Developing a research proposal

A4 ideas

Before you apply for funding you generally need to know what it is that you want to do when you get the money. Normally for this step you are on your own, or perhaps might have some input from colleagues in your research group. What you should do is gather a list of your most promising ideas and then think about developing those ideas into proposals or identifying funders who might be interested in funding your idea. You should be able to outline each idea on one side of A4 paper and this will be a useful tool in communicating your idea.

Developing your proposal

This step can occur before identifying a suitable funder, or after, or often both before and after in an iterative process.

Organize/structure the proposal. Build your case by assembling the proposal in distinct sections:

  • Abstract (consider writing your abstract last; it will allow for more concise, project specific information)
  • Problem Statement or significance of research
  • Project purpose (overall goal and specific objectives)
  • Research Design or workplan (activities and timelines)
  • Applicant qualifications and capabilities
  • Evaluation Plan
  • Budget (summary and justifications - refer back to the research design/workplan)
  • Appendix (everything else).

Some tips, based on the experience of other PIs, for writing a successful proposal

Read the call and the eligibility criteria carefully

It's important to understand what can be funded and what can't on a particular call. You need to make sure your proposal aligns as well as possible with the funder’s priorities.  When you  write your proposal, remember that the reviewers will use the criteria to evaluate your project, so reference them all clearly.

Explain  the importance of your research - why is it needed?

State your purpose and case for need up front; build a compelling argument. Cite an authoritative source in support of your project/program It's good to explain why it is important for a piece of research to be done now (at the time of application).

Assume an intelligent lay reader

The review is conducted by your peers, but its essential to get your message over in the clearest way in the available space. Use clear, accessible language. Stick with direct statements and an active voice. Avoid insider jargon and acronyms. You want the reviewer to be engaged or even excited by your proposal, not struggling through dense academic prose. Ask a colleague from outside your discipline to read a draft and give you some feedback.

 Illustrate your Project Plan

If the application format permits, visuals can often  convey information in a clear and effective way, and are particularly useful if the word count is very limited. Use flow charts, calendars, etc. to specify major tasks and timelines to  help reviewers, and others, visualize aspects of the project.

Leave plenty of time to prepare and follow the application instructions exactly!

The funder will usually specify the contents and exact order in which the proposal should be submitted. Follow these exactly! Avoidable mistakes, which can render your proposal ineligible, include: late submission, narrative too long, fonts, margins, spacing too small, signatures or certifications missing, budget narrative missing, insufficient number of copies, inappropriate binding.

You may also like to look at identifying research funding, or costing and pricing a proposal.