Pandemonium Part 1: Proposal writing

A lot has been happening to me this past month and honestly, if I’ve ever told you I was exhausted before, this time I really mean it. So apart from juggling my normal lab duties, my online classes have started (some of which keep me up till 00:30 because of time differences), I’ve just submitted the second draft of my proposal after endless nights trying to address all the “red areas” and fix all the problems left as comments by my supervisors. And somehow amongst all of that I still made time to somehow kiss someone new which, as you can imagine, has left me so confused about life.

My thoughts are all over the place right now, and I’m barely able to write coherently so just bear with me. I think I’m going to start writing about my proposal and mention how to write a proposal because that actually relates more to this whole blog thing more than anything else I’ll say today. If this doesn't interest you then you can skip to Part 2 of this blog post which will be published on Friday.

So Wits gives you 6 months to work on your proposal before you submit it. Since I completed my registration process in July, I technically have four months left before I have to submit mine. But at the same time, I would prefer to finish before then so that I can complete my ethics application and actually get started with the lab work that’s not covered under my supervisor’s “umbrella ethics approval”.

For those unfamiliar, sometimes you’ll find that part of the lab work you’ll do will already have ethical approval at the lab you’re working in due to a previous ethics application that has already been made. Sometimes that won’t be the case which means you’ll have to apply for ethics yourself. At UP and Wits this can be done on your student portal and is a relatively straightforward process. If you’re not sure if you should apply for ethics, your best bet is to apply anyway. You would much rather be certain that you applied and received ethical approval from your institution than to not be covered at all.

Anyway, I digress.

Most proposals have a similar layout. You start out with an introductory review. This is where you give the background to what you will be working on. You analyse and critique the literature that’s available out there. This is not quite yet a literature review because you wouldn't have reviewed all the literature out there- you’ll probably do this when writing your thesis/dissertation. The most important thing at this stage is for you to read review articles more than research articles just because these really will help you gain a better background and understanding. They also collect information from many sources and will help point you in the right direction. The research articles will help you when you’re writing methods because they actually explain the steps they took which will help you formulate your own methods.

You’ll then explain why you want to do this project. Why is this particular project important, why is it beneficial or what is the whole point. This will lead you to your aims and objectives. These should generally be brief and to the point. You don’t have to give a long-winded explanation for each point because you’ll have already done this in the introduction. Then you’ll have your methods which should always be in sentence form and not bullet points (sigh, I know). How you write your methods will depend on your supervisor, but because your proposal will have a page limit, you don’t have to write down a detailed methodology but it has to be detailed enough that whoever is reading your proposal understands what you’ll be doing and knows that you also understand what you’ll be doing.

For example, instead of saying “1ml of Trypsin will then be added directly on the cells. The tissue culture flask will be gently swirled to ensure the Trypsin reaches all the cells before being incubated for 1 min…” you could say “The cells will then be treated with Trypsin and incubated for 1 min….”

Once you’re done with the methods, you’re going to describe how you’re going to analyse your data and report your results. So for example will you be using Excel or any software programs to analyse your data. Will you be doing any statistical analysis etc.

Then comes the hard part of creating a budget. Honestly the best way to go about this is to ask previous students or whoever is responsible for ordering stock etc. You can also email people for quotations but just check with your supervisors first so that they can lead you in the right direction. Also always remember to cc them in such emails. It will help a lot, trust.

In your proposal you can also add a timeline of when you’ll be doing what during your project. I like to do this in the form of a Gantt chart just because it makes things easier, and it’s clear and concise. You’ll also mention where you’ll apply for ethics (this is usually the name of the particular ethics committee you will be applying to, and where they can be reached). You’ll end of with referencing.

When it comes to referencing there really is no reason anyone should be manually referencing everything when there are great tools like EndNote and Mendeley which will can help you reference in peace as you work through your proposal. Or any sort of academic writing for that matter. Just watch a Youtube tutorial on how to use either of them and watch it revolutionise your life. I’m going to add these to the Resources page on our blog website, which is where you can find useful tidbits that we thought might be helpful to others.

Remember that each proposal is different and will be dependent on you and your supervisor. The points I’ve outlined are just guide but are in no way set in stone. It also helps if you have someone you trust who can read it through and give you good feedback before sending to your supervisor (see Lexi’s post about work wives).

If you’re reading this and have written a proposal before, please leave a comment down below of any other useful tips that you think others should know about.

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