In last month's column, I suggested ways new assistant engineering professors can select a research subspecialty and identify potential grant sponsors. It now seems appropriate to share some tips on how to write a proposal that will land that first grant.
In the final analysis, a grant proposal is nothing more than an exercise in persuasive writing, and as we all know, the key to being persuasive is understanding your audience. Grants officers never want to be in the position of having to explain to their superiors that the professor "took the money and ran." For this reason and others, they tend to be cautious people who like to take minimal risks and get good returns on their investments. If new faculty members submit proposals that seem to minimize the perceived (and actual) risk to the funding agency, they can go a long way toward making potential sponsors more comfortable with financing their work.
Writing a proposal that accomplishes this requires some effort. Because new assistant professors often have a very limited track record with granting agencies or companies, their proposals must sell themselves as well as their technical ideas.
Components of a Successful Proposal
Start off on the right foot with a compelling introduction and a well-polished literature review. In the technical approach section that follows, describe your project as clearly as possible, using as many figures, graphs, or charts as needed. Most grant-making agencies and companies insist on understanding the projects they fund; the more detailed information you can give them, the better. Last but not least, remember to showcase in the technical approach section any creative, useful methods that you have developed to tackle the project.
There are several ways to communicate a high level of motivation. For example, if you have already published papers related to your proposed research area, cite them in the literature review, taking care to emphasize whatever novel experimental approaches they contained.
Perhaps the best way to show initiative, however, is to share any preliminary results you have garnered. Preliminary results show sponsors that you have fully developed an experimental method. More importantly, they bolster the perception that you could use the grant to support further work on related cases and/or data points. As every seasoned educator knows, the chances of successfully landing a grant increase when you can show the funds will support ongoing work. Bringing your preliminary results up to the desired level of maturity will probably require a substantial investment of pro bono time on your part. This is typical, especially for experimentalists.
Together, citations of prior publications and preliminary results offer strong evidence that you are not just chasing money, but rather pursuing an established, principal area of research interest. Once you convince potential sponsors of this fact, they will begin to view your proposal as a low-risk investment.
The average success rate for research proposals to government agencies is between 20 and 30 percent. In the early stages of your career, strive to beat these percentages, but realize that you're not going to win every attempt. Having a proposal rejected is never pleasant, but the most important thing is to learn from the submission, make the document even better, and try again. Good luck.
For information on research funding opportunities, check out the ASEE Engineering Research Council Web site located at www.egr.msu.edu/ASEE.
Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council and associate dean for research at Johns Hopkins University. The opinions in this article are solely his.