Demystifying the GRFP: Research Proposals

This is the fourth post in our series “Demystifying the GRFP.” See also: IntroductionGeneral Information and Tips, Letters of Recommendation, Personal Statement

Despite its name, the research proposal component of your GRFP application is not necessarily a definitive plan that you must follow up on if selected for a fellowship. Instead, it is better to think about the research proposal as exercise for reviewers to understand your logic as a scientist. Remember, GRFP funds people not projects! It is most important to demonstrate how you think about scientific problems instead of focusing on experimental details. You should write about what fundamental discoveries you will make within your field, why your institution is the best place to carry out the proposed research, and how your research will have broad societal benefits. 

Topic I recommend choosing a topic you already have a broad knowledge base in so that you can focus on designing good experiments instead of catching up on literature at the last minute. For undergraduates, this might be a proposal related to or an extension of your current undergraduate research. For 1st and 2nd year graduate students, this might be the project you are starting for your PhD.

  • Must be an original research topic. 
  • The proposal should be feasible for a 3 year time span.
  • You do not need to carry out the proposed research no matter what level you are applying at. Focus on including all experiments that make sense whether or not you will carry them out personally. 

Writing Style The writing in your proposal should closely match what you read in literature. It will be more technical than your personal statement. 

  • Use a funnel structure. Give context for the broad topic of your research, then start narrowing in to your specific question, hypothesis, and models. At the end, expand back out to the broader impacts of your work.
  • Frame your research as basic science.
  • Focus on sound reasoning and logical organization.
  • Use concise language.
  • Define any acronyms.
  • Use citations.

Recommended Structure

Introduction ~ ½ – 1 page

  • Why is the broad topic important?
  • What is the unknown or question in the field you are tackling?
  • What advances will you make within the field and across fields? How does your idea explore creative and original ideas?
  • Is your question hypothesis driven? What makes it a testable hypothesis?
  • What is novel about your idea? Be explicit. 

2-3 Aims ~1 Page

  • Create a plan for carrying out the proposed research that answers the question you are posing. 
  • Are your aims independent? If one aim fails, it should not affect the outcome of the other aims.
  • Does each aim directly test a component of your hypothesis?
  • In every aim paragraph:
    • What are you going to do? 
    • Why did you choose that experiment? Relate back to your hypothesis.
    • How do you plan to carry out the experiment? Briefly explain procedures and controls.
    • What are the possible outcomes of your set up? How will you identify these different outcomes?
    • How will the results inform your model? Connect expected results back to your hypothesis.
    • How are unexpected results still informative?
    • What is an alternative route if this one fails?
  • Figures: I recommend one (but not more!) to help reviewers visually understand your broad goal quickly. 

Broader Impacts ~1 paragraph

  • Why is your topic important to study?
  • How will your proposal advance the field of science?
  • How can your proposal benefit society? 
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