Written by Robert J. Crutchley
Professor and Director,
Ottawa-Carleton Chemistry Institute, 1999-2002
Department of Chemistry
May 23, 2002.
The first step is the submission of a preliminary research proposal that is both novel and of a sound scientific basis. This will be a one to two page description of your research proposal plus an abstract of your research thesis. The graduate supervisor for the department, will submit this preliminary proposal to a committee of three professors and your research supervisor for evaluation. Remember: the comprehensive research proposal should be outside your Ph.D. thesis research experience, involving not only new chemistry but new techniques. After reading your preliminary proposal, your supervisor will inform the comprehensive committee whether your research proposal overlaps with his/her research program. The committee will examine the proposal critically; asking whether the knowledge gained from your proposed research is worthwhile.
If they approve, you will then be directed you to write out a research proposal in full (about 20 pages double-spaced, including any diagrams, more if you feel necessary). In this exercise you will be trying to convince your committee that your research proposal is worthy of funding. Full justification and explanation of your research idea is essential. The format of the proposal is up to you but of course clarity is essential (don’t forget to include a reasoned budget, see below).
After you submit the full proposal, a time and place for you to defend your research proposal in front of the committee will be arranged. This consists of a short oral presentation by you (10-15 min), followed by questions from your committee. It is the decision of the committee to pass or fail the research proposal. In most examinations, revisions of the proposal are required before a passing grade can be assigned. Failure to pass the comprehensive examination will result in deregistration from the graduate program. I mention the latter to impress upon you the seriousness of this exercise. Hopefully this possibility will be avoided!
Being a scientist means that you’re someone who creates knowledge. How do we do it? It’s done in a very deliberate, critical fashion and it’s a method that you have to learn to be successful.
Start off the proposal by giving the background that leads to what is not known or the “cutting edge” of the science field. Give the importance (application?) of this undiscovered knowledge or technique (i.e. if we only knew how to express this property or if we only knew how measure this or …..etc.). Develop a novel hypothesis (look up the dictionary meaning) that determines this undiscovered knowledge. Your hypothesis pulls together what is proven and what is unproved in a way which creates new meaning (or knowledge). Of course you have to prove your hypothesis right! That’s the point of research. Make sure to keep your goals small. You are not trying to create a new field of science. You’re just trying to fill in a gap.
The next step is to propose the experimental approach that you will use to prove (or test) that which is unproved in your hypothesis. This step is obviously the most important to your comprehensive proposal because the examiners will be looking for flaws in your approach that would invalidate your results. But for the purpose of the research proposal outline, all that you have to do is give a reasonable methodology. The details will comprise the bulk of your comprehensive report.
Finally, watch out for spelling and grammar errors. Get other graduate students to read your proposal. A sloppy proposal is not acceptable to the committee.
There should be some structure that makes your proposal easy to read and understand. Headings that divide up your proposal into sections are a good idea. The NSERC web site is a good place to start to find info on proposal formats http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/ and the points that should be addressed. Here’s a general format (create headings to reflect each task).
- Title should reflect the goal of your research proposal
- Identify relevant current knowledge
- Identify a weakness in knowledge that limits understanding
Introduce a hypothesis, which will extend knowledge
- Design experiments (synthetic and/or instrumental) that will unambiguously test the hypothesis. Use this section to justify budget needs (equipment, materials and personnel).
- Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the experiments. Is the data or synthetic method reliable? How will you adapt your methods in the face of experimental difficulties?
Okay, you’ve written the best research proposal possible so now you’re home free. Wrong! In academia and especially in industry, your budget tells the reader whether you can successfully manage a research project.
Your budget is a bid where you promise that if you receive so much money you’ll be able to deliver the goods in the time requested. So both time and money are what you bargain for in a budget. A research project is usually divided into a series of steps (the number depending upon the project’s nature) and each with its own microbudget and time frame for completion. The research process can be either linear or multidimensional. In linear research, the initial research step must be completed successfully before advancement is possible. In multidimensional research, a series of initial steps are performed at the same time and must all be completed before advancement to the next stage of research. Your budget should contain a complete description of this purposeful process, including what personnel, equipment and chemical needs must be satisfied in order to achieve each step of your project in the time requested to do it.
In deciding upon your budget and time frame for completion, it is important to be realistic but to nevertheless give you some leeway in case progress is slow. Remember that, once you have been given a budget, it will be expected that you will be able to deliver on time. Failure to do so demonstrates professional inadequacy and may ultimately result in your dismissal.
- Budget allotments are usually (but not always) given on a yearly basis. This means that you will have to justify the yearly budget allotment with respect to proposed work for that year.
- Equipment: All the equipment needed must be priced at total end cost (catalogue + delivery + customs + duties + taxes + exchange rates + etc. where applicable). Depending on the project, equipment may not be required until the second, third year, etc. year and this should be reflected in the budget. Backup parts should be included if the duration of the project is long. Service contracts may also be required to maintain equipment in working order during the project.
- Material needs (chemicals, solvents, gases, etc.). These can be a considerable expense and must be justified.
- Personnel. Cost depends upon competency required and the number of personnel depends upon the dimensionality of the research project.
- Time frame for completion. As a rough guide, estimate how much time a project should take if everything works out and then multiply by three. To some extent the amount of leeway needed depends on the nature of the project, the competence of your research group and your own experience.