Questions to Sharpen a Research Proposal

Tags: academia, research

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One of the things I struggled with during my Ph.D. was presenting a clear vision of my own research questions to myself and, later on, others. In some sense, I often tried to build a castle before checking whether the ground would be able to support it. Luckily, over time, I like to believe that I got better at this. My postdoctoral stay in the Machine Learning and Computational Biology Lab also proved to be very fortuitous in this regard, and my outstanding collaborators helped me come up with a set of questions that ended up improving every one of my research proposals:1

  1. What is the main idea of the proposal? Try to provide a succinct summary of the project and its scientific context. Aim for keeping jargon at a minimum so that you can present the idea to as many people as possible or necessary. Jargon-laden summaries are best avoided because you prevent people with a different scientific background to comment on them. Keep the jargon for a more detailed write-up.

  2. What are the main comparison partners of your approach? Often, there is already some related work. Try to explain what makes your approach different! Maybe you want to handle an aspect that has been overlooked. Maybe you want to connect multiple concepts that have hitherto not been connected. Maybe you want to improve the state of the art in a specific task. Whatever it is: think about what others have already done in this area—your proposal might be compared to this work.

  3. How do you measure success? What would constitute a success in your research proposal?

  4. Why is your project relevant? Think about what makes your project relevant for different communities: first, why is it relevant for an expert in the field? Second, why is it relevant for a broader community? Third, why is it relevant for society at large? Of course, not every project can be relevant in all these dimensions, but in my experience, it can be useful—and intellectually rewarding—to think a little about how your paper is embedded in various (scientific) communities. In some cases, thinking about this question led to interesting and unexpected connections!

Especially when you are starting out as a Ph.D. student and aim to ‘pitch’ a project to your supervisor, it is useful to consider some other questions:2

  1. Who is in charge? Everyone in the project should know who the person in charge is. Who gets to call the shots, and, in cases of conflicting viewpoints (for instance when multiple solutions to a problem exist), has the final say? Notice that the person in charge is not necessarily your supervisor; most of the time it is you. Your supervisor’s primary role is to provide feedback, and also some degree of guidance.3 In particular when multiple students are involved, it is vital to understand who has the final say for projects, and who gets to be the person checking for progress etc.

  2. What is the time frame? My initial proposals were always too grand—some might say grandiose—to be feasible in a normal amount of time. While it is very good and healthy to have large-scale and long-term research projects, you should always be aware of the timescale you have for a specific project. Is this something that you will be working on for five years, five months, or five days?

Finally, one bonus question; I added this because I am blessed with awesome collaborators:

  1. Who will be on your team? In my Ph.D., I was doing most of my projects solo, much to the detriment of the quality, scope, and impact of a project. If you are in a different situation, it is useful to think about potential contributors early on. If you throw them on the project at the last minute, you will not be able to make use of their skills, whereas if you involve them early on—even if only in a ‘consultant’ type position—your proposal will ultimately turn out to be much stronger.

May all your proposals work out the way you intend them to, until next time!

Postscript. Long after writing down these questions, I stumbled over the Heilmeier Catechism, which expresses similar ideas for discussing funding decisions of research proposals. Do check it out!

  1. I am using research proposal and project and paper interchangeably. While there’s more to be done for writing a grant, for instance, the questions posed above should be answered for every project. ↩︎

  2. The question on timing is essential in all cases, though. ↩︎

  3. At least, that would be the ideal scenario. There are also supervisors that consider their Ph.D. students more like ’lackeys’ or ‘minions’ executing their grandiose plans. Not so in my case. You are not working for me; you are working with me.↩︎