Crafting Proposals

Tips from the Grants and Contracts office on crafting a successful proposal.

Guidelines

Read the guidelines carefully; following exact directions triples your success rate. Experts recommend copying the text under Project Description, pasting it into a new file, and bolding it in upper or title case. Respond to each heading in order. Sending one proposal to several sponsors is not uncommon, but each should be tailored to individual sponsor priorities. If asked, say where else you are applying.

Title and Abstract

The project's title should state the problem. Don't be imaginative; if you can, put the key words in the order of their importance.

The abstract should make three things clear: what you want to do, why you must do it, and why you are well positioned to do it (from your own professional expertise and the strength of your publications). Under this last point, give a brief idea of your methods and access to materials. It is vital to demonstrate that you can do the project. Don't promise more than you can deliver in the time allotted.

Literature Review

Your credibility and currency are established, in part, by a critical analysis of the literature, but remember that your reviewers may have written some of the works you critique. They must also perceive your contribution to the field; a grant is no place for modesty.

Letters of Recommendation

Request recommendations from scholars who really know and like your work. Enthusiastic support from former professors who can say something personal lifts you out of the pack more than a tepid recommendation from a giant. Provide each person with a rough draft of the proposal and ask their advice prior to their actual letters of recommendation.

Refining the Proposal

Proposals improve with input and redrafting, so ask as many people as you can to read them: colleagues in and out of the field, grant editors. Note that the success rate for resubmissions, informed by peer critiques, is higher. If you are declined the first time, be sure to get your reviews if at all possible and be sure to address their more reasonable suggestions in your next attempt.

Benefits of Proposal Writing

Why go through all this trouble? First, the proposal-writing process refines your ideas. Even if you don't get an award, you will have a better conference presentation or book prospectus. Second, researchers who do make the national cut feel more confident about their work. They are acknowledged both on campus and in the wider world for their accomplishment and enhance the visibility of their departments and the institution. Further, once they have received a grant, they become more positive about looking for research support and do a better job presenting subsequent projects.