientist at BBN, and an all-around great researcher.  Craig has spent a large part of his career at BBN, which submits proposals for government contracts regularly.  He rightly pointed out that much of what I wrote above is accurate for academics who are applying to funding agencies like the National Science Foundation, but also that some funding agencies are extremely regimented about the format and content of a proposal.  He offered the following tips for the proposal writing process, which researchers at BBN regularly practice when replying to government funding solicitations.  Thanks, Craig!

“Two thoughts to the recipe for a winning proposal.

  1.  A best practice for being meticulous is to create a checklist.  Scour the solicitation for words like “must” and “should” and  “required” and make those sentences into a checklist.   Before you  submit your proposal, confirm that every item on your checklist is in the proposal.
  2.  Get outside reviewers.  The common practice among corporate research   proposers is to use a “pink team” and a “red team”.  A pink team  reads the solicitation and an outline of your proposal about 6 weeks  before it is due and tells you where it sees intellectual or practical  gaps in the outline.  It is an early chance to find problems.  A red team reads the proposal (preferably with your checklist and the solicitation  as supporting material) about a week before it is due and gives you a list  of problems that need to be fixed before submission.”

One Comment on “You and Your Research Proposal”

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