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Tips for Writing Successful Proposals

Access to use EMSL capabilities is competitive so it’s important to make sure your submission stands out from other proposals. The tips and advice below are intended as suggestions, not a prescription, for new and experienced researchers in optimizing your chances of successfully competing during a proposal call panel review. Your proposal must not only be very good, but it must rank higher than other excellent proposals.

Writing successful proposals require persuasion as peer reviewers assess many proposals. Don’t make peer reviewers work to understand your request. Make sure yours stands out with clear and concise writing, strong ideas, and impactful science. Here’s how:  

  • Carefully read the focus of the call. Then read it again.
  • Start with a good idea. Do your homework and make sure that your idea is new, hasn't been applied in the way you want to try, or hasn't been applied to the subject of your proposal.
  • Contact an EMSL capability lead or science theme lead prior to writing your proposal. Talk to them about your research ideas and what instruments you are planning to use. They can help you develop a much stronger submission.
  • Carefully review the proposal package guidance for submission. Requirements change so don't rely on past proposal submissions and be sure you fully understand what should be included.
  • Follow the guidance on the recommended number of words per section. Successful proposals can be, and have been, written within the prescribed limits.
  • Have clear definable and actionable hypotheses and specific science objectives.
  • Frame your idea to emphasize what is novel about it.
  • Focus on comprehensibility. Don't assume the reviewers know your jargon. Expect to educate, to a moderate extent, the reviewers to the promise and practicality of your proposal.
  • Provide a measured assessment of the potential benefits of your research. Overstatements of benefits harm a proposal.
  • Explain why you need to do your research at EMSL and link those reasons to specific instruments. Make a strong case why you should be selected to use national user facility capabilities. Just stating an interest in using a specific instrument isn’t as compelling.
  • Ensure your proposal is concise and well written. Some proposals are obviously cut and pasted from previous documents. In most of these cases, they are often disjointed and do not fit proposal needs. These issues are noticed by the peer reviewers and the proposals do not review well, even if the science is of high quality. Take the time to write an integrated proposal for each call. As Jacob Kraicer puts it in The Art of Grantsmanship, “good writing will not save bad ideas, but bad writing can kill good ones.”
  • For those who may be submitting a proposal someone else authored, carefully review it and put your personal stamp on it.

Elements of an EMSL Proposal

A proposal to EMSL requires the following sections. Be sure your project description addresses each element and ties to the proposal call of interest. Additional details regarding these sections are outlined in the proposal package guidance related to your submission.

The Title

A good title is usually a compromise between conciseness and explicitness. Although titles should be comprehensive enough to indicate the nature of the proposed work, they should also be brief and understood by those outside the research field. One good way to cut the length of titles is to avoid words that add nothing to a reader's understanding, such as "Studies on...," "Investigations...," or "Research on Some Problems in...."

The Specific Aims

Provide a capsule statement of what you hope to achieve. Be explicit in stating your objectives and include which research community this will benefit and how.

The Mission

Clearly explain how your research addresses specific mission areas and advances the science pertinent to DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research. Just stating there is a linkage is not enough; you need to describe it in detail and show what your project will add to their portfolio.

The Background or Introduction

The introduction should lay the foundation for why you want to do this particular study—it is not intended to be a treatise on the subject and you should plan to spend the bulk of your discussion on your research approach. However, a concise background discussion of previous work should make it clear what the research problem is and exactly what has been accomplished, demonstrate evidence of your expertise in this area of research and demonstrate why the studies need to be continued. When introducing the research problem, it is sometimes helpful to say what it is not, especially if it could be easily confused with related work. Discussions of work done by others should lead the reviewer to a clear impression of how you will build upon what has been done and how your work differs from theirs. It is important to establish what is original in your approach, what changes in the field have occurred, or what is unique about EMSL that is needed for this research.

The Approach

Have an explicit research approach and describe the project’s organizational structure and the role of each key contributor. Clearly state what steps you are going to follow, such as why you want to use a particular instrument, what schedule you have for the various steps, how many samples you have, and when you think they will be ready. Be specific about your approach for managing and evaluating the data or conclusions. If you will have disparate types of data outside your area of expertise, indicate who will support those areas and in what way. If your project is tied to one at another facility, such as using EMSL’s supercomputer to model experimental data from another laboratory, explain the holistic view and how the results will be integrated.

Be realistic about your design and distinguish between long-term goals and the short-term goals of your current request. State if your proposal is part of a phased project, and make sure the reviewers know there will be more phases in the future. Overly optimistic or grandiose but vague statements of what can be accomplished in the proposal’s timeframe will only detract from your chances of getting accepted. One of the most frequent comments we hear in panel discussions is that the research should be scaled down to a more manageable project that will permit the work to be evaluated and will form a sound basis for future proposals.

Tie your approach back to your objectives. Make sure you make the connection between your proposed methods and your overall research objectives. Another frequently heard criticism is that the reviewers do not think you have carefully thought out your study or what results you expect to see.  

The Team Member CVs

Be sure to include CVs for all key investigators and team members that will have an active part in your research approach. We recommend using a CV style that provides a brief synopsis of the team member’s expertise and contribution to the project before giving the standard list of work history, selected publications, and accomplishments. Each member's CV can only be two pages, so be concise and thoughtful and include the accomplishments and publications that demonstrate you have the appropriate level of expertise for your proposal to be successful. Reviewers are mindful of the costs involved in supporting these research projects and focus on those they believe make the best use of EMSL resources.  

For more ideas on writing successful proposals, download for free Dr. Kracier’s The Art of Grantmanship. And as always, EMSL staff are available to help answer any other questions you may have. Good luck.