January 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 1

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Grant Writing in the Discipline:
What Makes for a Successful Proposal?

Jan E. Stets, University of California-Riverside

I have been asked to share some thoughts regarding getting a proposal funded in the discipline. My reflections stem from my involvement with the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the past 12 years as a recipient of NSF grants, NSF reviewer, participant on NSF disciplinary and interdisciplinary panels, and NSF Sociology Program Director (2008-10). NSF funds basic science. Thus, what I discuss below applies more to researchers with this agenda.

Proposal Preparation

Every funding agency has different policies regarding what should be submitted, the way in which it should be submitted, the submission deadline, and the particular criteria for evaluating the submission. Read and follow these guidelines carefully. Neglecting to do so could result in a proposal being returned without review. Read prior proposals that have received funding and talk with individuals who have received funding. This can provide insight into what makes for a successful proposal. Discuss one’s proposed project with colleagues. Feedback from colleagues may help identify critical weaknesses that may need to be addressed before the project is submitted. Also, consider piloting the proposed project or obtaining preliminary data. This provides useful feedback as to whether the project is feasible, and whether it will adequately address the research hypotheses that are posed. Assuming the pilot shows a sound project, this gives a funding agency confidence in supporting the research.

Proposal Writing

There are four important components to a successful proposal: It should be theoretically motivated, methodologically sound, makes an important contribution to the discipline, and evidences some benefit to society. The proposed project should be using or developing existing macro or micro sociological theory to explain a phenomenon under study. Take the proposal seriously; don’t try to be clever in your titles when applying for a federal grant.

Whether the methodological approach is quantitative, qualitative, or a mixed method, the method should answer the theoretically-driven research hypotheses. The results should evidence some advance in understanding a social process as well as provide some insight into how it will improve society. The sociological advance need not be extraordinary, but it should be sufficient enough to warrant a financial investment from a funding agency.

More generally, when writing a proposal, the following issues should be kept in mind. Allocate enough time to writing and submitting the proposal. Waiting until the last minute will compromise the quality of the proposal and the probability of it being funded. A proposal should be organized in its framework and logical in its development. Sufficient detail should be provided on all aspect of the project including the theory, hypotheses, method, data analysis, and timeline for the project. A proposal that lacks sufficient detail is a "trust me" proposal that is unlikely to get funded.

Budget items should logically follow from the research. They also should be consistent with the funding agency’s guidelines. Asking for funds that exceed what is necessary to carry out a project runs the risk of looking greedy and may unwittingly affect the evaluation process in a negative way. On the other hand, not asking enough to complete the project also invites problems. Assess what is reasonably needed and then justify it. It is important to work closely with the sponsored research office at one’s university when setting up the budget.

A researcher will want to demonstrate that he or she is well-qualified to carry out the proposed project. This may involve discussing or citing previous research that one has carried out that directly relates to the proposed project. Reporting pilot work also helps demonstrate one’s competency to conduct the proposed activity.


Be persistent despite rejection. Most researchers do not get their work funded at the outset. Reviewers may ask researchers to rethink their theory, research design, or analytic procedures. Alternatively, they may evaluate the project as overly ambitious and ask that it be scaled back. Or, they may find one aspect of the project stronger than another aspect, and thus ask that the weaker aspect be eliminated. Resubmitting a proposal is not uncommon. There is no guarantee that a resubmission will result in a funded project, but it is guaranteed that funding won’t happen if one does not resubmit. Persevering increases the odds of success.

Always be open to criticisms and weaknesses that may be leveled against a proposed project. Working to improve the project not only increases the chances of getting funded, but it also increases the likelihood that the results will make an important contribution to the discipline. logosmall

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