Organizing Your Research in Germany: How to Write a Successful Proposal

Wolfgang Adamczak, research funding officer at the University of Kassel, gives you practical tips to help navigate the German Ph.D. funding situation. This week he tells you what you should know about "Writing a successful proposal."

No matter whether you apply for a graduate scholarship (Graduiertenförderung) at your university or you draft a proposal for third-party funding from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG, the basic principle remains the same. The more clear, concise, and systematic you write your proposal, the higher your chance to convince those people that make the final decision on your application. Some useful tips that may help you to avoid common mistakes:

  • The title and abstract are the so-called "eye-catcher." With the title and abstract you have to raise interest in your proposal. If they are boring and/or incomprehensible you will not succeed in creating any more interest or even favor for the rest of your presentation. You should be aware of the fact that, for example, the DFG's decisive body (Hauptausschuss) only receives the abstracts of the proposals and the referee reports as basis for its decisions.

  • Proposals, and not only those written by young scientists, read sometimes as well as essays from a weekly magazine. However, such beauteous masterworks are no guarantee for success, especially if the proposal's essential point--your research schedule--is weak. It is worth it to refer to the "DFG's guide for applications":

    "The quality of the research schedule is a key criterion for the evaluation of a project and you should pay special attention on its representation. As a clue might serve that this part should constitute about one half of your proposal."
    With your research schedule, you want to point up what you have accomplished towards reaching the goals of your research. It is not just the idea that counts, but the ability to transform this idea into answerable questions, theses, and hypotheses.

  • It is often believed that a proposal should be stuffed with as many details of your stunning expertise as possible. You should try to demonstrate your erudition at all costs, and this also applies to quoted literature. More important is to show your ability to make out the general direction of research in your field. The DFG's guide says here:

    "Please analyze the actual state of research concisely in its direct relation to the concrete research project and as motivation for your own work including references to the most important respective works of other scientists."
    Keeping this advice in mind will save you from wasting the time of the working referees who are researchers themselves and have many proposals to work through.

  • Part of the research plan is usually also a financial budget and time schedule, which state the amount of work to be realized with what financial resources in order to achieve the research aim. And your proposal should be written honestly. The research aim, working schedule, and financial budget should reflect the actual aims and necessities and they should be consistent. If you clearly explain what the funds are needed for, referees will be reluctant to shorten the proposed budget. This does not mean that your proposal needs to be "overmodest."

Let me finally remind you that the research program is useful for you, too. The most important purpose of your working schedule is not to serve as a "tactical instrument" to convince your referee of the quality of your proposal. Your schedule should rather find a prominent place above your computer (or, as you like it, above your bed) to remind you daily. This will help you to control your progress and also to make out any delay early on.

Further reading:

Wolfgang Adamczak also wrote several brochures that may give valuable advice on research funding issues. Among them

  • "Ich will promovieren. Anregungen"

  • "Wie stelle ich einen Forschungsantrag?"

Further hints on writing proposals are also given in DFG's guide for applications.

Extended information on research funding in Germany can also be found at the Web pages of the Department of Budget, Research Funding Office, University of Kassel.

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