How to write an effective Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG)

A Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) is a wonderful way to support some of your Ph.D. research if you are in evolution, ecology, or behavior. This funding comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and funds part, not all, of your Ph.D. research. The minute you start thinking about Ph.D. projects, you should start planning your DDIG, even before you are eligible. This is because it is a good idea from the very beginning to have in mind what separate jewel could be funded independently. Also, you should not think you can scrape by without a DDIG. Not only do they provide funding, but they also help you along your academic path where proposal writing is part of the process.


A happy DDIG recipient.

You should be thinking of what your DDIG will be like early on, but you may change your mind as you go. If you think hard about an effective DDIG for a long time, when you have advanced to candidacy and are ready to submit a DDIG, it will be the best possible, with well thought through ideas. The best DDIG will not simply say that you will increase sample sizes, but will present a separate project. This takes time.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to writing a DDIG is to make the conceptual background match the experiments you actually plan to do. I’m not sure why this is so hard, but it could be that it is easiest to write a broad introduction that covers what the whole lab group is doing, and hard to remember to narrow it down to exactly what you will do. Here’s a trick that may help. Make a list of the experiments you plan to do. Think about what is necessary and sufficient in the conceptual part to lead to these experiments and these experiments alone. Cut out anything that doesn’t do this. You should also do it the other way around, taking the theoretical part and deciding exactly what experiments are needed to address the issues you present. Be complete and that will narrow down the theory a lot.

The introduction should introduce ideas and hypotheses you will test. It should not be grandiose.  If you say you will test sexual selection, for example, you should make clear exactly what you mean by that, and what sub-sub piece of the theory you will actually test. We may know what sexual selection is, but we may not see how your experiments fit in. Do not use a lot of abbreviations. Do not assume that the scientists who read your proposal will be in the same sub field since DDIGs are read only by a panel, so at least three people will read your proposal.

If you have multiple goals, objectives, or aims, each one should be independent. A goal is not one of several variables to be measured but is its own little unit, a project complete to itself. A DDIG is for one or two years of funding, so you don’t need lots of goals. One to three should do.

Make sure you understand exactly what your methods can and cannot answer. For example, if you think you can assemble a new genome from very short reads, justify this, for I can’t do this myself. The challenge of methods is particularly large for DDIGs for by their very nature they represent exploring new areas. If a technique is new and hard for you, don’t assume you can wing it. Find an expert and be sure to follow their advice. Make this clear in the proposal.

This is by no means required, but if you can possibly do an experiment in addition to your interesting correlational or comparative work, please do so, but only if it is relevant and appropriate. Another thing that is good to include is some indication of the kinds of statistics you will use and whether your study has sufficient power (sample size etc.) to get at the questions you are asking.

In the appropriate sections, be really clear about how this work differs from that of your major professor and others in the lab. Also, be really clear about how this work is different from that in the rest of the thesis. Did you notice this is partly a repeat? Don’t repeat things in the proposal. The abstract should be entirely different from the introduction. You should not tell us anything twice. Save your space for excruciating clarity, mapping experiments exactly to exciting theory. Don’t make the reviewers choose between funding a creative but sloppy proposal and a boring but careful one. Need I say sloppy and boring won’t get much attention?

Did I say boring? How could anyone dare call your research boring? Well, it would be rude to do so to your face, but some research is less innovative. Even though DDIGs have a funding rate of nearly 30% in good times, that means most proposals are not funded. Spend your time on important questions. Work hard at the very beginning to find something to do that matters. The only way to do this is by reading broadly, attending meetings, searching, even studying the history of your field. Don’t choose a project because you can do it. Choose it because it is amazing and exciting and will change the field, or at least a small part of it.

Don’t neglect a single part of the proposal. The broader impacts section matters. Find a novel way to impact the broader community. What do you like to do? Can you incorporate science sharing into your own interests somehow? These days just putting an undergraduate or two on the project is not very exciting.

There are also the usual rules about good practices. First of all follow the rules your program establishes for a DDIG.  If there is a required section, you must have it. For example, there is a Data Management section. Make sure you store your data in two physical places in separate buildings, then put it up on free access places as soon as possible. Look through the instructions carefully and make yourself a check list. Don’t crowd the text so it is nearly unreadable. Please proofread your proposal and give it to a friend to read. If you have a correct word that is the wrong word, it will not be highlighted by your word processor.

Submit a carefully prepared DDIG as soon as you are eligible, so you can do it again should you not get funded this time. A well written DDIG will help you think about your research, will help with future proposals and paper writing, and might even get you some dollars for your research!


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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4 Responses to How to write an effective Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG)

  1. Hi Joan,

    I wanted to quibble a bit with one of your comments. I recently won a DDIG for my research on the maintenance of cooperative construction of communal nests in sociable weavers. In my DDIG I argued that the funds would allow me to stay at my field site longer for both of my field seasons and thus largely increase my sample size. I did specify explicitly the tangible benefits of extending the field season, so I think that was crucial, but it is not impossible to win DDIGs arguing that they will allow you to increase your sample size.


    • I’m delighted to hear this, but generally I think it is better to put things in a way that will do more than just increase the sample size. Maybe your proposal was so amazing it overcame this handicap!

  2. Pingback: Friday links: you should be reading Small Pond Science, new results on MaxEnt, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  3. Pingback: Relatedness and kin discrimination in vampire bats (and a few updates) | social bat .org — Gerald Carter

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