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Thoughts on Structuring a Proposal

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The Concept

A proposal is not a publishable paper; it is not trying to achieve the same thing. With a paper you already know what you found; with a proposal you don't. A paper, basically, provides people with an answer: some results that you obtained and discussion of what it all means. A proposal poses a question and then suggests how you might answer it, the answer itself being either unknown or only suspected, or one of several possibilities. A paper therefore is structured around results - previous work and your latest product — everything in the paper refers to the results. A proposal is structured around a question, and everything should refer back to that.

One Way of Structuring a Proposal

Successful proposals may follow a variety of different structures. This is just one example which you may find helpful. This is by no means the only possible structure for a successful proposal, and use of this structure certainly does not guarantee that you will get funded. It does guarantee that reviewers will appreciate reading the proposal and will understand what you are trying to do and why. You may find it has the unexpected benefit of helping you to define your ideas more clearly, and possibly even changing the original direction you planned to go.

I. The Structure and General Idea
The structure should start from the general, gradually becoming more specific and then, at the end, broaden out again to the general. Begin by posing one or more basic questions (hypotheses, if you can manage it) and explain why they are worth answering. Then explain why we don't already know the answer, what is known and what is still not known and why. This identifies the (presumably) crucial gap in knowledge. Having set up the need. you then explain how this project will address it, first in general (strategy) and then in detail (methods). Finally, broaden out by explaining how the specifics just described will address the questions initially posed.

II. How To Do It A Possible Outline

A. Abstract
The abstract may be the most important part of the proposal, because it is the first thing that people read, and their reaction to the rest of the proposal can be colored by that first impression. Unfortunately, most people do not seem to know how to write one. Many abstracts are cut—and—pasted text from other parts of the proposal, and do not flow smoothly. Most of them are also much too long, and include far too much introductory and background language. An abstract is not a restatement of the entire proposal. It should be a single paragraph which tells the reader precisely and succinctly what you want to do and why it is important.

B. Introduction
This introduces the problem/question to be addressed (not the methods or the locale). Ideally, pose the questions right up front in the first paragraph: "This proposal is designed to answer the following questions: (1) what is the relationship between x and y? (2) does q control z?" The trick is two—fold: first, to decide what the questions are (you should know this but if you don't, try asking yourself what sort of questions your data will turn out to be the answer to) and second, to make the questions neither so general that they are meaningless nor so specific that they apply only to your own immediate study.

Having posed the questions/hypothesis, explain in a single paragraph why they are worth answering. What new directions can be pursued once these questions are answered? How will the answers change the way we think about the world? Why do we care whether we get the answers?

Finally, in a single sentence—paragraph, foreshadow by saying something like: "This proposal describes a study in place X collecting data Y which can address this topic."

All this should fit on one page. By the end of that first page, the reader knows what you are trying to do and why.

C. Background/Previous Work
You have now defined the problem and told the reader why it is important. The logical next question is "Why don't we already know the answer if it's that important? Haven't other people been studying this? What more can you provide?" Here you review previous work (including your own recent data), but only to the extent necessary to answer these questions. A proposal is not the place for a massive data dump and a full interpretation of the details. The key point to make is the distinction between what we do know (Jones has shown, but Smith found...) and what we don't. Identify the gap in knowledge and explain why this gap exists (what other studies fail to do that would have resolved the issue?) Jones didn't collect the same type of data Smith did, or Jones assumed something different and neither one tested that as gumption.

Again, in a brief final paragraph, say that this proposal describes a study that will fill that gap/test that assumption by doing whatever you said was needed to rectify the deficiencies.

D. Proposed Work, Concept (Strategy)
The problem is identified, it's important, and we know what the gap is. So now the question is, "How are you going to solve it?" Explain what is needed to fill that gap — the kind of data and strategy required. We need to study a locale that has certain features, to collect a combination of data types not previously done, to be able to hold one variable constant while allowing others to vary. This section can be pretty short.

E. Proposed Work, Methods (Tactics)
Exactly where (geographically) will you gowhy is it appropriate in light of the strategy just defined? How will you lay out the field program and why, in relation to strategy? What analyses will you do when you get back? Most people can write this part pretty easily, but keep in mind that each of the techniques/analyses should have some clear relevance to the strategy.

F. The Grand Finale (Significance of Results)
Many people stop with step E, assuming that it will be obvious to the reader how the data just described will answer the question posed at the beginning. This is risky — possibly it is not obvious to your reader. This may be because you haven't really thought about it yourself. You have worked the reader down to very specific details; now remind them of the original goal and explain how the data will fill the gap (Part C) to answer the question (Part B) by using the Strategy (Part D). Examples: By combining X and Y types of data you can discriminate between two alternative theories; if A and B correlate that will tell us the hypothesis is false. With some creative thinking, you may be able to come up with a can't—lose situation: no matter how the results come out you will answer the question one way or the other.

 

III. A Final Piece of Advice, for Those of all Levels of Experience

Try showing your proposal to a colleague in the same field whose opinion you trust — the sort of person who might well be chosen as a reviewer. Ask if they understand your reasoning and whether they see any possible problems. Heed their advice. Most people write their proposals in such a hurry that they don't have time to do this before submission. But an ounce of prevention (a few days for prereview) may be worth a pound of cure (months of waiting, only to be blasted by reviewers, then months more for the resubmittal).



Last updated: January 14, 2014
 


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