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How to Write a Winning Fellowship Proposal: Defining your Contribution to the Field

July 1, 2010

Today’s post was contributed by Amy Barr.  Barr, a Senior Research Scientist at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), is currently the Principal Investigator (PI) on three NASA grants and a Co-Investigator (Co-I) on another four.  She was also awarded a NASA Graduate Student Research Program (GSRP) grant in 2001 and a NASA Early Career Fellowship in 2007. 

Grant reviewers are tired, overworked, and cranky people.  A well-written proposal defines how your project contributes to the field in the first page.  If a reviewer can’t “get it” by the end of page 1, they are inclined to give the proposal a low score.

When I started writing fellowship proposals as a first year graduate student, I was lucky enough to be handed a xeroxed copy of a document called “Scholarly Pursuits: A Guide to Professional Development During the Graduate Years” by Cynthia Verba at Harvard.  This document is now posted on the web.

Page 4 of Chapter 5 of this document  is particularly useful because it describes how to define the way in which your work contributes to the field.

Here is the take-away point:

Successful research proposals in general fall into one of three types.
1. A research project that has never been done before.
2. A project that studies well-known material but reassesses the material in a new way.
3. The project exposes new material that calls for a reassessment of what has already done.
You can practice sorting project statements into the three paradigms by classifying abstracts from papers in Nature and Science into each of the three paradigms.  Once you classify your project into one of the three paradigms, you can write a clear statement about how your work fits into the field.

As an example, below is the first paragraph of my successful NASA GSRP proposal from 2001. According to Verba, it fits into Paradigm 1.
“Recent results from the Galileo magnetometer strongly suggest that Europa and Ganymede have layers of liquid water within their icy mantles.  Therefore, these moons are prime targets for the search for life in our solar system.  Microbial communities in these oceans would be cut off from the sun, and hence, most traditional sources of nutrients.  The work I propose will, for the first time, investigate whether solid-state convection could allow nutrients to be transported to the subsurface oceans of Europa and Ganymede to feed microbial communities.  The astrobiological significance of solid-state convection in icy moons remains unexamined.”
Try it!  Which of the three types of proposals are you working on now?  
3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2014 12:10 am

    I have recently come across a summer research fellowship program and is very much eager to apply and proceed further with this program. Hence according to the qualifying criteria I am asked to submit a 150-250 words write-up in my area of interest or subject. I am an under-graduate student of Calcutta university studying environmental science honours andi want to work on solid and liquid waste management. So my question is that how should i pen down such a write up ?What are the main points that is worth winning ? What are the limitations that i should keep in mind ?
    Sohini Chowdhury.

  2. SaraJaffe permalink
    August 14, 2011 7:57 pm

    question – I know this is not the right place, please maybe direct me to a more appropriate place?
    This summer, at my daughter’s progressive excellent etc etc summer camp at her progressive excellent school – she was the only girl signed up for science camp. I signed her up without asking her, and she loved it, but I don’t know how to reach out to the other mothers.
    Because, my daughter is only in first grade – but it starts now, I think, the “it’s not for girls” and “girls aren’t interested” and all the rest… and I am here looking for ways to bring the other mothers on board.
    Ideas from folks here? Ideas of where I should go?
    Thank you.

    • JACKSON permalink
      March 9, 2012 11:42 am


      Just reach out to the mothers by telling your story with your conviction and passion. It really is that simple. That is the beauty of miracles expressed in simplicity. I have just started an organization after doing the work for about twenty years as an individual. If you begin it others will get on board one way or another.

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