It is definitely true that proposal writing, editing, and evaluation are skills that can be developed over time. I say that with just a N=1 (me), but I’ve seen it amongst others, too, and several mentors have suggested as much.
So how do you advise a student writing their first research proposal, particularly if they’re just in their first year?
I’m running into this problem now, as I’m working with students on their writing and their conceptual understanding of biology. To be clear, these are good students, but writing quality (winning!) grant proposals can be a tough business. How much do I push at this very beginning stage so that they learn, but aren’t completely put off by the process?
As an undergrad, I remember writing these, and I very much appreciate the care my mentors showed me, especially in assuring me that a page stained blood-red didn’t mean bad. Looking back, I wasn’t deterred by the redness, so much as I was so green to the process. I remember thinking, “Why do I have to convince someone so hard to invest money in this? It’s COOL! Don’t you see?! Grumble, grumble.”— and off I’d go to redraft. (The process and feelings are a bit less exaggerated, but essentially the same now, with perhaps fewer drafts).
So, we’ve been playing a bit with a few techniques to get my students to really ‘get’ how proposals are written. I haven’t found the perfect solution, but here’s how various approaches have fared:
- Past Proposals: I’ve been able to share some similarly-formatted documents and ask them to look for patterns across the documents. Even when I’ve tried vastly different methodological/scientific questions, the students focused too much on *what* is done, vs. *why* anyone should do it. Still, it was somewhat useful for getting the references formatted and length about right. Verdict: C
- Reviews (or very good intros to primary lit): These tend to help the students get the tone/intro right, and to an extent, why one should care about doing this at all. Still, the papers aren’t as punchy with ‘why’ (as compared to grants), so this still requires a bit more of a push. Even though these papers often lack methods, when mentioned briefly, it’s a nice example for students. Verdict: B
- Peer-Reviews/Editing: This takes a bit to set up, but peer-edits can help cut down on basic grammatical edits and see where non-experts reviewing these proposals might get hung up on part of the idea. The science advisement isn’t necessarily there (unless you’ve got an unbalanced pairing and/or experienced students), but it can still help to at least reduce the number of drafts. Verdict: C
- Campus Writing Centers: Having students go to the writing center can mimic peer-review within lab, and often the turn-around time is much faster. Again, the science advisement may not be there, but editing for clarity, brevity, and general grammar will be taken care of so that you can focus on the science when it’s on your desk. Verdict: B
- TEDTalks: It may be weird, but having students listen to how talks are kicked-off can give them the idea of how to write a pretty good proposal (Simon Sinek’s Start with Why is a favorite). It’s a different medium which still requires translation to written word and adding in the technical elements, but this tends to ‘get the creative juices flowing’. Verdict: B
What have you used? What would you suggest to others? Please share!