My recipe for a proposal

I’ve written a post on how to write a fellowship proposal, and how to prepare for the interview, before. And while that advice on how to formulate and structure your proposal is still valid, I don’t feel that it is quite helpful enough. Sure, it outlines the main parts of the proposal, and how they link to each other. But still, I see people struggling, and I have been contacted by numerous people for help. And telling people how to write a proposal is not nearly as helpful as showing them how to do it. 

But who am I to show you how to write a proposal? Well, in my previous post – that was in 2014 – I wrote that my proposals had a success rate of 30%. Since then though, whenever I led a proposal, it has been funded. (Right, so I know the current funding system is full of bias and resembles a lottery more than anything. But unless we change the system – which we have to, but that’s not what this post is about – the best we can do is write a proposal that’s as good as we can.)

Of course, the overall idea and approach need to be great and address an important problem or knowledge gap using a novel or creative approach. The proposal needs to be written in an engaging way and the science needs to be robust. But, all these ingredients need to piece together like a perfect puzzle, like a work of art. All the individual components need to link to each other beautifully in such a way that not a single word is redundant, that every sentence serves a purpose, and that no concept or method remains unexplained. You need to engage the reader from the start, keep them interested, impress them with clear pictures and diagrams, and gently hammer home the message that THIS work needs to be done RIGHT NOW by YOU using YOUR NOVEL approach.

So here’s how I do it. Here’s my recipe. (A recipe is something that you can follow to the letter, of course, but it’s also something that you can tweak. As you get more experienced, you might swap things around. Depending on the call, you might include a little bit more synthesis, or you might throw in some more methods. And clearly, there are often more sections that need to be included, such as risk or novelty. But here’s the basic recipe.)

I’m very curious what you think, and please – if you disagree, or if I missed something, let me know!

9 thoughts on “My recipe for a proposal

  1. Thank you for releasing this blog and the link to the previous blog. It is my number 1 objective in this month to be mentored on how to write a grant proposal in soil ecology as it relate with carbon cycling early this year. You are such an angel; releasing timely and helpful information to me this day. I am currently surfing the internet to see whether there is any call for grant proposal suitable for a recent (2021) PhD graduate that I can follow up. May I ask whether you can suggest any?

  2. Thank you for these great posts! I read the previous one on getting a fellowship whenever I am writing a proposal, and now I will refer to this one too!

  3. Dear Dr. de Vries,

    thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience in a very pedagogical way. Surely most of us can learn a lot from that. There was one sentence which gave me pause, however:

    “…..BUT! I am also convinced that when you write a truly excellent proposal, it will get funded.”

    That may well be true if “you” is already a senior tenured faculty member. with a very long CV and a history of previous funding like yourself. Maybe Dutch or British funding bodies are different, but at least that is definitely not the case in Denmark/Scandinavia If one is a struggling nontenured postdoc or a recently graduated PhD student.

    I have an application (on fungal winners and losers in novel root invasion/”cohabitation”) which I have submitted and revised multiple times over the last 2,5 years. This year alone, it has received the overall review score “excellent” from three funding bodies without getting funded.

    I realise that one may well argue that it was not “truly excellent” (as in “no true scotsman”) – of course, it could have been “outstanding” on all points. But no single application in my category received an overall “outstanding” grade, and I have yet to encounter anyone who claim to have a reliable ability to identify what sets the “excellent” apart from the “outstanding” based on their own experience from review panels.

    In any case, there are just more truly excellent proposals out there than there is funding, and in all the above cases the review panels have gone with equally excellent applications from applicants with tenure and more seniority – or with themes that have to do with humans, climate change, clean water or conspicuous large animals that have a larger immediate general appeal. As you say, they like “safe ideas”, and with equally excellent projects, it is always just safer to give money to people who have tenure and/or a longer history of managing projects. (I have managed two independant 2-year post-doc projects just for myself).

    No one can get an independant tenure track position in biology in Denmark unless they land a major grant – and yet, about 75% of all funding in Denmark goes to a few established professors and laboratories who then hire postdocs to work on their own line of research, which of course again leads to the known skyrocketing of the postdoc to tenured staff-ratio.

    Please do not get me wrong – I am familiar with your work and have certainly no doubt that your successful applications were indeed truly excellent. But unless the funding body composition, the success rate and applicant pools in those rounds were radically different from those in Scandinavia, there were a lot of other also truly excellent proposals filed alongside yours that were not funded due to the applicants having less seniority, shorter CVs, or not being tenured.

    And as someone presently preparing for writing one last round of revisions for applications before leaving academia, reading your “conviction” that excellence will always get funded rather makes me feel that your advice is directed at your tenured peers rather than at applicants generally.

    • Thank you for your comment! Of course, I agree with you to a degree. But, there are calls specifically aimed at untenured applicants – quite a few in the UK, the Netherlands, and the EU. And while there may of course be more truly excellent applications than there is funding for, in my experience on grant panels, it’s usually pretty obvious which proposals will definitely get funded, and these are usually only a few. This is where you want to be. There is a much higher number of proposals that are excellent or very good, and within those the cut is made, and often probably based on minor differences. But maybe my experience is not representative for all fields/ panels.

      • Oh, and I should add to that, that in The Netherlands as well as in the UK, for standard grants, you get an uplift as a new investigator. Which should, at least to some extent, deal with what you are saying about grants going to more experienced people.

  4. Thank you for the replies.

    in The Netherlands as well as in the UK, for standard grants, you get an uplift as a new investigator.

    Good for you. For the standard public project grants of the national research council in Denmark, and Sweden (i.e where everyone can apply), however, there is no such thing. The only two reasons I got for the last rejection in Denmark was “1) that your scientific production does not match the level of the applicants which were funded; and 2) that it is not sufficiently clear that obtaining this grant would enhance your scientific career, which is one purpose of the grant. With this we think especially on the fact that your project does not contain any major supervision of other scientists or PhD students”.

    In the life sciences, all funding went to tenured and senior staff who applied for hiring postdocs or PhDs, as the grant is not large enough for full-time salary for a PhD student if one also needs to pay one´s own salary from it.

    But, there are calls specifically aimed at untenured applicants – quite a few in the UK, the Netherlands, and the EU.

    I know. However, apart from the postdocs, in Denmark, there are calls aimed at “early career scientists” but not specifically at untenured staff. The major public and private starting grants explicitly or implicitly state that preference will be given to applicants who are already tenure-track – one such programme is only for those who are already tenure-track. There is one call which is officially for either getting people home from abroad or enabling those presently at home to start a group – in practice, however, almost only the latter people actually get funded. Untenured people having gone abroad on e.g Marie Curie or other international postdoc grants again need to pay all of their own salary upon coming home which once again limits one´s ability to hire other people for an actual group.

    In Norway, they have a “young scientist call” mainly for nontenured people starting a group where one must be below 40 years without consideration to PhD age – good for those who received their PhDs at 28-30, not so good for those who received it at 35-36.

    While there may of course be more truly excellent applications than there is funding for, in my experience on grant panels, it’s usually pretty obvious which proposals will definitely get funded, and these are usually only a few. This is where you want to be. There is a much higher number of proposals that are excellent or very good, and within those the cut is made, and often probably based on minor differences.

    I myself surely do not have your experience in grant panels, but most other people I have talked to certainly confirm your overall picture here: a very few everyone quickly agree upon funding, some 60-80% that can be even more easily dismissed, and a large pool of remaining excellent applications where one might as well roll a dice as to pick the one with highest “quality”. But what several of such committe members also added: Those which stood out were obvious to them once they had seen the total pool of proposals. I have not heard anyone among the most experienced and brilliant researchers I know claim that they could discern the outstanding from the merely excellent when writing their own applications or assisting others upon submission just based on the content of one application itself, without having a reference frame.

    I am aware that truly “outstanding” applications using the 1-7 system (if that was what you mean by “truly excellent”) that will always strike almost any observer as worthy of financing do exist, and equally painfully aware that I have probably never written any proposals on that level (even on those postdoc grants which I did get).

    However, in all those bodies in Scandinavia where I have applied, “merits of the applicant” counts for 30-40% of the total score which again often tends to benefit those with longer CVs – this can, of course, be considered a perfectly fair criterion, but it still means that the overall application will be considered merely “excellent” even if the proposal and research idea in itself is “outstanding” but written by a merely “excellent” researcher. And in a lot of those funding rounds where the scores were made public using the 1-7 system, there were barely any that got a clear 7 “outstanding” total – sometimes none at all. It may still have been evident from the beginning for those on the inside which would eventually get funded, but again this would be highly dependant on the total pool of quality among all proposals.

    This means that the cut is indeed made among a very large pool of “excellent” (though perhaps not “truly”?) applicants, as you say – and judged from the outside it is indeed very hard to find any consistence, except that those with longer CVs, tenure and climate change/clean water/cancer/large animals-related themes tend to prevail. I allow myself to print the summary of the evaluation I received from the latest rejected application from the Norwegian Research Council:

    “The proposal is highly original, combining different state of the art techniques to try answering important and bold questions in fungal biology that could change our comprehension of plant-fungi interactions. Overall, the research is clearly hypothesis driven, and there is a good potential for developing new knowledge beyond the state of the art. The research design is well planned and credible, combining a number of state of the art techniques (wet lab, genomics, isotope radio-labelling).
    The researcher is highly qualified and will receive high quality training and supervision abroad. He will be well integrated into the host institutions, participating in multiple events, including teaching. There is a high potential for transfer of knowledge from the host institutions abroad to the Norwegian host institution, in particular techniques which are highly specialised and that could benefit the Norwegian host institution. The planned outputs of the project address important scientific challenges in fungal biology. Good impacts that can be developed from this work relating to forestry and understanding the basics of eco-evolutionary dynamics, as well as controlling fungal disease. Some good training potential for early career researchers has been included, too. Communication and dissemination activities are well planned, addressing different target audiences.Activities to exploit results are also well indicated,as well as potential stakeholders.
    Overall assessment of the panel is that the proposal is of excellent quality, and of a very high international standard. All relevant aspects of the criteria are successfully addressed”.

    The only really substantiated point of criticism was that it could benefit from “some more unconventional thinking in its communication strategy”. I don´t know if that had lifted it into the outstanding/truly excellent category, but I somehow doubt it. I have had 9 highly qualified scientists look at it and come up with comments and suggestions for improving it, but incorporating their suggestions have so far failed to make any difference.

    Please do not get me wrong – I do not print this to boast (I have very little to boast about indeed), I am painfully aware that I am far from being “outstanding”, that there are thousands other equally or better qualified scientists like myself who could tell similar stories. It is merely that I am presently at a loss in terms of how I can improve my applications except than trying desperately to add to my CV with more publications. And just reading your suggestions and your bold statement makes me feel more like throwing in the towel than trying yet another supposed “improvement”.

    So if you are truly convinced that truly excellent proposals always will get funded and have a feeling that you are able to tell in advance based on a proposal per se some specifics which could distinguish the “truly excellent” from the merely “ordinarily excellent”, then I would be very interested in hearing if I could pay you somethng for specific consulting services and I am not joking or being sarcastic. Best regards, Christoffer

    • Thank you for your reply! I agree, of course it is hard, if not impossible, to know if your proposal falls within the ‘truly excellent” range, and yours certainly does sound like it. On the other hand, whenever I’ve felt that my proposal really was excellent (not to boast) it did make the cut. The one time that I wasn’t entirely happy about my proposal and the interview, it was put on the reserve list, and it did get funded in the end, but I think I was very lucky there. I guess all I am trying to say is that you really want to aim for that truly excellent proposal. I knew my statement on that would get some backlash, but I am sorry to hear that it has made you feel like throwing in the towel. That was obviously not my intention.

      Anyway, for the people who are following this discussion, we’ve now taken this discussion offline 🙂

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