The research proposal

Almost all graduate programs have some form of a research proposal that students have to write towards the beginning of their degree. Sometimes it doesn't happen until they are well into their research (which seems a bit counter productive) and some institutions make students write their proposal as early as possible. Either way, it is a fairly common requirement.

I have heard a lot of debate about the usefulness of this exercise, and although most people see value in having the student think about the approach they plan to take, there tend to be two extremes of PI involvement in the actual writing of this document.

On one hand, there are those who offer the student little help outside of comments once the document is nearly complete. The upside of this approach is that it forces the student into the literature and encourages more independent though at the formative stages of the work. Students also get practice writing a (sort of) scientific document, which may help some more than others. The downside, however, is that students typically take an enormous amount of time to create the document this way and the proposal rarely reflects the finished project once serendipity and actual data come into play.

The other extreme is allowing a student to use a grant proposal or lab manuscript as a template for their proposal, with the understanding that liberal "borrowing" of text and/or figures is expected. This approach drastically cuts the time required to produce the document, but may lead to the student spending far less time thinking about the work they plan to undertake and following the "lab plan" more closely with less of their own stamp on the project.

If the student's comprehensive or (less likely) qualifying exams are tied to the proposal document in any way, it could be argued that the first approach better prepares the student, but I can think of cases where this would also not be true.

So, blogoshphere, I am curious how you approach the research proposal, as a PI or as a student. What has been most effective for you and why?

22 responses so far

  • hematophage says:

    As a student, I'm writing my own proposal, with, of course, lots of help from the boss. But I think part of that distinction can come from the nature of the project -- mine is new in the lab, so I HAVE to write it myself. There's no grant to draw from! I like the process, though. Not only does it force me to consider the technical details of the stuff I want to do (and the practicality, and the COST), but I have to really think about how to package the whole project. It's a sometimes frustrating endeavor, but an excellent learning experience, which is, obviously, the whole point of being a student.

  • We'renotallintheUSuknow says:

    "Almost all graduate programs have some form of a research proposal that students have to write towards the beginning of their degree."

    In the world? In the USA? In North America? In all the ones you've done a graduate degree? In all the ones you've taught?

  • La Snarkadora says:

    It ain't like the dozen proposals I put in to the NIH every year are gonna write themselves Prof-like.

  • Jessica says:

    For my quals, we had to do a research proposal on NOT our thesis research-- from scratch (read the literature, come up with something, plot experiments). While I thought that writing from scratch was a great learning exercise (and helped me a few months later when I wrote a grant proposal for my own project), it was extremely time consuming (especially since I had to recreate something similar for my first committee meeting). My institution has since switched their qualifying exam to be a research proposal on your thesis work, but with no PI input. In principle I think this is a better use of time, but I'm not sure how it is working in practice (I'm sure some PI's/students take the "independent ideas" very seriously while others do not).

  • proflikesubstance says:

    My experience is consistent with what I wrote. If you have a different system where you are that requires no written proposal, why don't you educate us.

  • For quals we did off topic proposal (ala F32 postdoc proposal style) and I got absolutely no input from my PI and did fine. As far as my proposals for fellowships, I write the first draft including experimental plan myself and then show it to the boss man for critiques. But I like the offtopic candidacy exam because it forces you to go off the reservation and your comfort zone. It may take a little more time but it makes it easier to see who is an independent thinker that can form good ideas or who is just copying from their boss's R01 in the case of on topic proposals.

  • Foxglove says:

    For my PhD, I wrote, and defended, a research proposal within the first 8 months of starting. This was not done entirely on my own - I discussed what sort of questions I might address with my supervisor, and she saw (and commented on) many drafts of the proposal. It was a really valuable experience; it forced me to think about all the components of my thesis right from the beginning, I got deep into the literature quickly, and it meant I hit the ground running for my first field season. I'd say my experience fell in the middle of the help-from-PI spectrum; we talked a lot, she gave me some direction, but the bulk of the writing was up to me. Most of her comments were of the "Check So-and-so 1996" variety. I think it's a useful exercise, but only if it really does happen in the first year - some in our department managed to put it off for a long time.

  • Heavy says:

    More of a sink or swim approach here but the older grad students help the younger ones. I pitch a basic outline and the students take it from there. After things take shape, I help finish things up. There is always a targeted funding source for the proposal. Usually an NSF DIG but other places too.

  • For my PhD, I had to write and defend, in the first year, a research proposal and 4 papers (approx. 10 pages each) unrelated to my thesis research, with minimum feedback from my supervisor. I found it the best way to learn a maximum amount of information within the least amount of time.

  • JaneB says:

    In the UK and in other European countries whose systems I understand, the PhD topic can be defined as part of the getting-the-funding process, so the student is hired knowing what their project will be - they have a document laying out the main planks of their research and the main aims. Other sources of funding have undefined topics, but generally the student knows what they are going to be working on. It varies by institution, but most places I know of have students write an 'upgrade report' after a few months of reading and trying things out, which includes a literature review, a pilot study of some sort and a workplan/proposal for the remainder of their time as a student. This is then assessed - at my current institution, via an oral exam as similar to the PhD defence as we can make it, including a non-committee-member invited in to be lead examiner, so that students have some preparation.

  • ex-hedgehog freak says:

    Way back when in the shrouded mists of PhD lab-work in the UK, there was a routine 6-month committee visit (with supervisor plus three instutional faculty), where we would discuss the plan of approach for the thesis based on the proposal (much shorter than the ones typically written here in the US) written by yours truly. This was typically more of a research plan than anything else, based on some basic understanding of the background literature, and any previous data already amassed.

    The goal of this was really, by the halfway point (1.5yrs in for a standard UK scholarhsip), enough material to say, yes, here is what needs to be accomplished in the next 1.5 years to have enough to write a thesis on. It also provided enough info in case said student decided 'enough of this tripe', or some such, that they could be gracefully let go with a Masters (with a whole bunch of extra paperwork, naturally).

    So, to answer your question - really, the limited work involved was about a) understanding enough of the literature to formulate a cogent argument as to why we are banging our heads against the wall with this every day, b) what we had done so far, and c) based on that, what was the plan for the next 6months, 1 year etc. My observation of students here in the US was that our UK system was much less formalized (well of course, there aren't structured graduate programs as such, so it makes sense), but the basic underpinnings are the same. Much less work and intensity on our part though.

  • European Academic says:

    I am not the person above, but my own PhD in Scandinavia didn't require any such proposal. Also, as far as I know, this is not the normal practice anywhere in continental Europe (please correct me if I am wrong), but is a predominantly Anglo-Saxon practice and so mostly exists just in English-speaking countries.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I've seen it in France and a somewhat different, but similar, practice in Germany. I do not know, however, if this was a local phenomenon or a more general practice in those countries.

  • European Academic says:

    I should also say, as JaneB points below, that students in continental Europe mostly come to a defined project and not to a supervisor. I.e. you get a grant funded, which defines the PhD topic and then you look for a student who fits the topic.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I should also say, as JaneB points below, that students in continental Europe mostly come to a defined project and not to a supervisor. I.e. you get a grant funded, which defines the PhD topic and then you look for a student who fits the topic.
    -European Academic

    This is often true in North America too. If I bring in a student and pay them on a grant to understand dog ear color, I don't want them working on cat digestion. Those annual reports don't look good when they go in blank.

    This doesn't mean that the students don't have some leeway on the work, however.

  • Bashir says:

    We did have a big hurdle before prelims. I'm not sure if I'd call it a research proposal. You had to have done the research already, so it was more like a report and presentation of findings. There was no standard F32-like requirement. Though pretty much anyone who was still gung-ho R1 post prelims wrote some sort of actual NSF/NIH proposal.

  • Han Aiwen says:

    It is required in China as well.

  • Han Aiwen says:

    I was on an unfunded project for my PhD (I had IGERT and NSF grad research fellowship funding after year 1). I had to write a 2 page proposal for my prelims (and defend it) and a 5 page proposal for my generals (and defend it). My advisors both edited the proposals but not too heavily, I discovered, when I went to use the 5 page one as the basis for an NSF proposal we were putting in. I applied to dozens of fellowships in grad school (to get money for samples, for field work, for travel, for conferences, for paying me) and generally got comments and edits from one of my advisors, but never was given material to use as a basis for the proposals. Writing all these proposals was such a huge help when it came to writing my dissertation (which was 3 papers, so my co-authors did lots of editing on those) and then post-doc proposals and job applications (which I didn't get editing from advisors on). Now, finally, I am writing proposals for NSF with collaborators and glad I did so much writing in graduate school.

  • Sarah says:

    My (US) institution actually had both a proposal on your future thesis work in year two and then on an unrelated topic in year three or four. I thought it was a great combination because the proposal for your thesis work made sure you were reading the right papers and knew the theory for your project. That wa s a fairly high pressure event that took a bunch of time, but the papers should have been read anyway so it was well worth it. The independent proposal came with lower expectations (figuring out in the defense that your idea would not work did not necessarily mean failure) but forced us to be creative and prove that we could work through an idea. The lower standards for the independent proposal meant it did not take up ahuge amount of time.

  • tideliar says:

    At my (US) grad institution we did qualifiers at the end of the first year, which was a critique of a paper broadly related to your field. You got to the school at 8am and saw a stack of papers, all fields, all subjects and had to work out which were yours. Then you had 48hrs to write a review. Then you had to defend that review against a panel. It was fun, but ultimately pointless.

    In 3rd year (or thereabouts) you did candidacy which was a 'first draft' of your thesis. Obviously the latter part was the proposal of what you were planning to do to graduate. This was written with input from the PI and then presented and defended like your thesis. It was very fucking hard and very frightening. But, excellent prep for your final thesis and defence.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    A proposal is part of our qualifying exam, and by part I do mean the MAJOR part of the qual. It can be on the research you are doing, but it is the subject of the oral examination. So you write a 10 page proposal (submitted in advance) then present and defend it during the orals.

    Our committees really frown upon too much help from the mentor, and I think the orals help weed out who thought up what to a certain extent. I've seen some proposals that I'm pretty damn sure the PI didn't read, they were that bad - but that's how we roll, and the second time around most of them do well enough. It's just difficult as it's new to most of us.

    As a student: I did this 95% independently - I talked with my PI about my topic and what stuff I had done/he wanted me to do... then spent a few months reading and writing about those things and others I came up with on my own (based on papers I had read of course). I really don't know how I would have gotten through the last couple of years of research without that forced planning stage to examine the +/- of various approaches/techniques and thinking about what I might do if things went wrong.

    Still, it's been strange to look back at this and see how much the science has dictated the path my research has taken and how some of my aims just haven't been completed (although many other things [not included in the proposal] have been). Probably a good lesson in the long run. ..

  • MJ says:

    Here in Denmark the graduate students must secure their own funding for 3 years before officially starting their PhD. Although the funding sources are more diverse and require more diverse proposals you still have to grasp a basic proposal. Our group allows flexibility away from the overall aim of the lab if the project is deemed interesting.

    In graduate school in the US I did not feel comfortable until I had written 3 NIH/AHA style grants, receiving funding for the last two (of 4). I think that (and luck) helped me land a post-doc grant here in Denmark even though they have ridiculously low pay lines also.

Leave a Reply