Tuesday, June 23, 2020

How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps (a new series)

Kai Chan for CHANS Lab Views

There’s no cookbook recipe for a winning proposal in three ‘easy’ steps. For a parallel, imagine this recipe for an award-winning cake:

  1. Become a masterful chef

  2. Assemble all the needed ingredients (you choose, but make them special and top-notch)

  3. Bake a beautiful, delicious cake (in a novel and rigorous way).

Kai Chan cooking in the kitchen
Masterful chef? No.
Research proposals are similar: even once you know how to do research, writing a proposal for your own research requires innovation, higher level thinking, mastery of at least one academic field, and elegant writing in a compelling narrative arc. Moreover, it requires deep knowledge of yourself. After all, this work will define you, to some degree.

Anyone selling a quick recipe for winning PhD proposals is selling smoke and mirrors. That said, there is a method to the madness of designing and describing impactful, innovative research that will fulfil you. You just won’t find it in the usual guidance that simply breaks down how to write each section. You might find it in guidance that lays out the messy, iterative process of learning to think like a researcher—and that’s what this series of posts seeks to offer.

Because “10 Hard Steps” could be dry reading without stories and/or humour, in this blog series I’m going to work these steps into a story about teaching a course at our world-leading interdisciplinary sustainability grad program at the University of British Columbia.

For years, at RES we have had a course intended to help students learn about proposal-writing and research design. It is RES 602, “Interdisciplinary Research Design for Sustainability Impact”. For more than a decade, it has taught students how to write proposals, with the bonus of actually developing their PhD proposal, and an added benefit of learning about research design from a range of perspectives alongside their diverse peers.

I had never taught it before. But I got stuck in that role by my director, who has the wise policy that every core course should rotate to be taught by a different faculty member every few years. It was my turn.

First, I put my ear to the ground. Actually first, I buried it away for later contemplation. I needed a new course to teach like I needed another hole in my head. Then I resigned myself to it, remembering that I cherish the process of helping students puzzle through their projects. But how to teach this?

I talked to students who had taken 602 in the past, and to students who were about to take it. And I recalled the many conversations I had with students about the course over the years, including as our program’s Graduate Advisor. The biggest takeaways from these conversations were this:

  1. Most students didn’t feel ready to take it. They felt like they needed to have their thinking more fully developed in order to write a proposal for their next few years of research.

  2. Most students felt that the course was designed for someone else. E.g., if they were a natural science student, they felt like it was designed for social scientists. If they were on the qualitative side, they saw it as for quantitative folks. But even some students who saw the course as more quantitatively inclined saw it as more useful for the qualitative folks, because they already knew much of the material.

Interestingly, the old syllabus didn’t sell itself as primarily helping students develop their own thesis research. Its primary purpose was learning generalized research design alongside peers. Sounds good, right? But in countless conversations, students nevertheless referred to 602 as “the proposal writing course” or “the course where you write your proposal”, and never once “the research design course”. For PhD students, courses orient entirely around their project. And so they should.

You can see why I didn’t want to teach it. I had thought I would teach it the same way that my colleagues had. But hearing this feedback, I realized I needed to redesign the course and put the students—and their journeys—front and centre. This series of posts tells the story of that course, and first, how you do soul-searching for graduate research.

All the following posts in this series: 

Understand How Others Go about Research. Step 0: Let Experts Reveal Their Messy Realities

How to Find a Grad Project That Fulfills You. Step 1: Identify Your Critical Ingredients

Why Some PhD Courses Shouldn't Have Grades

Author Contributions: Epic Fail, or Relational Success? (extra)

Why You Need a Theory of Change

Identifying the Problem (Step 1.1): An Impactful Interdisciplinary Research Project Is One that Fulfills You

What Is a Horizon Scan? (Step 2) + Why and How to Do One Now

... (more to come)

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

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