Although this article is primarily aimed at graduate students writing proposals for scholarship applications – many of these principles and techniques are applicable to other types of proposals, as well.
We’ve now been through the Pitch Paragraph and Literature Review sections. The next component of your scholarship proposal is the Methodology section. It’s extremely important and, though it should be the easiest part to write, few people ever do it well. Here are some tips to give you the edge over the competition.
Writing up the Methodology Section
This would normally be one to two paragraphs in a one page scholarship proposal, perhaps as much as half of a two page proposal. It’s where you describe your research plan in detail, and provide details of your progress to date. (Here’s where you get the chance to cite your own papers.) The idea here is to illustrate that you’ve got a very definitive and feasible plan to achieve your stated objectives, that you have actually taken the time to flesh out the details of the plan, and (especially) that you have the ability to articulate that plan.
The most important thing to remember when writing the methodology is to be specific. It’s difficult to explain how to do this without an example, so let’s use an experimental study to illustrate some particulars. You would want to be specific about the experimental setup, the variables to be measured and why, and exactly how they are to be measured (e.g. by describing what techniques or instruments will be employed). It’s also useful here to describe the design of the experiments – for example, in physical modeling of fluid flows we generally start with an analysis to determine the appropriate non-dimensional variables affecting the phenomenon. This generally reduces the number of required experiments from thousands to dozens. Therefore, it would be critical to indicate that “…a dimensional analysis showed the following variables to be important…” and therefore in the experiments, this, this and this will be varied to achieve that.
Be sure to keep in mind the expertise of your audience when writing the methodology. They won’t understand your jargon, so speak in plain language – describe things for the ‘educated layperson’ not the experts in your specific field of study. It doesn’t have to be in words of one-syllable or sentences of only eight words – your readers will have PhDs after all. But it does have to be comprehensible to people who don’t have any background on your topic beyond (if you’re really lucky) a first year undergraduate course. Also, be sure to state where you currently are in the research – and cite any conference or journal papers you have written so far, to highlight your progress to date. You should also give some timeline projections for the outstanding work.
The biggest challenge in writing the Methodology section is to keep it interesting. With many dozens to read – I generally find that this is where I start to lose enthusiasm. I often find myself re-reading the Methodology section two or three times, yawing profusely throughout. By the time I’ve read 40 or 50 applications, I’m starting to hate myself for agreeing to be on the scholarship committee. It’s at this point where I especially appreciate the student who has made an effort to capture my interest. In fact, it’s so rare that I actually get excited to read on. I gave some tips in the first post of this grouping on how to make your scholarship proposal more readable and interesting – this is a section where employing those techniques is really essential.
In addition – here are a few obvious things to avoid.
- Don’t include any equations or molecule diagrams – they mean absolutely nothing to the rest of us and so are just a huge waste of valuable word space. It makes you look naïve to include such irrelevancies.
- Do not use jargon. You may have one or two technical terms (usually the name(s) of the thing(s) you are studying) that you absolutely have to teach us to explain your research. So go ahead and teach us those at the start. However, if you go beyond that – especially if you get carried away using jargon in describing your methodology – you will lose the readers and with them, the scholarship.
- Do not use acronyms. Let me repeat that one – DO NOT USE ACRONYMS. No, it’s not okay to use them even if you define them. With dozens, maybe hundreds of proposals to read – your reviewers have neither the time nor the mental energy to learn a bouquet of acronyms just so you can stuff an extra fifty words into the proposal. It will be ‘tune-out’ time – they will be reading – but they won’t be registering. And they will hate you – well at least they won’t like you. They’ll think you are selfish and impractical for littering the page with all these acronyms.
I’ve had people debate with me over these – it can be particularly difficult to part engineers from their partial differential equations and chemists their cryptic little molecule diagrams. And it seems that everyone loves their acronyms and expects me to love them, too. The same debate even comes up with professors when they’re writing grant applications – but, to a person, they are always people who have never sat on a scholarship or grant selection committee. Until you’ve waded through a couple of hundred such applications – you really can’t begin to imagine the mind-numbing tedium of it. But you must try to imagine it. If you write this thing for yourself and not for your reviewers, then it will most likely fail.
In my next post, I’ll finish off this grouping by talking about the closing paragraphs on research outcomes and significance.
Thanks for reading! Please comment if you found this useful…