Thoughts on Structuring a Proposal
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
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
I. The Structure and General
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Last updated: May 4, 2011