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.
  1. The Introduction explains the general relevance of your research in a broader context. This section:
    1. shows the granting agency how your research fits in with other areas it funds and
    2. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)

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 collaborators elsewhere 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.
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Edited by: wilkins@mps.ohio-state.edu [26 August 1987]