Writing an effective SURF Proposal

Susanne Hall, Hixon Writing Center Coordinator
Student presenters: Nerissa Hoglen, Jon Schor
February 2013
Common goals of a research proposal
• Introduce proposed research
• Provide background and explain rationale for study
• Describe methodology and explain its rationale
• Propose a timeline
• Propose a budget*
• Provide preliminary results*
• Anticipate possible outcomes
* These are not goals for a typical SURF proposal
Why do scientists write proposals?
1. Intellectual reason: The process of writing the proposal
is a process of idea creation and development
2. Rhetorical reason: To convince readers that the
project is worth the time, money and energy it will
demand from everyone involved
Idea creation and development
• Writing is a mode of thinking, a method of discovery
• Margot Gerritsen, Stanford, Energy Resources
• http://www.stanford.edu/dept/undergrad/cgi-
Persuading readers
• We believe strongly in the importance of discovery, but…
• Scientific research often requires specialized
equipment/resources and can be very expensive
LIGO will detect the ripples in space-time by using a device called
a laser interferometer, in which the time it takes light to travel
between suspended mirrors is measured with high precision using
controlled laser light.
External grants make most
scientific discovery possible
Example: NSF funding to Caltech in 2012
• Caltech #10 in institutional funding from NSF in 2012
$30,400,000 was given to Caltech in 2012
to help administer the LIGO project alone
View Caltech NSF funding by project at http://dellweb.bfa.nsf.gov/Top50Inst2/default.asp
Rhetorical goals of the SURF proposal
• Clearly explain what you plan to do in your research
• Make the case that this work is necessary/useful
• Show that you have a plan for carrying out the work
• Demonstrate that you are well-prepared and capable of
carrying out the plan
Proposal Parts
• Introduction/background
• Objectives
• Approach
• Work Plan
• References
Parts: Introduction/background
• What is the problem you are trying to solve? How did the
problem arise?
• Why is solving this problem interesting or important?
• What previous work has been done to define and address
the problem?
• How does your work fit into the larger ongoing work of
your mentor? How will your work contribute to that larger
Parts: Objectives
• What do you aim to accomplish? (Be specific.)
• What will you measure, calculate, model, or simulate?
Under what conditions?
• What assumptions or conditions will guide and/or limit
your work?
• What are your criteria for success?
Parts: Approach
• How will you accomplish your objectives? (Be specific.)
• What are the key steps or milestones for your work? How
long will each take?
• What challenges do you anticipate, and how will you
respond to them?
• What equipment or other resources will you need?
Parts: Work Plan
• Offer your reader a schedule of your principle activities
and milestones
Parts: References
• List all research articles, review articles, and other writing
you have consulted to prepare your proposal
• If you have incorporated writing or language from
prospective mentors or peers, attribute those sources
• Use a consistent citation system, as recommended by
your prospective mentor
• Prospective mentor (has high level of specialized
• Outside evaluators (have less specialized knowledge)
• Reviewers will consider
• Is the proposal well thought out?
• Has the student given a clear statement of what s/he will do?
• Does the student have the skills/knowledge/enthusiasm to be
• Is the student likely to achieve the goals?
• Is the project plan realistic?
• Does the research have the potential for publication in a referreed
journal or presentation at an academic conference?
• Write in academic English with the goals of clarity,
concision, and accuracy
• Use the first person for describing what you have done or will do,
but do not overuse it
Use the active voice and active verbs
Use past tense for observations, completed actions, and specific
Use present tense for generalizations and statements of general
Write short sentences; aim for one main idea per sentence
Avoid noun clusters
Use clear pronouns
• Meet with mentors and/or co-mentors
• Ask questions
• Get references
• Read papers
• Write a proposal draft
• Solicit feedback on your draft
• From mentors
• From peers and Hixon Writing Center tutors
Writing is not a
process—it is a
cycle of
thinking, talking
responding to
feedback, and
• Revise
• Submit proposal, application, and recommendations to
SURF by February 22nd, 2013
Questions, comments?
• Hixon Writing Center
• Professional and peer tutors available for one-to-one conversations
• Most sessions occur in SFL 318
• Information about appointments: writing.caltech.edu/appointments
• Make an appointment: access.caltech.edu (Writing Center
• This presentation will we posted on the SURF website

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