question-markResearch is a very competitive world. Most of all in the present context, in which financial crisis has made project funding hard to find. So if you want to have any chance of getting money to carry out your research you will need a good and solid project proposal. Which is not always easy.  When I need to write one, I structure my document in five parts, each of them answering a different question. This helps me to organize my thoughts and keep the ideas ordered and grouped. These are what I believe are the five main questions a successful project proposal must answer:

  • What are the problem and its context?
    First of all, you have to present the problem and its reach and implications. Show “the big picture”. Is the mortality rate due to an specific illness too high? The performance of actual eolian generators too low? Could the time-to-market of an electronic process be shortened? Explain it. Give worth to your project by showing the impact of the problem it will solve.
  • Which are the causes of the problem?
    Once the problem is framed, you have to explain why does it exist. Only by understanding the root of the problem it is possible to deal with it effectively. By exposing the motives of the issue, you are demonstrating that you will not waste time, money and effort on irrelevant subjects or temporary patches. Show that you know where you are going to get into.
  • How are other researchers facing it?
    Rarely you will be the only researcher in the world working in a specific topic. And nowadays, with all the online resources within our reach, access to information about what are other research groups doing is extremely easy. So framing your research in this context is also necessary. Because if you know what other people is doing, you can learn from their experiences, avoid their mistakes and, most importantly, not reinventing the wheel. Show the shoulders of the giants you are standing on to reach higher.
  • What can be done to solve it?
    As you can see, up to here you have putting the whole project in context: The problem, its motives and the research teams working on it. Once that is done, it is time to start proposing your own solution. By answering this question you will be bringing to light the aspect, technology or method that can solve the problem. The one that nobody has yet considered (or not deeply enough) but will make the difference. Present the approach you will follow in your project.
  • What do I propose?
    The previous questions were the four pillars that hold the answer to this last question. Here you explain how are you going to apply the method from the previous question to solve the problem from the two first ones better than the people from the third. Even though this can seem the most important question to answer in a project proposal, it will only cause a positive impact if the previous ones are well developed. If the problem is irrelevant, you don’t understand why does it happens, you seem to be about to make the same mistakes as everybody else or your proposed approach is weak you will not get funded. Once the basis are well established, wrap everything up.

Either if the proposal is one or fifty pages long, these are the five main questions that have to be answered in order to efficiently present the problem you are going to solve, place it and show the different approaches that exist, and explain why your proposal is worth the investment.

Also, if you want your project funded, it is mandatory that you keep the interest of the evaluation committee through all the text. If they get bored after the two first paragraphs, you can have the most revolutionary project, that the chances of getting funded will be low. This requires some expertise in writing, of course, but you will improve fast if you follow some advice given to and by professional writers (not necessarily technical ones, also narrative best-sellers). Here you have some extracted from “10 Writing tips from the Masters“:

  • Cut the boring parts
    Is what you are about to write important to fully understand your proposal? If it is, write it. If not… obvious, isn’t it?
  • Keep it simple
    Avoid long, interminable sentences. The longer the sentence, the harder it is to understand it. And thus, higher is the risk of your ideas to be misunderstood and your project rejected.
  • Eliminate unnecessary words
    This is tightly related with the previous tip. Adding superfluous words to your proposal does not improve its impact. Sometimes they even make it look pedantic and exaggerated.
  • Write with passion
    You want funding to carry out a research for several months/years. So you must love what you are going to do. Do not hide that. Your text must show how sure you are about what you are going to do. If the first one who doubts about the research are you… Why should anybody else put any trust (or money) in it?

And most important of all, even though the saddest:

  • Accept rejection
    As sciencie-fiction writer John Scalzi says, “Engrave this in your brain: Every writer gets rejected. You will be no different.” You have to assume that, eventually, your project proposal will be rejected. But it must not let you down. You have to keep struggling. And never see rejection as a bad thing. Study why were you rejected, and improve your objectives and proposals for the next time.

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The five questions of a project proposal
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