The perfect preproposal: show us the menu, not the shopping list

I have been pollinating my lime tree and my orange tree with a fine paint brush since they are flowering prolifically in a sunny inside hall at Wash U in chilly St. Louis. I love the lime flowers the most because they thrust their pistils defiantly out of the still-closed flower, begging to be pollinated by another. How can you push your research out into the world of scientific inquiry to be seized upon by others?

You might wonder if this is what you want, for you are absorbed by what you want to do. Of course you read about other people’s work, but it is not nearly so gripping as your own. But to make your preproposal shine, you need to set it in the context of what others have done. This is easier if you are a regular reader of the journals. I learned early on the importance of reading, though I have never been able to read as much as I want to. My grad school mentor on the importance of the literature was Don Feener, now at the University of Utah. More than anyone else, he read the literature carefully and with his quick mind could discern the important from the trivial. If there was a paper out there that would change what we do, Don would find it.

Don Feener and his son, 25 March 2006

Don Feener and his son, 25 March 2006

My research has diverged from Don’s; he doesn’t even live in the same town, so now I depend on my Facebook friends to tell me what is new and important, in addition to reading and subscribing to journal feeds. So, keep posting when you find something cool.

But this is about preproposals. You have only a few days left before they are due. How can you make up for what should have been months of careful reading? The first thing to do is to identify the ten or so key words that best describe your research.

Undergraduates Julian Duodu and Stephanie Montenegro taking a pause from reading and brainstorming about their project

Undergraduates Julian Duodu and Stephanie Montenegro taking a pause from reading and brainstorming about their project

Then enter them in small combinations into Google Scholar, restricting it to the last two years. This will help you discover if you have missed something big. If your proposal stretches to a discipline less familiar to you, this is particularly important. Then read the abstracts of those papers. Have your collaborators read them. How can you make your research helpful to those who are close to your field?

If your keyword combinations only pull up your own papers, you need to expand a bit. Remember, preproposals are only read by three people on a panel. They are hard working, careful, come from diverse fields in your general discipline, and are unlikely to be right on top of your topic. Help them out. Don’t expect them to understand what great things you are going to do with the list of experiments. Show them the whole that these experiments come to, aim by aim. Place your work thoroughly in the field. Push out from what is known to what will be done only by you, like my brave lime pistils. Give them the menu, delicious dish by dish, not the shopping list.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to The perfect preproposal: show us the menu, not the shopping list

  1. Pingback: Advice: why should an academic read blogs? | Dynamic Ecology

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