The writing required for a research proposal is not like other, more familiar, forms of writing. Readers of your proposal want to know:
- The questions you hope to answer.
- How your project relates to other work that has already been done on the topic.
- Your plans for answering these questions.
- Particulars and details that show you are well prepared and likely to complete this project.
- How you plan to spend the money. Find information about budgets. (Note: A budget is not submitted for Summer Undergraduate Research Grants, which are lump-sum living stipends.)
- Start early! Writing a good proposal takes time.
- Read examples of successful proposals.
- Get lots of feedback. From your faculty, and also from the advisors at the OUR, who are happy to read through drafts.
- Be prepared to write multiple drafts.
You proposal should be clear, concise, and based on specifics. Make it easy for the person who reads it to understand your point right away, and they are more likely to look favorably on your application!
While every grant application will have its own quirks and expectations, there is a foundation on which most will be based. The basic structure of the grant proposal stays the same, no matter what your project is about or what discipline you are based in.
Your proposal should clearly answer the following questions:
Why is this project needed?
In the first section of your proposal, you need to justify that the topic warrants the work you intend to do. What needs to be known in order to understand the value of what you want to do? Show what is already known, how your project fits in, and how it will move the research further down the field.
There are two ways you demonstrate the project is needed. One is the intrinsic value of it ("I am going to discover something that will help the world!"). Most projects are small enough that they probably don't have a very compelling intrinsic value. The other way to demonstrate the urgency of your project is to show the contribution it will make to an existing academic discussion or area of study.
To make this second case, you need to demonstrate that there is an existing conversation going on about the broader topic, and your project will make a contribution to this conversation.
- Read up on what academic work has already been done in this field.
- Show how your project fits in to this conversation.
- Show why your project will produce new knowledge.
- Make an argument (don’t just make a list of sources).
Leave the reader thinking, "Yes, this project needs to happen."
What’s the plan?
Talk about the questions you hope to answer. Make your questions SMART:
S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Achievable
R = Results-focused
T = Time-bound
Talk about your action steps, from data gathering through to analysis. Remember that it is not enough to gather lots of data: you then have to show how you will use this data to reflect back on your original question.
- How long will each step take?
- What’s the reasoning for your approach?
- What will you do with your data?
- Be as specific as you can. How many people will you talk to exactly, or how many times will you run an experiment?
If your plan includes interviews, explain:
- Why these people?
- How will you recruit them?
- What will you ask them? Why?
Do you have approval from individuals or organizations involved?
Leave the reader thinking, "This project can work. If s/he follows those steps, s/he can potentially answer those questions." Make sure you include a plan for analysis!
Are you qualified to do it?
We don’t need a list of everything you have ever accomplished in your life. Instead, we want to see that you have the specific skills needed to do what you describe. In this way, this argument needs to be based upon the methodology you laid out in the previous section.
- Based on your project plan, talk about your related skills and experience.
- If you don’t currently have a required skill, describe how you will get it in time to successfully complete your project.
- Talk about how this project will help you meet your academic or professional goals.
Leave the reader thinking, “S/he can successfully do this project. This project has meaning for her/him.”
What about an introduction?
A proposal introduction is part abstract for your entire project and part commercial pitching its value. The most important issue to remember is that we must learn what you are specifically proposing in your opening paragraph. Do not leave it until after your context and literature reviews, as we won’t know why they are (or aren’t) relevant. You must set the frame for the entire proposal, but naming and claiming your project at the very top.
Wait to write your introduction until after you complete the three arguments above.
Pull the best bits of your three arguments to write a single opening paragraph. Most importantly: Tell the reader what you specifically propose to do; tell the reader why this matters to you and to the world.
Use the resources below to demystify the process and put together the strongest possible application.
- Is the idea relevant and timely?
- Does the topic break new ground?
- Is the focus narrow enough?
- Has the student provided sufficient sources to justify the project?
- Is the plan doable in the proposed time frame?
- Does the student have specific background or experience with the topic?
- Will the project help the student achieve her/his goals?
Regular meetings with your faculty sponsor/advisor are your greatest resource for valuable feedback and advice as you refine your project and proposal.
Advising at the Office of Undergraduate Research – for general questions or specific advising for Office of Undergraduate Research programs. (The Office cannot provide advising for applicants to other programs.)
The Office of Fellowships offers guidance on applications for programs external to Northwestern.
Writing the First Draft
The most important piece of advice regarding writing the first draft of a research proposal is this: just get something down on paper! Once you have a draft, no matter how poor it may be, you are more than halfway there because you then have something to work with and improve. So how to get that first draft down on paper? Here are some ideas to try:
The Swiss-Cheese Approach
Just as a piece of Swiss cheese holds together despite its holes, the idea behind this approach is to write a complete draft by identifying the "holes" that exist as you go along. Start by making an outline, then start writing to fill it in. When you come to something you need, but don't have, put it in brackets.
Here is an example: "Some scholars argue that Latin American national governments are moving toward the political center (Dickovick and Eaton 2013, [FIND OTHERS]), while others argue that political polarization is increasing [FIND OUT IF THIS IS TRUE; IF SO, CITE.]"
...then move on to your next point. Note in brackets everything that you will need to put in the final draft, but don't stop to find it now. Just keep identifying the information, evidence, and, citations that you know you will need to get. By the end of the process, you will have a draft--albeit with many holes--but you will also have a better idea of what you need to do in order to write a more complete draft.
The Low-Hanging Fruit Approach
Make a list of all the sections that you know your proposal will need to cover. These may include the research question, relevant background, what others have said about your topic, why it is an important question to answer, methodology, and your qualifications to undertake the research. Once you have a list of all the parts you'll need, choose the part that is easiest to write and start there. Just get words down on paper for the section you are most comfortable with. Once you have one section written, you may find that it builds momentum for writing even more.
Remember Dory from the movie "Finding Nemo?" Her advice to "just keep swimming?" (Check out a YouTube clip here.) The idea behind this approach is to give yourself a time limit--maybe 10 minutes, maybe 40--and just keep writing continuously. If you don't know what to say, write that down--just keep writing. Don't delete anything. If you change your mind about what you have just written, write that down and then write down what you mean to say instead. You may have a great deal of repetition and seemingly unconnected ideas as you write, but once the time limit has passed, you may be surprised by some aspect of what you have produced.
Ninja Focus Approach
Set a time limit for writing, turn off/disconnect all social media devices, and keep a pad of paper/pen next to your writing space. Set the timer (40 minutes is recommended), but instead of writing continuously, keep your focus on the writing task at hand. If your attention wavers, note the thought/to-do list item/information you need to get down on paper, and then go back to writing. You may be surprised how much you get done when you are focused on one task rather than many.
Grandpa Stan's Approach
Pretend that you are explaining your research question (i.e. what your research is about, and why it matters) to someone who is interested, but by no means an expert on your topic. (If possible, actually do this and record the conversation.) In doing so, you will probably end up distilling your ideas into their core components, making your assumptions explicit, and defining key terms.
...so give one or two of these strategies a try, and you'll be well on your way to getting a complete first draft!
Refining Your Research Proposal
The most important way to refine your proposal is to
1) Crank out a full draft -- even if it's rough. Yes, it will be painful to create the first draft, but there are some strategies for getting past the "sweaty palm stage" here, and you'll feel a huge sense of accomplishment once you do it.
2) Show it to as many people as you can.
3) Implement their revisions
and keep repeating steps 2 and 3! This is the way to perfect your proposal as well as to get encouragement with what can be a challenging process.
If you would like to self-critique, though, here are a few questions to guide you, based on the most common shortcomings found in early drafts of proposals:
QUESTION: Is your question a really a foredrawn conclusion that you're trying to prove? (For example, you have worked with a non-profit that seems very successful to you, and you ask the question, "Is this program effective?"). If so, try to rework it so you are asking a "how", "why", or "what does it mean" question, one that is, broadly speaking, about cause and effect. The previous example, for instance, could become "Which element of this program is most essential to its success?", or "Why is this program more successful than other similar programs?". The important thing is that you should not know the answer to your question before you start, and you should be open to having your hunch be disproven.
STATEMENT OF PURPOSE: Is your statement of purpose more than 175 words long? You may be going into too much detail. Details about the debates you are addressing can be moved into the background and justification section. Details about your plan can be moved to the plan section. Here you will want to "sound byte" these ideas to give a quick overview of your project.
SCOPE: Does your project feel too big? Listen to that gut feeling! If so, there are some hints on how to narrow it down on this document, p, 4-5. It is extremely rare for a project to be too small. Don't fear the narrowing process; it allows you to go deep.
QUALIFICATIONS: Does your qualifications section come out to more than half a page? You need that precious space for your background and justification and your plan! To trim it, remove anything that's covered elsewhere in the application. Also remove excess introductory phrases. The beauty of having headings in your proposal is it means you don't need transitions. Make the wording as brief as possible, and mention only those qualifications that are directly relevant to your project.
PLAN: The number one problem with first draft plan sections is that they are not specific enough. Read through your plan and make sure it has approximate dates for each phase of your research, amounts (number of people to be interviewed, number of samples to be gathered, number of subjects in the experiment, etc.), is precise about what will be done, and justifies these choices.
BUDGET: The main problems encountered with budgets are that they are not specific, that expensive equipment is requested but its use is not justified in the proposal, or, conversely, that the budget is unrealistically low. Aim for specific and realistic, but not inflated.
Writing A Proposal For A Creative Project
More information on creative project proposals, including advice from successful Haas Scholars applicants, will be posted soon. In the meantime, keep in mind that a good creative proposal shares most elements in common with a good research proposal: a clear statement of what you hope to accomplish, why this work is needed, and specifically how and when you expect to complete it.
However, a creative proposal should also address:
- How does my project relate to or build on other relevant creative expression and/or intellectual work?
- How has my project evolved out of my previous creative work?
- How will this project advance my creative and intellectual development?