Proposal Writing Advice

We hope you take advantage of the GradFund tools, resources and advice offered on this site and on our Virtual Office on Sakai. Read on for some basic advice on effective proposal writing.

Plan ahead and start early! Applying for funding is a long-term process, and we encourage you to begin working on an application up to a year-and-a-half before you need the money: Successful applicants often spend four to six months working on an application, including many cycles of revisions and drafts from scratch. Then, the review process and administration of the award mean that successful applicants may not receive funding for up to a year after the application deadline. As soon as possible, work with your faculty advisor and GradFund to develop a long-term graduate program funding plan that includes potential grant and fellowship needs and awards available to support those needs.

Know your funder! Every funder and award program has a specific set of goals they intend to accomplish by funding graduate research. One of the most common mistakes made by applicants is neglecting to research these goals and appeal to them in the application. Conversely, the most successful external funding applicants are those scholars who invest the time and effort into understanding their funders and using the application materials to demonstrate that their work allows the funders to fulfill their stated purpose. Understanding your funding program begins with carefully reading the website, publicity materials, and award solicitation.

Articulate a clear and innovative research idea that is well-grounded in the published literature of one or more disciplines and will result in a concrete contribution that will move the discipline forward. While many dissertation projects may seek to answer multiple questions, we strongly suggest students focus funding proposals around one of those questions in order to fully explain that question and the relevant details to a review audience that is inherently unfamiliar with the project. Since even reviewers who are specialists in the field may not be familiar with your sub-field of work, the value of the question should be justified and supported by the literature review.

Work with your faculty advisor and committee at every step of the application-writing process. Your faculty have the expertise necessary to help you to identify important citations in your field, hone and revise your research question/hypothesis/argument, and build a strong case for the importance of your question and the appropriateness of your methods to your discipline. Faculty often have extensive experience preparing funding applications for different agencies, and may even have served as reviewers for graduate funding programs. In addition, at the graduate and postdoctoral levels, a strong and enthusiastic letter of support from graduate faculty can make the difference between the success and failure of an application in review.

Clearly articulate your methodology with the question asked by the proposal. Provide a detailed rationale behind each method and justify and explain how that method will enable you to answer your question in the best possible way. If using a mixed-methods approach, describe what each individual method will bring to the project and how the results of those disparate methods will be integrated with one another in the analysis.

Describe your work's contribution to your field of study and to the program's goals. By engaging with the current state of literature on your topic and directly explaining how your dissertation will move that literature forward, you can spell out for the reviewer the ultimate reason for funding the proposal. While it may be difficult to be certain of what this contribution will be, especially if you are applying for a research grant and have not yet begun the project, your knowledge of the topic, research plan, and your anticipated dissertation allow you to make an educated prediction about possible outcomes and contributions that the reviewer may not have imagined.

Further Reading