4 Proposals

Read time: 3 minutes


In science, research efforts are often paid for by federal, provincial, or private funding bodies. To get funding, scientists must submit exciting and concise research proposals that are reviewed by committees of other scientists. If you learn to write about your research in a simple and engaging way, your proposal will stand out from the crowd. In this chapter, you will learn about the specific structure and goals of research proposals, and find many resources to help you write your own.

Sections in this chapter

Audience and Style

A research proposal has a unique style that combines new ideas with clearly laid out goals and plans, where the author must demonstrate expertise without making the writing too complex. Proposals are often short, especially for scholarship applications (1-2 pages) or NSERC Discovery Grants (5 pages). In this small venue, the writer must convey research motivations, intended methods, goals, and the possible significance of the proposed work. The writing should be as concise and forthright as possible, even if the proposal is being reviewed by other scientists in the same field. Most of all, the main goal of the research should be written in a way that a layperson (non-scientist) could grasp. Before writing your research proposal think about the intended audience; if you aren’t sure, ask your colleagues or supervisor how the review process works.

Related to the audience is how your proposal is being graded. Check the funding body’s website for a detailed rubric (NSERC CGS rubric).

Proposals are often graded on the following criteria:

1) the quality of the research being proposed,

2) the ability and potential of the researcher, and

3) the potential significance and impact of the work.

Structure of a Proposal

The exact format of a research proposal will depend on where it is being submitted. Typical graduate scholarships require a 1-page proposal with strict guidelines for margins, spacing, and text size. Overall, a strong research proposal usually follows the format in Table 7.1. Ask your colleagues, friends, and research supervisor if they can share successful research proposals with you.

Table 7.1. A general format for a strong research proposal
1 Background and motivation Provide a general introduction to the topic and include the most relevant background literature. Write in a way that outlines the motivation for the work, and write a more general audience.
2 Current status and gaps Provide more detail on recent progress (yours or others) and point out specific gaps that motivate your proposed work.
3 Specific aims and hypotheses Explicitly and concisely state the aims of the proposed work. When describing a specific project or experiment, state the hypothesis.
4 Detailed plan and methods Be as detailed as possible about your plan and proposed methods, but avoid using complex language or jargon (this is a tough balancing act!). It is especially important for early career researchers to show that they know which methods are appropriate.
5 Significance and Impact Restate the aims (goals) of the work in a way that frames their potential impact on the field. Then, think big and discuss the broader implications that your work would have, including how it will benefit the general public.


Use the information in Module 1 to guide you in writing a concise and engaging research proposal. Usually, research proposals include at least one Figure, and you can find guidance on that in Module 2.

List of scholarships, awards, and available funding for graduate students.

Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS) Proposal (Plan of Study) Guide

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) PhD Scholarship Guidelines

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) MSc Scholarship Guidelines


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Principles of Scientific Communication Copyright © 2020 by Amanda Bongers and Donal Macartney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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