Maximize your Training by Writing a Proposal

Core components of graduate and postdoctoral training include developing, refining, and applying problem-solving and written communication skills to address key research questions. These two areas were identified as the top three attributes sought by employers in surveys conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), a leading source of hiring and trends in the job market.

The percentage of employers seeking this attribute were:

2016 2017
Problem-solving skills 78.0% 82.9%
Written communication skills 75.0% 80.3%

(Source: Job Outlook 2017 and 2018, National Association of Colleges and Employers)

Writing a proposal during your training will provide you with a wealth of experiences and expertise in developing these skill sets. It gives you opportunities to communicate your research ideas and approaches in a clear and concise manner that is comprehensible to various audiences within and beyond your discipline.

Writing a proposals allows you to maximize your training by:

  1. Providing opportunities to keep the big picture of your research in view.A key component of many, if not all, research proposals is the big question your research is seeking to address. It can be easy to lose sight of this when caught up in the day-to-day details of conducting experiments and analyses. Continually connecting the intricacies of daily research activities to the overall mission and purpose of your research (and that of your group’s, by extension) will enhance you as a researcher, scholar, and communicator.
  2. Road-mapping your research story.With that big picture in mind, articulating how each of your experiments and analyses fits into this big picture is another important aspect of proposal development – here, you can outline experimental controls and alternate approaches and rigorously address how your findings informs your big question and where these can have impact on the broader research community. This practice can strengthen your research and career development.
  3. Identifying and addressing gaps in your research story.Writing grants is a great way to identify potential gaps in approaches, techniques, or logic. It also helps you identify what you might need to make your research story more compelling or complete. These processes can be further strengthened or even accelerated by feedback from others, per the previous section.
  4. Providing you with something tangible on which you can elicit feedback.Feedback on your progress at multiple points during your training and from several different individuals (peers, mentors, collaborators, funders) is integral to success in training. Writing proposals gives you a “conversation piece” which you can use to engage those around you and leverage their expertise and perspectives.
  5. Informing what skills you may need to develop during (or after) your training.By writing (and re-writing and writing some more) about your research, you may realize that the questions you want to address might require skills, training, and/or expertise. Moreover, this is a great opportunity to consider whether you personally should acquire these, the time associated with acquiring these skills.[RESOURCE: Career Development Plans, A+B=C]
  6. Gaining practice in iterating communication about your research.Writing different kinds of proposals geared towards different audiences helps you communicate your research in different contexts. This is a critical part of your research training but is also important for your professional development as you transition beyond your training. Moreover, re-writing and re-submitting proposals that may not have been funded the first time around provides additional opportunities to further strengthen and clarify research missions, goals, approaches, and outcomes.
  7. Demonstrating to potential employers or colleagues that you are an effective communicator.Writing proposals reflects many soft skills that employers seek. Problem-solving is a key feature of graduate/postdoctoral training and writing proposals enables you to clarify both the problem and your approach. As research is often not done in a vacuum, articulating the ways in which different members of your research team contribute to the research and any roles you may have had in initiating and maintaining such collaborations or partnerships speaks to your ability to work in (and potentially lead) a team or teams. Both of these core skill sets often require excellent written communication skills.
  8. Contributing to your overall well-being.Lack of clarity of ideas and direction, uncertainty of where and how to focus one’s time, and absence or insufficiency of actionable feedback on progress are all factors that can negatively impact one’s well-being. These factors sometimes contribute to reduced motivation, and increased stress, which can impact one’s ability to practice self-care. Without good health it is difficult (and sometimes impossible) to maintain a high degree of resiliency, manage failure effectively, and remain agile, all of which are important for success in research training and careers. Proposal writing (albeit stressful in itself) provides a structure within which to codify research thoughts, ideas, and approaches, communicate these and receive feedback, and build confidence and self-efficacy.

Latishya Steele, PhD, Associate Director, Biosciences Programs at Stanford University

Latishya Steele, PhD
Latishya’s passions include creating curriculum, programs, workshops, training opportunities, and other resources to enhance academic, career, and professional development in the biomedical sciences.