Writing a Research Proposal

Post date: May 27, 2014 5:05:15 PM

by Jennifer DeLeon

Attaining a coveted academic professorship position is the shared goal of many graduate students and post-docs with aspirations of extending their academic research careers at top-tier universities. However, with few job openings and an increasing number of Ph.D.s entering the workforce, scientists are taking lengthier post-doctoral training to hone their technical skills and develop their individual research plans. Part of the interview process for a faculty job includes writing and presenting a clear research proposal. A great research proposal is a critical element for landing your first job.

The research proposal is a written plan which will detail your past experience in your post-doc training, summarize your important findings (highlighting publications and grantsmanship), and propose the research you intend to continue in your new position. As part of a series of lectures hosted by the Center for Inclusive Education, recently appointed faculty member Dr. Benjamin Martin of the Biochemistry and Cell Biology department at Stony Brook University, gave his advice on preparing a research proposal for an academic faculty position. Having recently been through the interviewing process and now serving on the search committee for new faculty, Dr. Martin offered the following tips on how to effectively and distinctively convey your research goals in your research proposal.

1. Make a good first impression. Your application is likely to be one of hundreds that an overworked search committee must sift through. Follow the application instructions carefully, and make sure your application is free of factual, grammatical, and spelling errors.

2. Start with a very broad introduction. Introduce your work with a broad statement about the problem you intend to work on, indicating the key unanswered questions. It’s likely the search committee will consist of faculty members with varying expertise. Clearly explain why your research is important!

3. Outline your research aims. Following your introduction, you should move into more detail about your specific project aims. This section should comprise 50-70% of the proposal. Propose several aims that address a range of fundamental questions within your discipline. Demonstrate that you have the necessary background to achieve what you propose. Highlight the unique techniques, approach, or system that you will be utilizing and can bring to the institution.

4. Aims should be both creative and realistic, and you can propose one of each kind. The first and more realistic project should be what you plan to work on after you arrive to your new institution. A second project can be included, but is not essential; it can be more risky or creative and should indicate the broad applicability of your system or research techniques.

5. Highlight your postdoctoral research accomplishments. Include a summary of your postdoctoral research, with an emphasis on what is novel and important. Reference your publications such as manuscripts and reviews, which have been accepted, submitted, or in press.

6. Include ‘easy-to-understand’ figures. Figures can help make your proposal more interesting to the search committee, who will be wading through hundreds of proposals. Use figures effectively by embedding them in the text.

It’s important to remember that a research proposal should be only a few pages in length (2-6 unless otherwise stated in the application). When preparing your application remember to be clear and concise in your writing to effectively communicate the importance and novelty of your research to the search committee.

For more tips on writing research proposals and other information for post-docs and new faculty the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has many resources for early career scientists such as the book, “Making the Right Moves, A practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty”.