Writing the First Proposal
There is one over-riding principle:
You must convince the referees that the project is so far along
that it would be a mistake to stop it. Put another way:
Every first proposal should read as a renewal proposal.
If you keep this firmly in mind, writing the proposal is a breeze.
Nevertheless here is a brief discussion of the major sections.
An Abstract should be supplied even if the agency
does not request one. Write it last.
Often this succinct sales pitch for the proposal
is the only thing read by the last person with
decision power over your grant. Furthermore, sometimes referees will
structure their report on the basis of your abstract.
The Introduction explains the general
relevance of your research in a broader context.
- shows the granting agency how your research fits in with other areas
it funds and
- demonstrates that you understand much more physics then you are
proposing to do and hence if the opportunity arose could move quickly
into developing areas.
- The Review of Previous Research persuades the reviewer
that you are already a productive member in the
area of your proposal. If you are fresh faculty member
writing your first proposal, this may seem difficult to do. But if you
are really proposing to work in an area in which you have never worked
before, it is extremely unlikely you will get funded. While only old
farts with a track record of research can get grants in brand new areas,
most old farts are not so stupid as to try. The usual procedure
is to use another grant to get started in a new area so that those
results form Part II of the grant proposal.
- This section of the proposal should contain both a review of the field
and what you have done in it. The end of section should, if at all
possible, leave the reviewer with a clear view of important problems you are
already on the way to solving.
- The Proposed Research describes
what you plan to do. There is a terrible tendency to put in lots of
equations (even if you are an experimentalist). To the
contrary, the best proposals contain no equations at all! If you feel
the need of a bunch of equations, try making a figure or table that
indicates the procedure. Self-explanatory figures
demonstrate you know what you are doing. (Any experienced
referee recognizes it is hard to construct good figures and nearly
impossible to construct good tables.)
- Break this section up into subsections (and
sometimes unnumbered but labelled sub-subsections). The hardest job for
the referee is figuring out what the proposer wants to do. Clarity is a
premium. Put the most important part of the proposal first. The
referee is most likely to read this. If it is clear, he will forgive
less clear subsequent subsections. But if the first subsection is
unclear, or, worse yet, wrong(!), the referee will quite properly
conclude you are incompetent and downgrade your proposal.
- There is a natural tendency to propose too much. What you want to
demonstrate is that you have clearly identified the next problem to do
(in a developing field) and that you have a sensible (if not brilliant) way
to proceed. Further if possible it is wise to indicate what are the
fallback positions if your mainline of attack should fail. What you
want to avoid is giving the referee a chance to say: `This idea can't
work for the following clear reason'. Also to be avoided is proposals
that evoke responses such as: `While this scheme might work, it
critically depends on the following miracle occurring.' Now in the case
of experimentalists proposing very audacious projects, this is a hard
to avoid. You should clearly indicate that you have a thorough
command of the difficulties and, at least in some cases, have thought of
alternate strategies -- i.e., that you are a real physicist. Which brings
me back to the start of the paragraph: a real physicist, while thinking
far in the future, doesn't reveal her preliminary thoughts to a referee.
The general maxim is: don't expose areas you are not prepared to defend.
- Note well: the proposal, while a natural renewal of the previous
research, should not appear as a routine one -- i.e., as just a
continuation of old work (or even worse, of one's thesis). The
proposal should be new, exciting and novel while
not seeming crazy, far-out, or impossible so that the reviewers can
exhibit real enthusiasm for it.
- The Summary clearly marshals the
arguments for your proposal. If you do this well, the referee may
just copy some of your sentences. Keep it short and number the points.
- Budget. This is more difficult for the
experimentalist, since it must contain a capital budget. In any case
you should not be terrible concerned if the budget is too large. The
agency will generally not be disturbed by referee complaints that the
budget is too large, it is quite prepared to negotiate with you once it
is convinced that you can do something it views as appropriate. On
the other hand a too small budget is a mistake, since if you don't ask
for it, the agency won't give it to you. (Note the one exception to
this rule: some granting agencies -- Research Corporation,
Petroleum Research Fund-ACS, etc. --
have strict rules on the size of
the budget; in those cases overasking can hurt since it indicates you
are not smart enough to read the rules.)
- One obvious don't: young investigators can't expect support for
postdocs (there is a presumption that young investigators are not
experienced eough to supervise individuals that close in age and
experience). The budget should contain requests for: graduate students
(no more than two), summer salary, several expendable areas --
travel(enough for the relevant APS/Society meeting and one summer conference,
plus some funds for at least finishing students to attend a meeting);
publications (drafting charges,
publications charges and reprints); computing (this is
very tricky with all the supercomputing being funded separately; but
some funds should be included because computing is never free in my
experience); misc (includes telephone costs for you and students,
expendables [paper and pencils at my institution], xeroxing [including
ample funds for new students who always have a xeroxing binge]). Finally
another item that increasingly finds its way into proposals is requests
for workstations/terminals. (Note: when asking for such hardware you
should also include the cost of service contracts, where
Signal to Noise. If at all possible, project
something unique about yourself and your research. It varies in every
case. Perhaps your institution is especially appropriate for your
project. Perhaps you have cultivated especially appropriate
that will be useful in your research. It does not matter
that they won't actually be supported by the contract (although you
might put in some funds for them to visit you or you them). Perhaps
your earlier research makes your success especially likely.
The main point is that you should appear as the ideal person to carry
out the research you are proposing and, in fact, are already doing!
Remember this is a `renewal' proposal.
Local Advice. Ask local colleagues who have been funded
and who often review similar proposals to read and critique
yours. This will frequently remove minor (and major) flaws that may
diminish the effectiveness of your proposal.
Your comments and
suggestions are appreciated.
Edited by: firstname.lastname@example.org [26 August 1987]