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Eight Tips for Successful Research Proposals


Dr. Zachary M. Wilmot, Associate Editor

June 2022

One of the most time-consuming yet essential tasks for researchers at all stages of their careers is writing research proposals, such as those required to win grants, gain approval from institutional review boards, or impress dissertation committees. In a research proposal, the author has to convince a clearly defined audience tasked with evaluating their work that their research has merit, and that the author deserves funding, approval, or passage into the next stage of their career. In many cases, research proposals are evaluated in comparison with each other, and for a proposal to succeed it needs to stand out.

The best way to ensure that a proposal fulfills its purpose is to make sure that your proposal makes an impact on its audience. Below are eight tips for writing an impactful proposal that will stand out from the crowd.

1. Be clear.

Though this is good advice in all types of academic writing, clarity is especially important in research proposals. Above all else, a research proposal needs to be understood by everyone reading and evaluating it, even if they are not specialists in the relevant field. If a proposal cannot be understood, it may be rejected before being fully considered. While the proper use of scientific terminology can show familiarity with the field, authors should make sure that they define all field-specific terminology and present their proposal in a way that is easily understood by everyone who might be evaluating it; research proposals are not a good place to use the obscure language and jargon that many fields of academia are notorious for. Direct, simple language is best.

2. Know your audience.

Most academic writing is directed toward a very specific audience. In the case of research articles, this audience usually consists of specialists in a particular field of study who are looking to keep track of new developments that may be relevant to their own research interests. The audience of a research proposal is different; it consists of a smaller number of people who may not be knowledgeable in the relevant field. Furthermore, the individuals reading a proposal are looking to evaluate it and, in many cases, are explicitly seeking out reasons to reject it.

Thus, a research proposal should speak directly to this audience. This not only includes making sure that the language used is understandable by someone only somewhat familiar with the topic, but also includes anticipating the reviewers’ concerns and addressing them in the proposal itself. Carefully examining the weaknesses of a proposal and making sure that they are all are addressed can go a long way toward making a proposal more likely to be approved.

If the entity evaluating the proposal has requested specific formatting or a specific style of organization, it should be followed strictly. The proposal’s audience may be looking through hundreds of proposals, and will be expecting them all to be in the same format so that they are easily processed. An improperly formatted and poorly organized proposal may cause confusion or be seen as disrespectful.

3. Be ambitious.

To leave an impression, research proposals should be ambitious. A proposal is more likely to catch the attention of a reviewer if it aims high. In a proposal, authors should underscore the concrete things that the research will accomplish and emphasize what future research it will make possible. Authors should shape their proposals so that they promise as much as possible while still being feasible. This is especially important for funding and grant proposals; those evaluating this type of proposal will want to make sure that they get the best value possible for their resources, and so will likely be impressed by ambition. However, too much ambition can backfire, which leads the next tip.

4. Be realistic.

While a proposal should be ambitious, it should also be realistic and doable. Those evaluating a proposal will expect its authors to deliver on their promises, and if a project seems too ambitious to accomplish, they may reject it in favor of a proposal whose research seems more likely to be successfully completed. Knowing one’s own limits is key to evaluating how realistic a proposal is, and one should make sure that their proposal’s ambition does not surpass their capabilities.

Being realistic is a safe way to leave a positive impression on one’s readers. One way to demonstrate an attention to feasibility is to be meticulous when outlining the research plan. This includes laying out clear, carefully thought-out steps that have ample time and resources dedicated to them. By doing this, it is possible for authors to make a positive impact by demonstrating that they are aware of their own limits and have a clear plan for achieving their goals.

5. Prove that you are uniquely qualified to undertake the research.

The proposal itself is not the only thing that should leave an impact on its audience; the author themselves should also make an impact. In a proposal, authors can do this by making sure that their credentials and experience are clearly laid out, and that the applicability of their expertise is well-explained. This is related to being realistic; the reviewers should have confidence that the author has the ability to carry their research out.

To make a larger impact, authors should go a step further. Not only should they prove they are able to perform the research, they should also demonstrate that they have a unique set of experiences and qualifications that make them better able to do the research than anyone else. Often, this involves highlighting unusual experiences, skills, and backgrounds, as well as emphasizing how combinations of these make the author the best person to undertake the research in question. One way to do this is to highlight relevant and related work that the author has already undertaken, whether in the form of previous publications or preliminary research. This shows not only that the research itself is feasible, but also that the author is able to carry it out in a way that no one else could.

6. Make your proposal relevant.

Another way to make a proposal impactful is to emphasize its relevance. The research being proposed should speak to some pressing issue that is relevant not only to the proposal’s reviewers, but also to the field that the proposed research is in. This relevance can take many forms; one simple way to make a proposal relevant is to highlight how it contributes to the current literature by addressing a longstanding question, exploring something new, or adding to an active conversation in the field. However, while properly situating a proposal within the existing body of research is effective, this does require keeping track of the current state of the field.

A proposal can also be made relevant by connecting it to current events. Though this is more often done in the social sciences and humanities than in STEM fields, some areas of research are made more urgent by non-academic events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or natural disasters.

7. Emphasize your proposal’s novelty.

Often, part of making sure a proposal relevant involves connecting it to existing literature and underscoring how it contributes to an ongoing conversation. However, a good proposal should also be novel; it should propose something new that has never been done before. An impactful proposal is one that brings its novelty to the forefront, and explicitly tells its readers what new thing(s) it will contribute. Even if a proposal’s primary focus is not novel, emphasizing anything novel about the proposed research will increase its chances of approval, whether it is introducing a new method or technique, applying a fresh perspective to an old question, or answering a question that has never been asked. In almost all situations, the audience of a research proposal will want to know what the proposed research will do to advance scholarship, and emphasizing novelty is the best way to show them.

8. Ensure your proposal is well-edited.

As with all academic writing, good presentation is important. For research proposals, this is particularly important. A professional-looking and well-edited proposal will make a good first impression on its reader, and make them more inclined to take it seriously. Authors should make sure to follow all formatting guidelines and carefully check their grammar, spelling, and punctuation to ensure that they come across as professionals with respect for the reviewers’ time. If you are writing a proposal and are worried about language errors or missing details, try hiring a professional editing service like LetPub.

With these eight tips in mind, you can be sure that your proposal will make an impact and have a good chance of being successful.

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