Friday, February 9, 2018

Proposal Writing 101

A few weeks ago, PVL PDF Christina Smith helmed her first major proposal on a $600,000 project. In this post she describes her experience and how it compares to other writing and proposing activities she has led in the past. (Image: "Coffee and a big stack of data", missyleone, flickr)

By Dr. Christina Smith

An very important aspect of academia is proposal writing. These are documents which do pretty much exactly what they say on the tin: they propose research into something. There are many different kinds: proposals to use instruments, proposals for job positions, funding proposals, proposals to become parts of collaborations, proposals to get on missions, and many more. In the past I've written short proposals to try (sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully- that's just how it goes) to get time on telescopes and I've written ones to go with fellowship and job applications, but this last week I had my first experience of grant (funding) proposal writing which is an entirely different experience!

When you write a proposal that goes along with a job application or a fellowship application (full or partial funding for your job specifically), the proposal generally focuses on the project, the skills and experiences you have to complete it, and any relevant past work. This includes a general level of background information to set the scene, as not everyone who reviews this proposal will be a specialist in your area. You have to make sure that any person in your general discipline will, by reading your proposal alone, understand what it is you want to do, and almost more importantly, why. In addition to what you want to do and why, you have to prove to the reader that you are definitely capable of carrying out this project that you are proposing. This requires a fair bit of “blowing one's own trumpet” so-to-speak, but in a way that is backed up by evidence. So you have to describe what you've done in the past and also explain why that is relevant to what you're doing now.

Now for proposals for things like using a facility or using a telescope, there is an additional technical and planning element. You have to spell out the exact details of the experiment you are going to run, why this facility above all others is the best or only choice for what you would like to do. If it isn't the best or only choice for what you're doing, there has to be another reason for why you are choosing to propose to do it at this facility, such as the availability of resources,  the length of time available, the time of year if your proposed project is seasonally dependent, the list goes on...

The most in-depth (at least in my opinion) proposals are grant proposals – proposals that, if accepted, give money and/or resources to carry out a project. I had my first experience of grant proposal writing last week (hence the timing of this blog post!). They're so much more in-depth than other proposals I've had to write and have to be coordinated among many more people. At the heart of it is still the scientific proposal – the what, why, where, when, and how. But, different to previous proposals I have written, I had to think about the management aspect of the project – the who, I suppose. What personnel would be needed to complete this project? How would they work? Would they be working together or separately? What skills would they need and, more importantly, what skills would they obtain by being part of this project? This gave me the chance to dip a toe into the world of management diagrams and planning resources, create hierarchical diagrams, Gantt Charts (which did look rather aesthetically pleasing, even if I do say so myself) and tabular work flow diagrams (less aesthetically appealing but necessary...).

Image:  Project Plans, Pinterest,

As well as figuring out logistically what people you'd need, what you'd need them to do and when, you also have to figure out the financial side of things. A detailed budget is needed showing that you've costed everything up carefully and have taken everything you are going to need into account. It's also an opportunity to show that you have additional funding or resources for this project or partners in your project have resources that they are willing to commit to the project – especially important if you're working with industrial partners who are providing you with equipment.  The more resources you already have secured, the better it is for your proposal. The more things that are uncertain or unsecured, the less it appears to be a reliable investment in further money and resources.

All this, as ever, has to fit into a specified number of pages, including pictures and diagrams....

And finally, you have to get commitments from all of the team saying “yes I will be part of this team and I commit X, Y, and Z to this project”, and their CVs (resumes) to show that they do have the experiences you have claimed.

These are seriously meaty documents when everything is combined together, evidence and all, and fairly time consuming documents to write well, especially if it's your first one! However, I was pretty pleased with the completed application package we produced. Now all that's left to do is sit back and wait to hear whether we were successful or not...

...fingers crossed!

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