Monday, November 8, 2010

Quick tips for proposal writers

I am reviewing a bunch of proposals now for my panel. If you are writing a proposal PLEASE keep in mind that many of your reviewers will be reading 10+ proposals in a short period of time, not all of which are well within their expertise. I never appreciated how difficult it is to do a good and thorough job until I am doing it myself!

Prodigal's 10 quick tips:

1. Use figures. Really. It helps break up the text, illustrates your thoughts and plans, and can help someone vaguely familiar with a technique remember more about how it works. You don't need preliminary data as much as schematics and cartoons.

2. Use paragraphs! The wall'o'text is REALLY hard to read through and maintain concentration for 80+ pages!

3. Define your acronyms and abbreviations. Not everyone will remember the abbreviations you use in your daily work, especially after 8 hours on a panel.

4. Make sure you refer to others working in your field who have made significant advances, not just your group and your collaborators/friends. People on the panel WILL notice this one! Don't get lazy on lit review.

5. Make sure your proposed research is easy to find. In some of the proposals I am reading, it is difficult to figure out what has been done recently, what is background, and what will be done with the money over the course of the proposal.

6. Use headers! Go ahead and bold them. When I need to go back to look for something, I want it to be easy to find.

7. Don't blow off broader impacts/diversity statements. They WILL be read, remarked on, and used for funding decisions. The top proposals have both awesome science and well planned broader impacts, so just awesome science alone won't cut it.

8. If your proposal is a team proposal, clearly state what each team member will do. Don't just add names and not talk about their research contributions. Saying "Professor X will make calculations in support of the experiment" or "Professor Y will characterize the samples" are NOT research contributions!

9. If your proposal has both theory and experimental parts, talk about how the two parts will be integrated. Team proposals should be TEAMS, not 2 cool PIs working in parallel. If that is the case, you each should have written a separate proposal.

10. Be concise and as clear as possible. If you have to make a choice, though, pick clarity.


Odyssey said...

Nicely put. Reviewing proposals is by far the best way to learn how to (and how not to) write one.

Bashir said...

How do you feel about use of bold for one or two key sentences?

Jean Grey said...

Thanks for the tips!

I am surprised by the last sentence in your first point, though. I've only worked peripherally on proposals that my advisors were preparing, and that work was generally restricted to describing preliminary data that I myself had obtained, therefore I assumed that was key component of every proposal. You are saying that is not the case?

GMP said...

Great post, Prodigal!
Bashir, judicious use of boldface and italics is a very good idea. But it's really critical not to overdo it.

And pictures -- lots of pictures! Try to get a figure a page for sure (a table also does the trick), they really break up the text nicely.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comments everyone!

I agree with GMP, but the key word is judicious. Too much, and it becomes annoying and/or makes it actually harder to pick out the key points.

@Jean Grey
It's not that preliminary results aren't important (they are), but the most important thing is to make sure your reviewers understand what you are proposing. I've seen proposals where the ONLY figures are data figures. Especially for proposals with tight page limits, it is much more important to make sure you are clear to a non-specialist than to add an additional data figure.

DrugMonkey said...

Bolding at a rate of every other paragraph is okay by me.