Tips for Successful Proposals

Geology major Pat Terhune and Geophysical Institute research professor Jeff Benowitz pose near their camp above the Chedotlothna Glacier during a 15-day field trip researching complexities of the Denali fault in Denali National Park and Preserve. (UAF photo by Todd Paris)

Know your target.  Study the funding agency to find the appropriate program for your project. Understand the agency's research priorities and goals, and figure out what it considers a good proposal. 

Do your homework, but don’t be afraid to reach out.  Study recent research awards in your field. Learn what's already been done and by whom. If you want to pursue research that doesn't fit a particular RFP, contact a program manager to assess interest. It’s expected, and program managers are often very helpful. 

Write well and think about your audiences.  Your proposal should be clearly written, grammatically correct, spellchecked, and proofread. If the funding agency is geared to basic research, avoid the word "develop." Use active verbs, and map section titles to specific criteria in an RFP. Keep the proposal as brief as possible, with easily legible fonts. Avoid abbreviations. Spell out full names on first reference. If your proposal is accepted, the abstract will appear on a public website and might be read by, among others, congressional staffers. To avoid misinterpretation, it needs to be understood by a lay audience.

Follow instructions exactly.  Again: Follow instructions exactly. Some 15% of proposals miss important parts of instructions. Read the announcement carefully to grasp exactly what it seeks. And check for updates, because deadlines can shift. 

Be excited—and upfront—about your idea.  State the research objective in the first sentence of the proposal. Describe the state of the field and its direction, and how your work is going to move it forward. How will your research impact society and address a national need?

Don’t skimp on education.  For proposals that must have an educational component—such as NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) proposals—make it substantive. A common mistake is discounting the importance of the education part. This need not mean designing a whole new project; you can partner with education specialists. 

Be smart with money.  Budget realistically. Know the size of grants an agency typically provides, and use that as a guide. Include money to pay graduate students.

Get a solid letter from the department chair.  NSF CAREER proposals require a letter from a department chair outlining the department's strategic vision and ability to commit resources and attention to the applicant. Often the department chair's letter makes the difference in who gets funded.

Credit others as well as yourself.  List your credentials, publications, awards, and experience, but only in your bio, not in the proposal. Correctly reference the cited work of others.

Play well with others.  Find collaborators, inside or outside your institution. It also helps to show that you found partners in gathering supporting material—for instance, an energy proposal might include data from a public utility.

Ask for a pre-submission review.  Get an experienced colleague to review your proposal. After you've sent it—before the deadline!—contact the program manager for confirmation that it's been received.

Give back.  Volunteer to serve on a review panel. This won't give your own proposal preferential treatment, but it will expose you to others' proposals, peer reactions, and the process of acceptance and rejection—which can be a great learning experience for your next proposal!

Sources

  • George Hazelrigg, deputy director, NSF Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation Division of the Engineering Directorate
  • Susan Kemnitzer, deputy director, NSF Electrical Communications and Cyber Systems Division in the Engineering Directorate
  • Randolph Moses, associate dean of engineering for research at The Ohio State University and chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council
  • Various government research agencies
  • Cited webpage
Last updated: Oct 20, 2016