Monday, October 31, 2011

Non technical research proposal

I hate these. I really do. But I spent a good part of last week putting one together, and I've learned guessed a lot about what to put in, and what not to put in. You can google around and find different examples of these from different fields. Here are some of my favorites from Physics/material science, Medicine and Mathematics.

Why do I need to put myself through this ordeal? For the last 2 years, I've used this fellowship for postdoctoral women as an opportunity to polish my research statement, which has been a good exercise. However, it has wanted a NON-TECHNICAL research statement. Now several jobs I am looking for is asking for such a document. I've heard that many national science funding agencies in Australia require a non-technical research proposal. If you are an Australian reader (or other reader) with experience on this, I'd love to hear your 2 cents.

The most important common feature in the three statements above seems to be that I can understand what they are doing even though I'm not in their field. The panel of people sitting on these panels usually have PhDs, but not necessarily in your field. The proposals have a lot of "state then show" paragraphs, and many "for example" statements to make it accessible at this level.

On an initial reading, all of the research statements seem to be very applied. But looking through the publication list of the physicist and the mathematician, the research does not seem to be very applied. There seems to be a trick to going from the nose to the grindstone details of the work we do every day, to fitting it into the broader scheme of science. I think it is a bad idea for someone to make their research to be "sexy." I read a mathematician's statement that started out defining what the field of topology is, and gave an example of knot theory as an active field of research in topology. Then it said "While I do not study knot theory," and explained what related work the he/she does. This statement turned me off from their project. It seemed to me that this person was trying too hard to make their work sound interesting.

Finally, I don't think any of the good statements I read really got a chance to talk about what they do at a satisfying level. (I know I didn't. After a page of background, I had room for 1 sentence summaries of each of my papers.) But that seems to be what is desired. Unlike a technical research statement, the question is not "Is this person competent at their research?" It is "Can this person communicate well, and is their research interesting?" Information about the quality of one's research needs to come from letters of recommendation.


  1. I'm applying to AAUW's American Dissertation Fellowship which requires a similarly non-technical document. I don't use a lot of state then show, and my field is really about as far from "applied" as you can get, so that angle won't work (hey, but stars are sexy to non-scientists right...?). At least the application has a lot of room for my thesis description, so I can actually get past the intro and into the meat of the project. And the political scientist and women's studies readers I've solicited feel like they have a good idea of what I'm doing... but I guess we'll see in 6 months.

  2. I had no idea that non-technical research proposals are necessary these days. I'm not sure how to go about revising my thesis topic ideas in this way. I just finished drafting my abstract and I'm just about to make a rather late submission of my work. Is this a good time to start making my non-technical proposal?