Department of Computer Science

Vrije Universiteit


Advice for Writing Proposals



Here is some general advice for writing proposals.

The Two Basic Tasks

Your proposal has to convince the committee of two things:

  1. The work is worth doing in the first place
  2. You are the person to do it

Part of your proposal (Sec. 3.1), has to make the case that the proposed research is urgent and NWO should spend its limited budget on doing this project and not some other one. What will be gained if this project is chosen? What horrible thing could happen if this project is not undertaken? The next part of the proposal (Sec. 3.2) has to convince NWO that you are the person to solve this problem. This requires you to demonstrate that you understand the problem well and have some ideas about how to solve it. You don't need a complete solution, but you have to have some nonobvious way to start. Finally, (Sec. 3.3) you need a rough, but believable, time schedule of what you are going to do in each of the four years.

Write for Your Audience

Everything you write in your whole life, from love letters to grant proposals, should start with the thought: "Who is this document being written for and what is the take-home message I want the recipient to get?" For a grant proposal, the readers will be specialists in the area of the proposal. You can assume that specialists know certain things and not know other things. If you are writing about operating systems, you can assume they know what kernel mode is; you don't have to explain it. If you are planning to design the best C compiler ever, you can assume they know all about gcc and LLVM and you just have to explain what wonderful features yours will have that these don't. In particular, though, for this assignment, the readers will be masters students in PDCS. You can assume they know the things masters students in PDCS are supposed to know, but they are probably not experts in your speciality, so you have to explain things they are not likely to know.

Be on the Leading Edge

NWO wants to sponsor research that is on cutting edge of knowledge. If your proposal solves a problem that is important to industry, but the method for solving it is well established, maybe industry should solve it and not NWO. In other words, be sure you are proposing research, not just engineering.

Think Carefully about Hype

The ICT industry is awash in hype all the time. Some current hot topics include multicore chips, P2P, clouds, grids, green computing, and gossiping algorithms. Some of these may turn into something important, but others may fade into the night. Some previous hypes that have long-since vanished are the Ada programming language, ATM networks, functional programming, program correctness proofs, and using idle workstations. Each of these was hyped to the moon in its day and is now largely forgotten. If you choose to work on a hot topic, you have a better chance of getting it accepted and published but you will have much more competition from other researchers than if you pick something offbeat. You have to keep this in mind.

Research is Hard

Almost all students underestimate how hard research is. Be careful about proposing something difficult and then in your planning say the student will solve it by the second year and then move on to do more things. It's not that easy.

Run a Spelling Checker

Nothing says you are sloppy like a lot of spelling errors. There are lots of spelling checkers out there. Find and run one of them.

Make the Proposal Look Nice

The proposal should not be ugly and hard to read. Use subheadings to divide the material up. Make sure each paragraph begins with a topic sentence. The text should be right justified but this can lead to loose lines (lines with too much white space between words), especially if you use Word, which does not hyphenate words over lines. To improve the readability, put in soft hyphens where needed to show the word processor where it can break words that were wrapped but should have been broken. In Word, use CTRL-minus to insert a soft hyphen in one or more places between letters. Word will use the longest string that can be run back. LaTex is much better about hyphenating.